BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA.

Chapter 3

INTO THE USSR.

1. En Route to the USSR, Via the USA.
2. Australian Embassy, Moscow
3. The Bill Morrison affair
4. The Russian Speaker’s Dilemma
5. Footloose in the U.S.S.R.
6. Searching for D.

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.

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

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

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

Learning the Language

Learning Chinese had taught me something about learning languages. Instead of beginning with textbooks and then trying to speak, I would do it largely in reverse.

I would first listen to a recorded text and try to decipher the meaning. Then with the help of a dictionary I would study the written text while listening again. Then I would go to the textbooks for the grammar. Then I would try to get the conversation practice.

An elderly White Russian refugee lady living in Canberra, a Mrs. Gapanovich, was a willing helper. Each week she would tape-record a text from a book of simple Russian stories for me. I would then spend the rest of the week listening to the recording and working out the meaning.

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

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

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

Crossing the USA

Briefings had been arranged for me at the Rand Corporation in San Francisco. Memories of the 1961 Berlin and Cuban crises were still fresh and it was important for me to discover U.S. thinking about Soviet adventurism, I had been told.

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

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

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

At a nearby bar I handed over a $100 note to pay for a drink. The place froze. A tense bar-tender gave me my change wrapped tightly in his fist, together with a whispered warning: “Show money like this in this place and you are dead. Take this change and run.”

I had two choices. Either he was telling me the truth. Or else he had discovered the ultimate short-changing scam. Another look at the hungry faces around me helped me decide. I ran.

And I had not been short-changed.

The next day I headed for the airport with a ticket that said I was going to Moscow via New York. In those early days, tickets were checked on the plane after boarding.

A nervous hostess immediately summoned the pilot. "Is this your ticket, sir?" he asked menacingly as he strode down the aisle.

I agreed that it was.

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

"Yes, but this is a one-way ticket! " he said triumphantly. Single-handedly he had unearthed a communist spy on his plane.

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

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

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

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

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

The crowds in the streets began to brighten. Sitting in the Embassy garden, chatting in basic Russian with one or other of the two very pleasant and intelligent Russians ladies working in the Embassy (supplied courtesy of that dreaded KGB), and listening to allegedly banned Western jazz pouring out of a 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.

2. AUSTRALIAN EMBASSY, MOSCOW

The Embassy was in the solid, luxury two-story 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 -then a rising star in External Affairs bureaucracy.

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

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

Morrison had had no trouble establishing himself as effective head of our small Embassy. He also seemed to have had no trouble getting to know a range of important Russians, including Nikolai Firyubin, Foreign Vice-Minister, and the Minister of Culture, Yekateria Furteseva.

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

But we were soon to discover a lot more about Morrison.

3. THE BILL MORRISON AFFAIR

It was a beautifully warm early summer weekend when all life and nature seemed at ease with itself and the idea of KGB conspiracies seemed as unreal as the winter cold only a few months earlier.

I was at home when the doddery ambassador phoned for me to go to the Embassy immediately. In the Embassy safe room (all Western embassies had these large, box-like contraptions with electronic defenses to prevent Soviet eaves-dropping) 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 Skripov - a fairly senior member of Moscow’s Canberra embassy. We had all assumed 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 - making sure he was accompanied when he went to meet Russians?

But sure enough, the next day Izvestia did 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: we were instructed to lodge the strongest possible formal protest with the Soviet authorities.

Morrison’s alleged crime was a nothing compared 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 contradictions about times and places.

I persuaded the ambassador to delay making the formal diplomatic protest (a severe breach of diplomatic protocol, I discovered later). But gradually, over several days of intense questioning in that cramped safe room, we began to get the true story.

And the breach of protocol began to be more justified.

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 supposed to be 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; that they wanted him to act as some kind of intellectual courier to the West. He knew the Skripov retaliation dangers. But these people were well above grubby KGB plots.

Or so he thought.

On this particular weekend they had arranged a very special party - 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 as a Russian specialist, would be finished.

To his credit, Morrison had come directly back to the Embassy to report a KGB threat. To my discredit, perhaps, I had persisted in trying to drag the true story out of him.

At the back of my mind was the thought that the true story might 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. Maybe that would 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 Moscow had some other reason for it all; it was not just pure retaliation. Morrison had very good U.S. Embassy contacts (his wife was American).

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 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 also 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 U.S. and U.K. 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.

4. THE RUSSIAN EXPERT’S DILEMMA

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 a Soviet-hysterical Canberra would forgive him.

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 we went out to meet and talk to Russians. But the more we did that the more we became a target for KGB attentions.

Entrapment, followed by messy expulsion, could easily be the result.

For an English-speaking Russian diplomat to be expelled say from U.S. or Australia was no great tragedy. Back home he would probably be regarded as a hero. He could then go on to use his hard-won English ability in a 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 cruel end of the road.

In those days there was nowhere else he could go to and use his Russian (except possibly Mongolia). Years of effort to learn the language and study the society would be wasted.

Worse, he would be branded forever as an enemy of the nation he had tried so hard to get to know and may even 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 Soviets allowed this seemingly self-defeating activity to continue. Through their ruthless KGB harassment of people like Morrison (and later myself, I was to discover) they would be creating a corps of resentful, anti-Moscow, Soviet experts in foreign ministries around the globe.

In so doing they were leaving the field open to the many anti-Soviet hardliners seen as reliable because they had never made any effort to learn Russian or to have any dealings with anyone from the USSR.

The Soviets complained constantly about Western distortions of their ‘deistvitelnost’ (действительность, 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.

Waller had arrived when Moscow was trying hard to break away from its former Stalinist isolation. He had been treated 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.

(Unfortunately 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 complaining about this targeting of Morrison (and later myself) was mere moralizing.

For them 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 possible spies to begin with.

Otherwise they would not have been sent.

5. FOOTLOOSE IN THE U.S.S.R

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, issue visas, fret constantly about continued KGB efforts to penetrate its security, and then use much of its large budget to hire a bunch of KGB-supplied staff 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 while surrounded by this army of KGB-briefed operatives trying hard to run entrapment stunts against them.

If we were not prepared to do as the Soviets did -rely entirely on staff sent from Moscow - then it would be much cheaper and safer 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 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.

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 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 education purposes), and travel as widely as I could using the Embassy’s generous travel allowance.

I had two years to educate myself and broaden my experience, largely at the expense of the Australian Government.

6. SEARCHING FOR D.

I would also try to track down D., my teenage love from Oxford days, then living near Bonn’s hush-hush rocket development site in a forest outside Munich.

I found her. She had married. She said her husband was in Egypt involved with the secret rocket tests that were to create such fuss later.

She had not had children, and had created an independent life for herself as a buyer for a large department store. She invited me to go with her for a week on a buying expedition.

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. Later I discovered one reason why.

Those rockets being developed in Egypt were targeted at Israel. In retirement, the former Mossad chief boasted on Youtube how not one of the German engineers sent to help that development made it back home alive.*

But for all the emotional nostalgia, I could not say yes. I was too involved in a very different life back in Moscow.

It was one of the harder decisions in a life not devoid of hard decisions.

* Even later in the book “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.” I discovered the following: On July 23, 1962, the Mossad operative Zvi Aharoni (who had identified Eichmann two years earlier) was on a dirt road by the farm where Mengele was believed to be hiding when he encountered a group of men — including one who looked exactly like the fugitive. ….But the head of the Mossad at the time, Isser Harel, ordered the matter dropped: On the same day, the agency had learned that Egypt was recruiting German scientists to build missiles; disposing of them was Harel’s top priority.

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