On how I did not become a KGB operative
Temptations of Vladimir Saramazov
Not too long before the Berlin wall was meant to fall, the KGB—Vladimir Saramazov, to be precise—tried to enlist me. The CIA could have never been that dumb. No wonder they lost the cold war. This story is about how Vladimir really tried and how I declined. The events depicted here lasted a total of about eight hours and occurred in two subsequent evening sessions.
Not too long after my divorce, I was surprised by an invitation from the Cuban Embassy in Lima Peru, to celebrate 30 years of Fidel Castro’s Revolution. There was no rhyme or reason for them to invite me. I was not smart enough to suspect a hidden agenda, in fact, I was almost proud they invited me. My vanity set me up for an interesting experience.
I went to the Cuban Embassy; but upon entering the reception hall I felt a most uncomfortable sensation of being in the wrong place. I was in the right place all right and I was dressed properly: But the endless hall was filled with too many strange people—almost standing still—all of them with a glass in their hands. Worse, they were mostly men wearing multicolored military uniforms. It was too late to turn around so I switched off my apprehension, and turned on my gregarious mode. For about one hour I smiled as I wondered among hoards people as if purposefully mingling and pretending to be interested in their conversation, and then I surreptitiously scooted out of there.
I had no idea Vladimir had then made his first contact with me until I found his card many months after the events in which he tried to enlist me. It was a cool and bone-damp evening—a typical Lima winter night—when Vlad called me about two months after the celebration at the embassy. I was hunched over my desk focused on my work beside a warm fireplace. Only the sparks bursting under the screen over the mahogany floor would sometimes distract me. After my divorce, endless empty spaces remained in the living room that was joined in a right angle with a large dining room. I had discovered the lack of things and noiselessness helped me concentrate. The waves of my favorite Lima FM radio station filled the still air of my rented house. It was more than quaint; two floors and five-bedrooms with a small garden in front and large garden in back and two large trees in each. It also had a two-car garage and that week there were two cars in it because I was trying to sell my car and I was renting the other. Behind the inside garden in a moderately spacious cottage lived my two household assistants, Nicolasa and her brother Tomas. They were true blue Inca blood from the Sacred Valley in Cuzco. Tall and proud royalty, and yet they took care of my commoner needs as if I were the king. At night they would leave me alone to humble myself by attempting to understand Nature. That was the nature of my work.
I had been concentrating for an hour when the phone screamed and nearly jolted me over my desk. I get very few calls; mostly only when somebody gets married or dies. I hear the voice of a man with a strange Spanish accent trying to greet me. I quickly interrupt him proposing we speak English. To my surprise he responds, “prefiero español”. So I retort, “Bon soir monsieur”, but again, “prefiero español”. I did not speak any more languages so I conceded and he greeted me with his broken Spanish. “Good evening Doctor, my name is Vladimir Saramazov, and I am the Cultural Attaché to the USSR Embassy and, the Soviet Union is very interested in your work”.
You can’t imagine the intoxicating effect caused by his pitch. It was heaven to the ears of a scientist like me working on a new green revolution that few understood. I had been fighting seven years for respect from my peers who considered my ideas as dreams and borderline insane. For a second, I felt the humongous landmass of the Soviet Union expanding inside the Ego of my chest. But before the second-second had elapsed the voice of reason screamed into my brain “yeah right!”
Right away I wanted to cut the crap, but I was too curious. He suggested meeting at a restaurant to have a cup of coffee or something. But I was not that curious, and I invited Vladimir to come to my office at the International Potato Center (CIP) where I “worked” (actually, I have never worked a day in my life, I have always been paid for what I would have paid to do, and they called it “work”). But Valdimir declined saying he would feel uneasy since we worked “for the enemy of the North”. He had his facts wrong—which made it more interesting—it was true that about 25% of our budget was derived from USAID; but it was also true we collaborated with Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Cuba. I was intrigued so I proposed a compromise and he agreed to meet me at my house on the following day, at 7 pm.
The next day I shared Vlad’s weird approach with my good friend Professor Carlos Ochoa, and CIP Directors Peter Gregory and Jose Valle-Riestra. The latter told me to tell Vladimir that CIP was at the service of the USSR as it was for every other country in the world. Peter told me of his experience with a KGB agent and he was supportive of my decision not to meet Vlad at some shady restaurant. But Carlos was most enlightening about what I needed to watch for. He was very familiar with potato research in the USSR. Carlos warned me: “They will enter your house without knocking if they can, and they will search every room and even walk into your bedroom if they find it unlocked until they find you. They will seek your weakness and use it to extort your allegiance to the USSR. If you let them, they will shower you with pleasures, money and/or women, whatever it takes to win you. And if you accept, they might not ask for your services for quite some time. But sooner or later you will pay for whatever they gave you.”
So I was ready for Vladimir with a can of a special fish delicacy from Finland, fancy crackers, and a bottle of Stolichnaya (green label) in the freezer. I also piled an inordinate amount of scientific literature over my desk, and conspicuously placed in the small bookshelf behind me a few books that Vladimir might find interesting, such as, The Private Life of Karl Marx. The scene was set, and sure enough at about five minutes before 7 pm, the doorbell rings and it had to be Vladimir. I opened the door and to my astonishment I could not see anything. There was no light coming in from the street. I had forgotten what Carlos told me, I was expecting to see Vladimir standing by the door which is the entrance to the front garden. And Vladimir was standing about 1 cm from the main door and he was the same the size as the door. Perhaps, he was trying to pick the lock; indeed, Vladimir was a Bear of gargantuan proportions. I will never forget when he shook my hand and I felt the size of his humongous fingers strangling my hand. It was obvious that Vlad could not hold a test tube to save his life.
As I am leading Vlad into the living room and before we sit down I am belting him with my prepared surreptitiously deceitful “cut the BS speech” greeting. Which went something like this: “Vlad, before we sit down [by the warm fireplace], I want you to know that as a Nicaraguan your presence in my house is my honor, and with great pleasure I take this opportunity to thank you, in the name of my country for the help given by the USSR to our revolution”. We sit down and he pulls out half bottle of Stolichnaya (red label) from his briefcase. I asked him to please keep his bottle, and I call Nicolasa, who was ready to bring the frozen vodka bottle in a bucket of ice, and she comes in with Tomas bringing the fish and crackers. I add: “thank you Vladimir, but in my house you will drink my liquor, please”.
Before I allow him to say one word, I give him my historic understanding of Napoleon and Hitler’s invasion and their [USSR] understandable paranoia, exemplified by their decision to continue the occupation of their neighboring nations after WWII. When I end, Vladimir lifts his vodka glass and with great effervescence says together with his unforgettable Russian accent, “todo lo sabes, Noël, todo lo sabes” [you know everything…]. At which point, I decide to cut the small talk and I switched gears fast. I looked at Vlad straight in the eye and asked him, “OK, so what about my work and the interest of the USSR, in it”.
I could not believe my ears when he started telling me that the USSR has severe problems with a fungus called “potato blight”, the same pathogen responsible for the potato famine that drove the Irish to USA. Carlos had told me the rest of the world wished the USSR were not so selfish since they are the most knowledgeable on the subject and refused to share it with the rest of world. Carlos had tried in vain to have them share with CIP their superior knowledge of this disease, so we could use it to help developing countries. Thus, Vladimir had blown his cover story for contacting me. And I realized that my two-second reaction was wiser than my preceding Ego expansion when I first heard him tell me of the USSR interest in my work. Vladimir was probably a lazy KGB agent. It was obvious that he had not done his homework on me.
Vladimir had incorrectly assumed I was a KGB operative shoe-in. I decide to cut off Vlad’s pitiful pitch before it went any further, and I said: “Vladimir, please, as you can see [pointing at my desk] I am a very busy. First of all, I am physiologist not a pathologist, which means that I am not an expert in potato diseases. So, spill it out, what do you all want from me?” Vlad had been deceived by my introduction speech and he assumed we shared political views, so he starts by remaining me that my brother gave his life for the Sandinista Revolution, with which the USSR waged war on “our common enemy, the USA”. He went on about how my sister had infiltrated the CIA while working for the Sandinistas with funding and supervision from the KGB. Both claims are false, but I was not about to explain to Vladimir nor will I here expound on this. I only told Vlad I doubted my sister had infiltrated the CIA and that it was probably done the other way around; but I went no further.
Then, I asked Vlad if he knew how to read lips a few times before he understood my question and answered “no”. So I continued: “I am going to teach you how to read lips” following with my exaggerated silent vocal <<NO>> two or three times, I repeated “that means, NO”. I followed my lesson by telling him that I was an anarchist. I pointed at one of my well placed books, “The Life of Karl Marx”; and I added, “I am not impressed with his life; it’s obvious that Karl was a very bourgeois kraut”. And I ended with: “Frankly Vlad, I think all of you who live in countries that must cut wood in August are Imperialists, USA, USSR, Holland, etc. etc., I distrust all of you”.
I enjoyed his frank expression when I jokingly switched by suggesting that since we both had been born after it all happened, obviously one of us had been told the wrong story so why not join forces and find out the truth. He seemed to take the point, but I was fooled again into thinking I might have made a friend from behind the “iron curtain”. If that had been the case I might remember the chat that followed the denouement of his first pitch. I only remember he suddenly stopped our “small talk” and using a different tone said, “Noel, but tell me, what do you work for?” I suspected but pretended not to get the slant of his question so I frowned, and he adds, “for example, me, I work to provide a better life for my wife and three kids”. That got me going and succinctly I replied, “I work to eradicate hunger and misery. I had a wife and two kids but she would not let me work in peace so I got rid of her.” Of course, that was not entirely true.
Then, to address his point I asked him to look around and notice I had much more than I needed. I asked him to follow me to my garage and I showed him the two cars. Before we returned from our tour to the living room, I asked him to take a look at my liquor den; which had just been refilled as we enjoyed diplomatic privileges and bought such articles in bulk. Then we sat down by the fireside again and had more vodka. But I was too turned on to my dramatic nerve and I stood up again.
This time I was to perform the second act of my welcome speech. It went something like this and adding the histrionics full blast: “Vladimir, listen please, when you walked into my house and I thanked you in the name of Nicaragua, I meant it like this. Imagine I am a small and weak person walking in the middle of a narrow dark and dangerous alley road, at night. I notice two enormous men walking towards me. But since one is walking on the left side of the walkway and the other on the right, I do not have to change my middle path. When the big man on my right is about to pass by me he decides to throw me a punch in the face and breaks my nose. And as he is about ready to hit me again, the big man on my left holds his arm and says, “NIET, pick on somebody your own size.”
And, Vladimir I don’t care which big man was on the right and which was on the left side of my path, because on the way back it they would have been reversed. Nonetheless, I think you would agree I have the right to curse the big man on my right, irrespective of who may be his parents or whether he believes in God or not. Similarly, I think it was proper for me to welcome you into my house by thanking your country, as if you had been the big man on my left, thank you for helping us protect my country, or my life, from the big man on my right. A curse is a curse, and thanks are just thanks. I did not ask or expect your kind protection, and if you meant to charge me for it you should have mentioned that first. Because the weak man I am talking about is not for sale at any price.
Again, I do not remember very much about how the two sessions totaling eight hours passed. I know we eat all the Finish fish and most of the fine crackers, and we almost finished to 75 cl bottle of green label Stolichnaya. We did discuss about the differences between red and green label. But we mostly delved into history and culture. For the second time it seemed again like maybe now we could become friends, in spite of the reason he was sent or decided to meet me. But he blew it again and this was his third and last time.
With a somberly or serious tone, but different for sure, he again interrupts whatever topic we were on and he says; “Noel, the Soviet Union (I thought to myself, “there he goes again” and thus, my Ego stayed cool) wants you to recuperate political power in Nicaragua”. After watching me move, scream, drink, eat, and joke telling; here was Vlad telling me essentially this, “OK, you do not bite politics and money, but you have to bite power”. I jumped back with my seat and then motionless I looked at Vlad straight in the eyes, right before I let him have it, like this: “Vladimir, Vladimir, I must be the worse teacher of lip reading you ever met. I could not even teach you how to read the first word one needs to read with eyes, NO! Let me describe to you where the essence of my ambition lies. This is my dream. Imagine a public bathroom for men with about twenty cubicles in a row, so when you walk in all you see is a bunch of underwear rolled over men’s ankles and a pair of shoes. I am one of those fellows taking a crap, and two others are having a conversation about what class would be good to take next semester. And I hear one of them recommending my class. That is it Vladimir. That is my dream. I do not dream about anything else.”
That was it, he got up and as he picked up the pile of scientific literature about potatoes and our work that I had brought for him, he said, “I am not working anymore Noel, and I am leaving now. Thank you.” He shook my hand and walked right out of my house. My cousin Victor rang my door bell a couple of minutes later and told me he saw this strange looking big man, walking away fast and looking to left, right and back as if being followed. The next day I told the story to one of my directors and he said, “Noel, your story sounds like somebody from the CIA was testing your allegiance, more than some dumb KGB agent”. I admit his comments quickly planted the seed of doubt where before was unadulterated certainty. Less than six months later, however, I am doing the same thing I was doing when Vlad first called and a flash comes on my FM station announcing the deportation of Vladimir Saramazov for the crime of spy solicitation in a local high school. I guess after knocking his head with my wall he decided to lower his sights, but even then Vladimir did get not very far in Peru.
Noël Pallais Checa, PhD