BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA;
BETWEEN FOUR CAREERS: DIPLOMAT, ECONOMIST, JOURNALIST AND JAPANOLOGIST;
BETWEEN FOUR LANGUAGES: ENGLISH, CHINESE, RUSSIAN AND JAPANESE
INTO THE USSR: Discovering Soviet ‘Reality,’ Jousting with the KGB, A Change of Career.
1. En Route to Moscow
2. The Bill Morrison affair
3. Soviet ‘Realities’
4. Communism in Russia
5. The KGB and I
6. A Moment of Decision
7. Out of the USSR
8. Bob Hawke
1. EN ROUTE TO 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 at the Canberra University College. Since I cannot be sent to China, (it would be another decade before Canberra could find the courage to open an Embassy in the territory of the dreaded Chinese enemy) why not go 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.
Learning the Language
Learning Chinese had taught me something about learning languages. Instead of beginning with textbooks, then trying to speak, and then finally trying to listen to and understand the spoken language, I would do it largely in reverse.
I would do the listening first. Then I would look at the texts to help understand and remember what I was listening to. Then I would try to get the conversation practice with a native speaker needed to cement it all into the memory. The textbooks I would use, but only in support as I went along.
An old 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 repeatedly while checking vocabulary in the text and grammar in a textbook. 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.
(Years later I would use the same technique when I had to start learning Japanese.)
It was all rather haphazard. But it got me started on the long road to Moscow. In April 1963 I finally set off, via 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 US thinking about Soviet adventurism, I had been told.
What I did discover was the depth of US ‘evil empire’ hatreds and suspicions, both at the official and other levels.
From the Rand offices I took the train to Chicago. That was my first 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 felt the clientele there also seemed strange. When I handed over a $100 note to pay for a drink the place froze. Everyone was looking at me for some reason. 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 faces peering at me helped me decide. I ran. 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 of flight travel, tickets were checked on the plane after boarding. 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, and it was on his plane.
It took some time to explain that I was a diplomat en route to Moscow, and would not need a return ticket for some years. I had not even reached Europe and already the Cold War was upon me.
Across the Iron Curtain
Just three hours was all the flight time needed to get from London to Moscow’s Vnukova airport. 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 with its cold, dismal, late winter skies, and surly armed soldiers at the bottom of the gangway, did little to dispel the image.
Flights were few in those days — only three a week. Even so, the plane was half empty. We eyed each other suspiciously.
It took only a few weeks for the suspicions to begin to melt. The Moscow spring had arrived, and in those pre-global warming, pre-industrial days the shift to spring was dramatic, with large chunks of ice pouring down the Moscow River.
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 neighbor’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.
Australian Embassy, Moscow
The Embassy was (and remains) in the solid, two-storey luxury house of a rich, pre-revolution sugar merchant located in the quiet Kropotkinskii Pereulok close to central Moscow.
Diplomatic staff was small —a doddery ambassador, the counselor, Bill Morrison, and myself as a very junior second secretary. Morrison had been trained in Russian in the early fifties, together with Richard Woolcott.
Both Morrison and Woolcott had strong, affable personalities. Both had had the distinction of being expelled from Moscow in 1954 during the Petrov affair when both were there as Third Secretaries in training. And both were to carve out good careers for themselves later — Morrison ending up as Defense Minister in the Whitlam government and then as ambassador to Indonesia; Woolcott as ambassador to both Jakarta during the Whitlam years (where he became an apologist for Indonesia’s East Timor takeover) and Washington.
Morrison had had no trouble establishing himself as effective head of our three man 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.
2. THE BILL MORRISON AFFAIR
It was, I recall, one of those beautifully warm, early summer, Moscow mornings – on a weekend in early June when all life and nature seemed at ease with itself and the idea of dark plots and KGB conspiracies seemed as unreal as the winter cold only a few months earlier.
For some reason I was at home when the doddery ambassador phoned. Go to the Embassy immediately was the message. In the Embassy safe room (all Western embassies had these large, box-like contraptions with electronic defenses to prevent Soviet eavesdropping) the ambassador was confronting a badly-shaken Bill Morrison.
The KGB has pounced
Morrison said he had been visiting a Russian friend’s house in Moscow when KGB officials had barged in and told him that unless he cooperated with them the Soviet media would announce the next day his expulsion for selling used clothing to his maid - something that was supposed to be illegal at the time. It was a retaliation for the Skripov affair, he said.
True, ASIO had only a few months earlier carried out a messy entrapment and expulsion of that fairly senior diplomat in the USSR’s Canberra embassy. We had all assumed that it was only a matter of time before Moscow would retaliate by expelling someone from our Embassy, and Morrison was the obvious target.
But why try to do it in such a crude way? And why had Morrison, knowing that he was the likely target, not been taking precautions, like making sure he was accompanied when he went to meet Russians?
But sure enough, the next day Izvestia did indeed carry a small notice about how an Australian diplomat, Morrison, had been declared persona non grata for selling used clothes and other illegal activities, and had been given a week to leave the country.
Canberra reacted quickly: Lodge the strongest possible formal protest with the Soviet authorities, immediately. Morrison’s alleged crime bore no comparison with Skripov’s spy recruiting activities. Australia might even consider breaking relations with Moscow.
But was Morrison’s story true? Knowing Morrison, I had a gut feeling there was more to it all. There were also a few contradictions about times and places. I persuaded the ambassador to delay the formal protest. And gradually, over several days of intense questioning in that cramped safe room, we began to get the true story.
Morrison, it seems, had taken on the job of cracking single-handedly the closed world of Soviet top society. His Firyubin/Furteseva contacts had given him a circle of seemingly well-connected people — writers, artists, senior officials, who were in the habit of meeting for happy drinking and discussion parties in a high-class dacha hidden away in the forests well outside Moscow, and presumably outside the areas where foreigners were allowed to travel.
He had gone along with all this because he felt he had the confidence of these people and that they wanted him to act as some kind of intellectual courier to the West. He knew the Skripov retaliation dangers. But these people seemed well above grubby KGB plots. Or so he thought.
On this particular weekend, they had arranged a very special party for him — vodka, caviar, charming ladies, an overnight stay. But just as the party was settling down for a two-day session, the KGB had burst in. Morrison’s high-level Russian ‘friends’ quickly disappeared.
For the next 24 hours he was captive, grilled intensively by people who had detailed knowledge of his activities and even some of the reports that he had been sending to Canberra (supplied presumably by a Soviet mole in the Canberra establishment).
Finally they had given him a choice: either cooperate, or the next day Izvestia would carry the news of his expulsion for the squalid crime of selling used clothing to his maid (something he had in fact done, but to help the maid rather than himself, and which she had typically reported to her KGB masters). He would be the laughing stock of Moscow. His career as a diplomat, not to mention his career as a Russian specialist, would be finished.
To his credit, Morrison had come straight back to the Embassy to report the affair. To my discredit, perhaps, I had persisted in trying to drag the true story out of him, partly to make Canberra realise that maybe the Morrison affair was indeed on a par with the Skripov affair (in both cases women and entrapments were involved) and so make Canberra think twice before getting too righteous about it all.
Canberra had made a rather silly song and dance over the hapless Skripov’s misdemeanors. Now it was Moscow’s turn to sing and dance. Maybe it was time for all of us to ease up on the entrapment business.
And maybe Morrison was involved in dangerous affairs after all. He had very good US Embassy contacts (his wife was American) and it was no secret that the Americans and the Brits liked to use Commonwealth nationals in Moscow for their various spy stunts, when using their own people would attract attention. Morrison had also hinted to me several times of being double-crossed by Firyubin, who also had a strong Indonesian connection, though I never got the details.
Morrison had had a deep interest in the details of the recent Oleg Penkovsky spy affair. Penkovsky had been a top level Soviet official whose inside reports on Soviet military plans and thinking had been the intelligence coup of the century (he had since been uncovered and executed). Several senior US and UK officials in Moscow had been expelled for their involvement in that affair; the Brits for providing the people to check out Penkovsky’s information drops. In the eyes of the Russians, Australia too could well have been part of that tight Anglo-Saxon nexus for spy activities against the USSR.
The Russian Expert’s Dilemma
But by the end of the week I was feeling sorry for Morrison. Day after day we had been dragging from him the sorry details of his entrapment (I was also feeling sorry for myself; sitting in that cramped box for a week was not doing any good for any of us).
Morrison had tried to keep a brave face on things. But the more he talked, the more he was signing his own death-warrant, not only as a Soviet expert but even as an Australian diplomat. There was no way Soviet-hysterical Canberra would forgive him for what had happened.
He had been caught in the dilemma that all of us Russian-speaking Western diplomats had to face in Moscow. There was no point learning the language and studying the system unless one went out to meet and talk to Russians. But if one did that, one was bound to become a target for KGB attentions. Entrapment, followed by messy expulsion, could easily be the end result.
For an English-speaking Russian diplomat to be expelled say from US or Australia was no great personal tragedy. Back home he would probably be regarded as a hero. He could then go on to use his hard-won English language ability in some other posting to some other English-speaking nation (there are plenty of them).
But for a Russian-speaking Western diplomat, being expelled from Moscow could be a devastating end of the road. There was nowhere else he could go to and use his Russian. Years of effort to learn the language and study the society would go down the drain.
Worse, he would be branded forever as an enemy of the nation he had tried so hard to get to know and may even in some situations have come to like (Morrison was no rigid anti-Soviet hawk).
Faced with this dilemma, I am sure a few succumbed and cooperated with their KGB tormentors. To his credit, Morrison had resisted the pressure.
At the time I used to wonder why the Soviet powers-that-be allowed this seemingly self-defeating activity to continue. By ruthless KGB harassment of people like Morrison (and later myself, I was to discover), they were creating a corps of resentful, anti-Moscow, Soviet watchers and experts in foreign ministries around the globe. They were leaving the field open to the many anti-Soviet hardliners in Western officialdom whose proof of reliability in the top levels of policy formation was the fact that they had never made any effort to learn a word of Russian or to get to know anyone from the USSR.
The Soviets complained constantly about Western distortions of their ‘deisvitelnost’ (reality.) Yet they were targeting for entrapment and expulsion the very people who could help the world discover that ’reality.’
They were embittering the very people who, if treated properly, could do so much to help improve relations. Certainly that would have been the case with Morrison who would have returned to a good position in Canberra and have done much to break down Canberra’s anti-Soviet hysteria.
And that had in fact been the case with Canberra’s previous ambassador to Moscow - Keith (Spats) Waller, yet another non-Russian speaker sent to represent Australia (Canberra’s quaint belief that non- language speakers made the best ambassadors was already in full swing).
Waller had arrived when Moscow was trying hard to break away from its former Stalinist isolation. He had been treated well and sensibly by the Soviet authorities, and had moved much in Moscow’s very attractive artistic circles. As ambassador, and to some extent as a non-Russian speaker, he had been free from the grubby entrapment attempts imposed on people like Morrison.
Arriving back in Canberra to a senior position, Waller had called openly for reconsideration of Australia’s rigid anti-Soviet policies. None of that would have happened if he had received Morrison’s treatment. (Ironically, his pro-Soviet sympathies were matched by intensely anti-Beijing prejudices. He presided over a marked increase in Canberra’s anti-China hysteria.)
But later I came to realise that for the KGB types this was mere moralizing. Whether we Russian-speakers came to like their country or not was irrelevant. They were operating at a level where one single entrapment could lead to incalculably valuable information breakthroughs. Penkovsky had been one such success for our side. They too had had their successes in the past, and were determined to continue.
Besides, their propaganda had already told them that all diplomats sent by the West to work in Moscow, the Russian-speaking ones especially, had to be anti-Soviet and latent spies to begin with. Otherwise we would not have been sent. For them, we Russian-speakers were small and very expendable fish.
Presumably the same thinking was going on in the tiny minds of the ASIO types sent to harass and entrap Soviet diplomats in Canberra. One ex-Canberra Soviet diplomat I got to know claimed our spies were much cruder than theirs, which is saying something.
3. SOVIET ‘REALITIES’
With Morrison gone and his replacement in place ( a nice enough man called Pethybridge), the Embassy settled down to its regular routine of basically doing nothing much more than administer itself, fret constantly about continued KGB efforts to penetrate its security, and then use much of its large budget to hire an array of KGB-supplied staff trained and briefed to penetrate that security.
I once wrote a report querying the need to waste large amounts of money simply to park a dozen or so unhappy, run-of-the-mill, non-Russian speaking Australians in the middle of Moscow to do no more than type up reports and issue visas, while surrounded by this army of KGB-briefed operatives seeking to facilitate entrapment stunts against the Embassy that employed them.
Instead, I suggested, it would be much cheaper, safer and more effective to close the whole operation down and have a couple of competent officials based in Vienna fly in every week or so to stay at a hotel, handle whatever consular, diplomatic or reporting work that was needed, and then fly out.
Meanwhile we would invite the Soviets to do the same with their Canberra Embassy (they could fly in from Djakarta). In the process a large army of KGB spies and ASIO sleuths would be put out of business.
Footloose in the USSR
For some reason I never got a reply to my brilliant proposal (too many ASIO types having to seek new employment was the problem no doubt). But no matter. By this time I had realised that as the only Russian-speaking diplomat in the Embassy, and with an ambassador mainly concerned with his own retirement plans, I could basically write my own ticket.
I would work hard on the language, follow the media, try to meet as many of the local inhabitants as possible (both for language and information purposes), and travel as widely as I could using the Embassy’s generous travel allowance to get out into the provinces. I had two years to educate myself and broaden my experience, largely at the expense of the Australian Government.
(I would also try to track down D., then living in a forest-bound house near Bonn’s hush-hush rocket development site outside Munich. I found her. Her husband was in Egypt handling the secret rocket tests that were to create such fuss later. )
(She had had no children, and had created a fairly independent life for herself traveling around Germany as a buyer for a large department store. She invited me to go with her for a week. Traveling across Germany in her small Volkswagen in the middle of winter we got to know each other again, and well. She had matured into a very attractive and strong-minded woman.)
(She also suggested we should get back together. But for all the emotional nostalgia, I could not say yes. I was too involved in a very different life back in Moscow. )
(I often wonder what would have happened if I had agreed.)
A key part of my self-imposed Moscow education was getting out and meeting people. This was not has hard as most assumed in those Cold War days. Nor, at first, did I have any reason to think it would be as dangerous as most assumed.
I lived in the Dom 45, Leninskyii Prospect compound, not too far from Moscow University (MGU). The compound housed both foreigners and Soviets in what by Moscow standards was fairly reasonable comfort. Evenings, when there was no diplomatic event to attend, I would often go out to dine in one of the several student cafes nearby.
In those communist days to sit by oneself at an empty table was regarded as ‘unsociable’ (it also created more work for the staff, I guess). Almost always I would be directed to a table where others were sitting – students, or some local citizens also determined to have a night out.
Russians are friendly people and within minutes a conversation would be underway. They would want to know who I was and what I did. No one seemed greatly bothered when I said I was a diplomat. Drinks would be ordered (vodka and beer were the drinks of choice, with the beer as a chaser after the vodka toasts). Food would be shared — a favorite was fatty Kiev chicken to soak up the alcohol.
A few hours later I would wander off into the often freezing Moscow night, filled with food and vodka, and yet another chance to practice the language and gain another insight into the society.
When my table partners were students I would soon be deep into political debate, with me being pressured to admit to poverty and discrimination against blacks in the West, in exchange for them making a few complaints about their own system. I was told repeatedly how their aim was to get rid of the system’s faults and establish ‘true’ Communism.
Most were convinced that even with its faults their system was superior to ours. And that was not because they lacked information about the outside world. Western propaganda at the time used to make big play about the regime denying information to its citizens. That was simply not true. Objective information was at hand, and studied, unlike in the West where information overflow worked to dull serious interest.
Occasionally I would see the KGB types snooping impatiently through the windows. But as far as I was concerned they could cause no harm. They could hardly barge in arrest us for have dinner and talking together. Nor was there much point their trying to follow up on my dinner companions and use them against me. We had met by chance and would not be meeting again.
Years later when Mikhail Gorbachev emerged with his perestroika and glasnost reforms I knew exactly where he was coming from. He and his wife had been students at the same MGU only a few years before I arrived. They too had almost certainly visited the same student restaurants as I did. They too had probably had the same debates and discussions amongst themselves. And like the students I had met, they too were impatient for reforms, with ‘genuine’ Communism as their ideal.
A Night At The Theatre
Student restaurants were not the only stamping ground. One of my favorite gambits was to order two tickets for one or other of the several mildly regime- critical plays allowed by the Khruschev liberalization then underway and being shown at the very popular Sovremyenniyi (CОВРЕМЕННЫЙ or contemporary) theatre. As a diplomat I could easily get tickets. Ordinary Russians had a much harder time.
At the theatre entrance I would soon be surrounded by young people, mainly students, seeking tickets. I would walk through the crowd, pick out one of the more interesting-looking of the lady students, and tell her that I had a spare ticket. Usually she would be so grateful that after the play she would happily join me for coffee or cognac.
I would end up with a nice evening at the theatre - the chance to meet someone attractive, to see a controversial play, and then to get a good discussion of the play, its politics especially, all for the price of one ticket. And once again the KGB types would have a bad evening. They would have wasted all that time trailing me, for no result (though having to watch the play might have done something for their political education).
A Day In The Countryside
Yet another good way to meet Russians naturally was the ‘social hike’ (ОБЩЕСТВЕННЫ ПОХОД or obschestvenniyi pohod ). Come Fridays and the Moscow evening newspaper would run a small column listing weekend excursions to various places of interest around Moscow, and giving the railway station where we should all meet. I would show up with a small rucksack at the appointed time. Waiting there would be a motley crowd of old men, fat women, young teachers and other nature-minded citizens. Our leader —usually a public-spirited volunteer with time to spare — would then march us off to the appointed platform.
As we wandered through the forests and fields on the Moscow periphery I tried to act as if I too was just an ordinary citizen out for a weekend stroll. That way I would avoid the inevitable fuss and bother if people thought a Westerner had infiltrated their ranks. I could also discover what Russians really thought about their life and the regime.
The ruse worked. People spoke frankly. Occasionally, someone would say that my looks and accent suggested I came from Estonia. I did nothing to disabuse them.
After a day of sunshine, fresh air and conversation we would head off to the nearest station to catch another train back to Moscow. I assumed the KGB were around, but I never saw them.
Many years later I got to see an NHK television replay of a 1972 documentary showing very similar excursions by young people into the summer countryside around Moscow (that was back in the Japanese national broadcaster’s more progressive days when it felt it should try hard to show the realities of societies, including even the communist ones).
Watching the documentary was a throwback to a time when the faces of young Russians showed a natural enjoyment of life’s simplicities, long before the surly, depressed faces of the Moscow crowds I saw in the mid-nineties - people trying to cope with poverty, competition and other capitalistic innovations to post-communist society
More Soviet ‘Realities’
Another NHK Soviet-era documentary replay showed the first voyage of the summer for a large vessel bringing goods and passengers down the still frozen Lena river in Siberia to the scattered settlements of the native peoples living near the Arctic Ocean.
It was a hazardous journey. Watching the replay it was hard not to be impressed by the dedication of the captain and the seeming efficiency of the crew. During my Moscow stay I had seen many such documentaries and took these kinds of attitudes for granted. Even if they were mainly for regime propaganda purposes they showed a certain kind of reality.
But as I watched the NHK documentary I realised just how unlikely it would be to find the same attitudes in today’s Russia, where making money now seems to be a lot more important than service to the society. The river transports have long since stopped. Most of those Arctic settlements, and the rare cultures they preserved, have been abandoned. Such is the logic of free markets and private enterprise.
True, the gulags that dotted the same area have also been abandoned. That is a plus, a big plus. On a trip to Siberia I once ran into a line of prisoners being transported by KGB thugs to one of those camps. Just a glance at faces, some quite young, was enough to tell me who were the more evil - the thugs, not the prisoners.
Another bad memory involved a young Balt. I had met him at the Institute of Foreign Languages near our Embassy (I often lunched there in the student cafeteria). He liked to talk about life in general, including the problems of the Baltic peoples. He was much more open than the Russian students there.
One day driving through Moscow he jumped out from the footpath and waved me down, begging to be allowed to get into the car. The KGB were chasing him, he said. Could I please take him to the Embassy so he could seek asylum.
Clearly we could not be in the business of providing asylum to dissidents, and I told him that. Worse, I was, as usual, being followed by the KGB too. We drove around for an hour or so wondering what to do. Eventually I decided to drop him off at a subway entrance in the hope that the KGB types would not catch him as he disappeared into the tunnels. I often wondered what happened to him.
Or maybe the whole thing had been a plant. But if so, to what purpose. The ways of the KGB can be mysterious.
Sometimes in talking with students I would hear reference to so-and-so – usually one of the brighter graduates - being sent to a ПОЧТОВЫЙ ЯЩИК (pochtoviyi yaschik or post box). This was the codeword for a secret military installation where the address was known only by its postal number. The loss to Soviet industrial progress from this brain drain must have been enormous.
4. SOVIET COMMUNISM
But for all its faults and problems, the society, as I saw it, functioned. The economy was in reasonable shape. Shops were fairly well stocked, though quality was often poor. Most seemed satisfied with the regime. It had produced a generation whose lives were stable, and whose employment, if arbitrary, was guaranteed. Thanks in part to war memories, the patriotism also seemed genuine.
There was a genuine public spiritedness, and not just in the way people were expected to sit with others in the restaurants. On weekends, apartment block residents would get together in working bees to keep premises clean.
Communism seemed to match the inherent communalism and conservatism of the Russian people, even if it was much less liked by some other peoples under Soviet control.
The buses did not use conductors to collect fares; they relied solely on honesty boxes. (The only other country I have seen similar honesty systems is Japan, another communalistic society.) Often a grand-motherly type would sit herself by the box during her journey, and upbraid any young toughs who tried to cheat the system.
Few of these important details found their way into the biased reports of Western media, or Western diplomats, in those Cold War days.
Merits and Faults
The system had other merits, often side by side with the faults.
The education system was good. Thanks to Soviet egalitarianism perhaps, Russia was one of the few places in the world where women would look you directly in the eye, without the complexes one sensed in Western women in those pre female-liberation days.
The bookstores were usually excellent; the Russians are, or were, very literate people. Instead of today’s TV trivia and sex shows, a standard fare was quiz programs demanding wide general knowledge, and run purely for intellectual enjoyment, without prizes. Prostitution was rare and pornography non-existent. That allegedly amoral Soviet society of Christian, anti-communist condemnation was in fact a lot more moral than most Western societies.
Minority peoples were allowed newspapers and literature in their native languages – one reason why they were able to break away so easily once the Soviet system weakened. And many of the younger and better-educated of the minority peoples I met seemed generally ready, with reservations, to accept their status as Soviet citizens. As ever, Western propaganda about oppressed minorities was just that (though the few anti-Soviet nationalists who emerged were quickly put away).
The social equality preached by the regime also seemed reasonably in place, even if it meant that most were kept at the same level of relative poverty. The debasing nomenklatura system existed, but it had yet to cast its corrupting Brezhnev-era pall on the society.
Obviously I would not have enjoyed being a Soviet citizen; I could not have stood the various restrictions. But I often tell people with sincerity that my two years in Moscow were the some of the best and most interesting years of my life. I learned a lot about the role of ideology in shaping a society. Every day brought some new experience or challenge. Even just walking down the street and checking the price of potatoes had meaning.
KGB attentions aside, there was something curiously comforting about living in a collectivist society where you did not have to be constantly on your guard against the pressures, scams and shallow advertising of our capitalist world.
Even in the Stalinist years there must have been glimmers of what some liked to call communist morality. Many of Stalin’s heirs - Khruschev and Kosygin for example - seemed genuine in their efforts to improve society. I even got to like Gromyko, for whom I once had to make a labored dinner speech interpretation. He is often written off as a hardliner. But to understand the mind, and integrity, of a very conservative Soviet leader I strongly recommend reading his biography.
Gromyko’s notorious hard-line was due partly to personality. But much of it was also a reaction to the bad behavior of our own hardliners - things like the Western/Japanese intervention in Russia’s 1918 civil war, US willingness to embrace former Nazis, US excesses in the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Bay of Pigs, US/UK hard-line Cold War policies. Even people of conscience in the West tend to write these things off as mere aberrations since they know (or think they know), the distorted background that created them. They do not want to see them as reflecting fundamental flaws in our societies .
But to many people of conscience on the other side of the Curtain they did prove the fundamental flaws and basic corruption of our system. In the eyes of ultra-cautious and conservative Soviets like Gromyko they proved our ultimate evil.
Conversely, the Stalinist purges and interventions in East Europe which many in the West saw as proving the ultimate corruption and evil of the Soviet system were, for Soviet hard-liners like Gromyko, merely aberrations of the system at worst and maybe even justified at times.
(One of my more futile arguments against the Vietnam War was that we were assisting communist regimes by undermining the credibility of the progressives there who wanted to use the West as a model for reforms. As far as our hard-liners were concerned, there were no progressives to begin with, and those regimes were beyond any possibility of reform anyway.)
(For a very personally moving account of this mirror-image Cold War inversion of prejudices in action, I invite readers to look at my account of the elderly post-revolutionary Russian I met on a train from Odessa – see Quadrant magazine letter on my website entitled former Western brutality in Russia.)
I also developed a deep sympathy for the wartime sufferings of the Russian people, and disgust for the way we in the West had managed almost completely to ignore not just those sufferings but also Moscow’s desire for a foreign policy that made sure they never happened again. The raucous attacks on the very mild Soviet discrimination against Jews at the time (few complained about Malaysia’s much greater discrimination against overseas Chinese) stuck in the craw when one considered but for the immense Soviet wartime sacrifices there would not have been a single person of Jewish origins left alive west of the Urals, and probably east as well.
Equally biased were the complaints of our Western ideologues about the sufferings of a dozen of so prominent Soviet dissenters thrown into jail, exile or psychiatric wards. At precisely the same moment hundreds of thousands of dissenters and liberals being rounded up and killed in Latin America, mostly with US approval and backing. Did we hear a word of complain from our ideologues? Of course not.
Being an ideologue means never having to say sorry.
The Soviet regime at least allowed its dissenters to survive and be brought to some kind of trial. In Chile, Argentina and a few other places they would have been brutally tortured, often to death, with their broken bodies thrown out of planes far into the ocean. For them, psychiatric homes would have seemed like a palace.
In Guatemala and El Salvador it was even worse. A good income source for the killer squads and others employed to wipe out dissident villages came when they finally realized they did not have to kill the smaller children. They could sell them profitably for adoption into US families.
(CNN once ran a documentary on the ‘tragedy’ of one of these children having to be torn away from her all-American ‘family’ at age twelve and returned to El Salvador. It turned out that the child’s mother had been in nearby hills with guerilla forces when the village was being razed. When hostilities ended years later she had tracked down her child and demanded her return.)
(CNN had little to say about the real tragedy – the massacre in the village by US-trained and equipped troops, and many other villages like it.)
Meanwhile our anti-communists were insisting on the superior democratic morality of the West. Our liberals were not much better. Is there some kink in that democratic morality that allows us unlimited scope for this kind of bias? Even at their worst, the Soviets and their henchmen never sunk to this level of barbarity.
Besides, as early as the sixties it was clear that Moscow was trying to move away from former evils. In the West much was being made of the Soviet”s Hungarian and Czech interventions. But those decisions were touch and go, and the killing limited - unlike the gungho and much crueler Western interventions at the time in places like Greece, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Guatemala, etc.
If the Khruschev liberalisations had been allowed to continue, it is very likely Russia would have evolved within a generation into a reasonably free society practicing Scandinavian-style socialism.
But as we know, the hawks on both sides were determined to make sure that it did not happen. We had to wait until Gorbachev emerged, by which time it was too late.
Here let me divert somewhat.
Today, when examples of Communism are restricted to the opposites found in China and North Korea, with Vietnam, Laos and Cuba in between, it is hard to talk sensibly about that 80 year attempt to create a different social system. Maybe this is not the time or place to do so either.
But what all the anti-Communist propaganda, criticism and hysteria over the years have ignored is that this was essentially an attempt to impose a Utopian ideology. It asked people voluntarily to give up some freedoms and wealth today to create a better society for the future. In theory at least, it tried to appeal to people’s better and more altruistic instincts. If there is something wrong with that then we in the West should close down our monasteries, hippy colonies, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Boy Scouts and a host of other volunteer organizations tomorrow.
But as in all Utopian societies dissenters cause problems. They can be tolerated to a point. But if they threaten the working of the system they have to be either expelled or somehow silenced (the same happens in any self-respecting monastery or hippy colony by the way, and the Boy Scouts do not tolerate gays). But does that prove the worthlessness of the Utopian ideology? Hardly.
But when it came to Communism, none of this made much impression on our anti-Communist ideologues. Attempts by the regime to create its version of Utopia were for some reason supposed to be evil, and this was confirmed by the treatment of dissidents. Efforts by our ideologues to subvert or oppose the regime and its ideology made things even worse for the dissidents, who came to be seen as agents for the anti-communist enemy, which then provided more fodder for our ideologues.
True, the Soviet version of Communism suffered a few problems of its own. Its ideologues caused great economic damage by blaming capitalism for society’s original fall from the Utopian grace they sought. Today’s China goes too far perhaps, but certainly some capitalism could have been allowed without doing too much damage to the original Utopian ideals. Khruschev was moving gradually in that direction before he was overthrown.
But the main problem was an evil called bureaucracy. We find it any society. But when it is backed up by ideology, the evil and the corrupt find it wasy become entrenched. Parasitically, it can easily destroy the very society that creates it. Talk to any thinking Russian today and they will tell you that the Soviet Union collapsed far more from the bureaucratic corruption of the Brezhnev years than from any Cold War pressure from outside.
Another problem the way tyrants and hard-liners take control, at least in the early stages of the regime. As in all societies born from intense ideological and revolutionary struggle (Iran was another example), the cruel and the tough-minded find it easy to come to the top. They can use the ideology and sufferings of the revolution to justify their abuse of power. Rivals drop their guard, assuming that the purity of their struggle rules out such abuse (a problem not unlike what I would suffer later from the mini-Stalins in Australia’s China/Soviet/Japan academic and political mafia).
Worse is to come. Our own hard-liners are than able to use the use abuses and mistakes of the revolutionary regime to consolidate their own power, claiming a need to confront the evil of the other side. The way our Western anti-communists used the crimes off Stalin, Mao and some other communist revolutionary leaders to justify not just their own anti-communist policies but also the large-scale killing of utopian Communist idealists around the globe, all the way from Vietnam to Latin America, should have been seen as an atrocity against every shred of logic, commonsense and humanity – particularly since it was our own ideologues and manipulators who had done so much to cause the original revolutionary sufferings that had allowed the communist hardliners to gain power in the first place.
Effects usually have causes. Our ideologues never seem to realize that.
But in the hysterical anti-communist days of the sixties and seventies, it was futile to expect that kind of argument to make any impression, even on our Western so-called moderates. Only after the senseless brutality of the Vietnam War did we begin to get some glimmerings of conscience.
There is something in the Western, mainly Anglo-saxon, mind that prevents logical analysis in foreign affairs. It was to find the same thing years later in the Japanese mind, and it exists for much the same reasons I suspect.
5. THE KGB AND I
I had long suffered KGB attentions — something inevitable for an unmarried, Russian-speaking diplomat determined to go out and meet Russian people. On my first week in Moscow an attractive blonde lady had come to the door of my apartment 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. My phone was monitored; 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 once tried to suggest to my diplomatic colleagues that if they all behaved as I did – going out frequently and talking to a range of Soviets – 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.
In Baku I was once able to double back on my tracks and confront one of these KGB operatives, an Azerbaijani. I asked him why he wanted to behave in such an ugly way, following me constantly. He came back quickly asking why we Westerners behaved so ugly too. As an explanation for senseless Cold War confrontation it was about as good as any other I had come across.
The Pressure Rises
Towards the end of 1964 I was nearing the end of the normal two year posting. The KGB attentions were getting to be even more intense than usual. 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 involved 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 trap you and harm you. You cannot run or hide. You have no escape. Everything you do is monitored. Meanwhile you have to carry on as if everything around you was normal.
Finally, it all came to a head. On a freezingly dark night of December 1964, in the grubby industrial town of Podolsk on the outskirts of Moscow, the trap had been set. My good friend, Volodya Nikitin, was the bait.
The Trap Almost Closes
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, a 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, and we had already had become close friends. 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.)
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 Khruschev 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 Khruschev’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.
Some time around the end of 1964 Volodya began acting strangely. He rang, wanting urgently to meet me over dinner. He knew that J. had gone back to England. 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 a-la Penkovsky. 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 on me — tyi moi vrag, you are my enemy.
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 favorite 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 both of us.
The strategy worked. But on the train back to Moscow I was shaking badly.
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 proposition. I would simply sit down with them and 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 of how the KGB operated.
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 a grubby industrial town. Not just over-confidence was my crime. I was 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 MOMENT OF DECISION
A New Career?
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 to 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.
The Vietnam Factor
More than anything else it was the escalating horror of Vietnam that helped decide me. The Americans were running regular bombing raids into North Vietnam under the pretext of the phony 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 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.
True, I did not know much about Vietnam myself , apart from the fact that my bus from Phonm Penh to Saigon a few years earlier had been the last to cross an allegedly pacified Mekong Delta. But I could be fairly sure that our Asian-ignorant bureaucrats knew even less; not one of them spoke even a word of Vietnamese at the time.
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. 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.
The Hasluck Farce
Compounding my angst over Vietnam had been the the farcical October pilgrimage to Moscow by Australian Foreign Minister, Paul Hasluck. He had come, urgently he said, to persuade the Russians to join with the West in trying to stop China’s alleged expansionist ambitions via Vietnam. At very short notice we were instructed to arrange a meeting the premier Kosygin and foreign minister Gromyko
(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").
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?
(Many years later, however, I discovered via Malcolm Fraser that this bizarre event might not have been quite as foolishly and egotistically 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. But rather than themselves directly approach their Cold War enemy in Moscow with the proposal, the Americans had asked the hapless 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 come to the 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 as it was to turn out.
(At the time I could only look on helplessly while academics and commentators, mainly Anglosaxon, 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 –Khruschev`s withdrawal of his nuclear 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.
The Burchett Factor
Another 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 proof that the Vietcong forces in South Vietnam were far stronger and better organized than anyone in the West seemed to realize.
I passed all this on to Canberra, as Burchett wanted anyway. (For details, see the reference to Book Chapter above. 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. Was I supposed to live with that kind of attitude forever?
The coup de grace so to speak was Canberra later sending me reprovingly a US appraisal of Burchett’s claim to have visited a Vietcong village on the fringes of Ton San Nuit airport. The US experts had said Burchett’s claim was clearly false since the area was totally under US and Saigon control and it would have been impossible for him even to get to the village let alone 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.
7. OUT OF THE USSR
A New Career, but What Career?
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 speaking Chinese and Russian was irrelevant.
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 flavor of the month. Maybe some Japanese expertise might give me the stepping stone needed. My Chinese would be of some use there I thought (I still did not realize the extent to which the languages differed.)
Japan was also a still 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 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.
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. I had to get out of Moscow, and quickly.
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` barbaric 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.
How To Get Out Of 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.
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? Was it planning yet another trick?
I had to assume so since in theory at least 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, and I have reason to believe that it was only granted after some dispute between the 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.).
Eventually I got the exit visa. 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 also sensed something unusual. He 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 leave 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.
Back To Canberra
From Moscow it was direct to the standard de-briefing in London. There it was made fairly clear to me that my superiors had not been very impressed by my pre- departure antics. But to 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 .
Years later I was also to wonder if Bob Hawke ever let his obsessively pro-Israel prejudices, fed by backdoor funds from the Melbourne Jewish lobby and special favors provided on frequent visits to Tel Aviv, be challenged by such details.
8. BOB HAWKE
My relationship with Hawke had begun in 1956 when I was about to leave Oxford. He had just arrived, and as a Rhodes scholar had initially been handed over to my father’s care, ostensibly to study labor-employer relationships.
I remember little about him at the time, except that he was obsessed with cricket and had once borrowed the family utility truck to seduce some woman, who later complained.
We were to meet up again a few years later just after my return to Canberra from Moscow. On his return from Oxford he had decided to further a trade union career by post-graduate studies into labor-employer relations at the Australian National University. Whether he did anything useful or not, I do not know.
Future Australian Prime Minister
At the time Hawke was telling everyone that he would be Australia’s future Prime Minister. I mentioned this in a letter to my father, and his reply deserves repeating (I have since had it preserved in The Oxford Book of Australian Letters). It reads :
"I must say I think Hawke is showing some effrontery. He turned up in Oxford with an-I-know-it-all-already attitude, and thought that if we just showed him one or two more tricks of the trade he could be the complete authority on wage fixing.
"We found, not only that he did not know any economics at all, but that he was far too stubborn to learn any. So we got him to drop his thesis and transferred him to Wheare (professor of government and public administration in Oxford), to write a thesis in the sub- faculty of politics, which we thought would be easier.
"Hawke’s principal interest was cricket. If he succeeds, I shall regard it as proof that Australian labor leaders, like the British, are now beginning to produce a hereditary governing class – and I shall regret it. “
In Canberra I got to see another side of Hawke.
Some time in late 1962 he arrived at a party I gave, carrying twelve bottles of beer, half of which he drank, and the other half he left behind. The party over, we set off to drive to somewhere on the other side of Canberra.
As we approached a distant intersection on the far side of the large sheep paddock bordering Civic Center, that crummy apology for a shopping center whose main highlight was a few cheap Italian-owned restaurants and which served as Canberra’s main entertainment focus at the time, we could see the lights of a car coming towards us from the right-hand side of the T- junction we were approaching at some speed.
Canberra at the time had one strict road rule — always give way to the vehicle from the right, regardless. Our relative speeds made it clear we would probably arrive at the intersection at the same time. I told Hawke he would have to give way. Instead, he accelerated, to make it clear he would not give way.
The other car accelerated too. ‘F..k them’ , said Bob as he swerved around the T-junction just a few seconds ahead of the other car.
There was only problem: ‘Them’ happened to be the Canberra police. And they were not in a good mood.