Natasha

By James Holbrook

A hand shot toward my car door window as I backed out of a parking space at one of the American housing complexes in Moscow. It struck with a muffled thud in the din of heavy rain that was beating down on the car. The hand belonged to a woman. As we made eye contact, she drew back and shouted something. I looked around quickly to see if she was alone. I couldn’t be sure. It was already dark and the windows had steamed up. The woman’s shouts were completely inaudible. I cracked my window and spoke to her in English.

“What is it?”

She answered in Russian. “Are you going into town? I need a ride.”

I switched to Russian. “Are you by yourself?”

Da, da (Yes, yes). Please give me a ride.”

“Go around and get in.” Muscovites often hitched rides but I had never picked one up before.

As she passed in front of the headlights, I could see she was young—maybe in her twenties. She had no umbrella and her long dark hair was soaked and clung to her neck. As soon as she got into the car, I made another 360-degree inspection of the parking lot. No one else in sight.

Spasibo (Thank you),” she said. She pulled the door shut.

“Lock your door.”

“How do I do that?”

“Push down on the knob at the bottom of the window. There, by your shoulder.”

“Thank you so much. I didn’t expect this rain. It just came up a few minutes ago.”

“What were you doing here in an American housing area?”

“I was visiting in the neighboring apartment complex and was just passing through here on my way to the Yugo-zapadnaya Metro Station. Then I saw you get into your car. My name’s Natasha.”

Ochen priyatno (Pleased to meet you), Natasha. My name’s Yasha.”

“This is a nice car. Is it American?”

The license plate, D 04-25, marked it as a foreign diplomat’s car. “No, it’s German. A BMW.”

“Well, it’s still nice. But I like American things. I love American rhythm and blues. And jazz. I have a daughter Rita whom I named after Aretha Franklin.”  Then, in English she said, “I know small English.”

“You’re welcome to speak English with me.”

Nyet, nyet. You speak Russian too well. Why do you speak Russian like that?”

“My grandfather spoke Russian. I’m going to the embassy. Where do you want me to drop you off?”

“Will you be going near Kalinin Prospekt?”

“Yes, of course. It’s on my way to the embassy.”

“I’m sorry, I… Yes. Near Kalinin Prospekt, if you don’t mind.”

Then as quickly as she had begun chattering, she stopped talking altogether. As we rode north on Vernadsky Prospekt toward the center of Moscow, I wondered what was going on. Since arriving in Moscow nearly a year ago, I had come to believe it’s rarely a coincidence when a Soviet citizen unexpectedly meets an American diplomat. Although I had several Soviet acquaintances, I considered each of them to be either a full-fledged KGB operative or, at the very least, subject to making regular reports to the KGB. At first this had bothered me, but I soon grew accustomed to it. For Soviet citizens it was a way of life. For me it was either accept that all my Soviet acquaintances were reporting to the KGB or have no contacts. After all, wasn’t I also making reports on many of the Soviets I met?

I began to run down the checklist I had devised for each time I met a new Soviet citizen. Was Natasha the young woman in distress she appeared to be or was she an agent provocateur? Did she know about my love of jazz and my connections with the Soviet jazz community in Moscow? Was she an invalyutka—a prostitute who specialized in Western clientele? Not likely, out here in the outskirts of the city. How clever the Soviets were in devising acronyms. Invalyutka derived from two Russian words—’foreign’ and ‘hard currency’—and rhymed with prostitutka. Did Natasha know she had hitched a ride with a military attaché assigned to the American Embassy in Moscow? I wondered where this was headed.

I turned left onto Lomonosov Prospect, which would take me to Kutuzov where I would have a straight shot to Kalinin Prospect, a short distance from our embassy on Tchaikovsky. Although traffic was light at this hour, I had to keep my eyes on the road because the rain made for poor visibility. The last thing I wanted was to hit some Soviet pedestrian who had decided to run across the street rather than use a pedestrian underpass. We called them “dark darters.” They were a real hazard for drivers at night.

Moscow streetlights were always dim, but the rain made them almost useless. All I could discern about Natasha’s appearance was that she was well dressed for a Soviet girl—chic leather boots, a short skirt and what looked like a foreign-made jacket. She had unzipped the jacket and I found the combination of her boots, legs and short skirt quite tantalizing. From my brief glances at her face, I could see she had large sparkling eyes. Her mouth seemed to be formed in a smile, even when she wasn’t talking. I found her quite attractive.

I tried to get the young woman talking again.

“Natasha, aren’t you a little worried about being in a car with an American diplomat? I have to tell you I work in the military section at the American Embassy.”

“Why should I be? Soviet citizens are allowed to associate with whomever they wish. Besides, no one knows I’m hitching a ride with you.”

“I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were doing.”

“Thanks. Don’t worry about me. My mother works as a secretary at the General Staff, so I have some privileges. Marshal Malinovsky once visited our apartment.”

The General Staff, I thought. How interesting. Marshal Rodion Malinovsky was the Soviet Minister of Defense when I served in Berlin in the early 1960s.

If I could meet some Soviets who worked for the government, I might learn something about the war in Afghanistan. Or maybe meet some Soviet officers. Although I had had some casual encounters with officers when traveling—in restaurants or on trains—the Defense Ministry didn’t allow us to have military contacts in Moscow without special permission. With the war in Afghanistan and the crisis in Poland, however, surely there had to be somebody who would inadvertently drop tidbits. And who knows, maybe even something more substantial? I certainly wouldn’t mind insinuating myself into the company of someone who worked for the General Staff.

Just before I reached Kalininsky Bridge, Natasha interrupted my thoughts.

“I’ll get out here. Can you pull over?”

“Sure, but I thought you wanted to go to Kalinin Prospekt.”

“I’ll walk from here.”

I pulled over to the curb. Natasha fumbled with the door handle. I reached across with my right arm and opened the door. In doing so I caught a light, pleasant aroma. It didn’t seem to be perfume. Perhaps it was soap. Perhaps it was nothing but her natural smell. Natasha smiled. I straightened up quickly in my seat. Natasha didn’t move for a few seconds.  She looked at me.

“Thank you very much, Yasha. May I see you again?” she asked. Without waiting for a reply, she reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of paper. “Here’s my telephone number.”

“Ah… Sure, I guess. I’ll… I’ll give you a call.”

Natasha jumped out without saying another word. She ran across the street in the direction of the Ukraina Hotel. I would have liked to see if she went into the hotel, but when she reached the sidewalk on the other side, she turned and stood waving, apparently waiting for me to drive off. As I proceeded to the embassy, I realized she already had had her phone number written on a piece of paper. I decided I was probably dealing with a provokatsiya, a set-up.

Still a little dazed by this strange encounter with an attractive Soviet girl, I pulled up and parked at the curb outside the embassy. I’d spent most of the workday walking around Sokolniki Park, then joined a crowd at one of the pavilions to watch a variety show. Now I had some reports to write.

I had trouble getting Natasha off my mind, so decided to go on back to my apartment and write the reports the next day. Who was Natasha? She seemed naïve in many ways, but when she dropped the tidbit about Malinovsky visiting her apartment and the fact that her mother worked at the General Staff, she got my attention. She offered that information knowing I was an American diplomat, but before I told her I worked in the military attaché office.

It was a general rule that we report our contacts with Soviet nationals. Of course, living in the middle of Moscow, it would have been ridiculous to report all contacts. “I had a long discussion about the weather with a man at the bus stop?”  “I met an outstanding soprano saxophone player last night?” On-going contacts, like the one I with Georgii and his family, were another thing. But even with him I didn’t account for every contact. Instead, I reported that I had a Soviet acquaintance with whom I shared an interest in jazz and often went with him to jazz concerts.

The encounter with Natasha was different. I believed and hoped she had the potential to lead to some meetings with people who might be of intelligence value. If I intended to pursue this, however, I needed approval from someone higher up in the embassy. I needed an official green light. In this case, it was the CIA Station Chief.

I recalled my orientation at Camp Peary (the “Farm,” as it was known to CIA officers), the CIA training center in the Virginia Tidewater area. Its location and very existence used to be a secret, but in my research for this book I found at least ten open sources that referred to it. David Baldacci, in his novel Simple Genius, even provides an addendum in his book with a historical overview of Camp Peary. Soviet KGB General Krasilnikov refers to it several times in his Prizraki s ulitsy Chajkovskogo (Ghosts from Tchaikovsky Street).

Tom Spencer and I, together with some attachés going to other countries, spent three weeks at Camp Peary where we learned some tradecraft and went on counter-surveillance exercises. The primary purpose of our orientation, however, was to gain a better understanding of how things worked and to impress upon us the importance of reporting to the CIA any potential recruitment targets. We needed to know how to handle special circumstances that might lead to CIA clandestine operations. I didn’t see Natasha herself as a potential recruitment, but contact with her might lead to some productive opportunities.

It’s important to point out that military attachés were not to be involved in agent operations in Moscow; that was solely a CIA bailiwick. Even though in the distant past some military attachés were involved in clandestine activity, in 1979 that was no longer the case.

The CIA Station Chief usually had breakfast in the embassy snack bar. I thought that would be a good place to get in touch with him. The next morning I went to the snack bar, but he wasn’t around. So I went to the CIA spaces in the embassy and told the receptionist I needed to talk to the Chief.

“He’s out of town, but I can call the Deputy.”

The Deputy came out and met me. “Let’s go into the Bubble,” he said.

The “Bubble” was a room in the embassy specially designed to thwart any Soviet listening devices, including the microwaves the KGB had been beaming at us from across the street for several years now.

I explained to him the encounter the night before.

“So? What made her so interesting?”

“First of all, she started out very talkative. I’ve never seen that in a Soviet stranger before. And then she quickly made the point that she was really a big American music fan.”

“In what way?”

“She said she likes rhythm and blues… and jazz. She claimed she even named her daughter after Aretha Franklin.”

“Hmm. And she wants to get in the car with the embassy’s biggest jazz nut. A little obvious, don’t you think? Sounds like a provokatsiya, a set-up, to me.”

“Yeah, of course. That’s what I thought too. It’s just that I remember from your agency’s instructions at the Farm that we were to be alert to possible Humint inroads and to let you folks know about them immediately. Besides, a chance to meet some people in the Ministry of Defense is worth a risk.”

“You’re right. And I appreciate your coming to us on this. There could be a situation where we might want you to help us out from time to time. But before we could do anything like that, we’d have to coordinate with certain people back in DC.”

“Well, I’m certainly not anxious to get involved,” I said. “What do you think? You think I should make contact with this Natasha?”

“Did she ask for anything? Western goods? Help getting a visa?”

“No. Not yet.”

I realized I didn’t want to let Natasha get away. I was wrestling with feelings about whether I was attracted to her because of the way she looked. And smelled. Or did I really think she might turn out to be a conduit into a lucrative intelligence collection situation?

“But the KGB sometimes outsmarts itself,” I said. “If we go into this with our eyes open, we might be able to get something of value before they try anything. If it is a set-up, how far will they let me go? Or let one of your people go. I’d prefer to introduce one of your officers to Natasha down the road.”

“No, I don’t think that would work. If it’s a set-up, it looks like you’re the target.”

The Deputy paused, as if he were trying to decide what to say.

“I’m tempted to tell you to go ahead and make contact with her again. It could be useful to see where this might lead. What would your wife think about your meeting a Russian woman?”

“I never tell my wife what I do here in Moscow. Oh, yeah, she travels with me sometimes when we go to other cities, but that’s about it. No, she wouldn’t know anything about this. How about my boss? Should I say anything to him?” My boss was one of those officers who try to stay out of trouble and count the days until retirement. I believed the colonel was a nervous Nellie about being on the front line of the Cold War.

“Absolutely not. Especially him. He would get all flustered. I’ll take responsibility for this. So go ahead and give her a call. If it turns into something, the fewer people in the net, the better.

“And Major…”

“Yes?”

“Be careful.”

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Categories: Fiction, Issue 6 | Leave a comment

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