John Gittings

My Cold War "Friend"

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Lunching with Mr Y from the KGB  -- an everyday tale of diplomatic subterfuge in the 1960s.
My "confession" was originally published in the Far Eastern Economic Review in June 1970.

Kremlin Gate, 1969


John  Gittings:   ‘I Let Him Pay For the Caviar'

GUILT by association is not simply a delusion of auto-persecuted leftists; the most innocent actions may have horrendous consequences when inscribed on a person’s confidential file. The recent case concerning Mr William Owen, former British Labour MP accused under the Official Secrets Act, resulted in his acquittal on all charges. Had it not been for the extreme and indiscriminate zeal of the security authorities, the action probably would never have been brought, but there is a lesson to be learnt  from it: it can be circumstantially damning  to dine at regular intervals with an official from the  “other side”.

Therefore it is high -time that I make a clean breast of it, and tell the full story of my lunches with my Soviet friend Mr Y. This gentleman introduced himself several years ago over the phone as a throaty Slavic voice, anxious to discuss my writings on Asian affairs of which he was a great admirer. This assertion was the first of many to be disproved when l actually met him; he might have read a letter of mine to The Times at the most -- if he had, he had got it wrong anyway. While he sought to induce in me a more profound understanding of the Soviet point of view, I found myself adopting a more than usually pro-Peking response. Our meetings -- and there were many of them -- became miniature Sino-Soviet confrontations, except that the polemics were confined to one side. Mr Y was always elaborately polite.

The exact procedure by which our lunches were arranged and held may be of interest  to those new to the game. We met first, if I remember correctly,  at the Ecu de France, one of ‘London’s smartest French restaurants. Our next luncheon appointment was fixed orally for a fortnight hence at Browns Hotel; if I was unable to keep it, so Mr Y assured me, he would be there  “one  week more, same place, do not worry”. There were unspecified practical difficulties which made it inconvenient to phone or to write and “We need not bother your post office”.

Mr Y preferred the best cuisine and wine; it was a matter for continual regret to him that I drank very lightly. On one sad occasion he obviously had misread his Good Food Guide: we met by arrangement in what turned out to be a Lyons Corner House. In his mortification  he practically conceded  the Sino-Soviet dispute to me. Whether I arrived on time or a week later, he was always there, although in a curiously insubstantial way. As I approached the building, he was never to be seen, but five paces from the door he would materialise from a taxi, bus or from across the road. “We talk inside, Chon” he would say, parting the swing doors powerfully with his broad shoulders.

If Mr Y had a particular purpose in talking with me, it was apparently to extract information on the Chinese conspiracy in England. The activities of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation intrigued him immensely, as did those of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. The only occasion on which he showed his temper with me was when I refused to supply him with copies of the Society’s Bulletin --- a journal which, I pointed out, was freely obtainable in the Charing Cross Road bookshops or by subscription. “Ah, Chon, I thought we were friends”.

More in sorrow than in anger, Mr Y used to suggest that I was too lenient in judgement upon  the Chinese heresy and their perfidious tactics. “Ah, Chon, you are too much a chentleman” he would protest when I refused to accept the reality of a Peking-Washington conspiracy to sell the Vietnamese down the river. But he was prepared to listen; on one occasion at least he claimed to have transmitted my opinions to the appropriate authorities in Moscow. I had suggested it would be an unfriendly act to China if the international communist conference was held as planned. Two months later it was indeed postponed for the ninth or tenth time. He would not say - he said - that I had been solely responsible, but my views had not gone unnoticed.

Mr William Owen, I see from the newspaper reports, was asked whether he had ever used a “maildrop” — such as the hollow stump of a tree — with which to communicate with his Czech acquaintance, and he replied that he had not. Neither did I, although I did learn once that another acquaintance of Mr Y, in professional circumstances similar to mine, had received his appointments by means of a rolled copy of the New Statesman. Mr Y did however offer me money on one occasion, to defray the costs of my eating lunch at his expense. He seemed to expect me to refuse, as I did, but he showed a continuing interest in my wife’s pregnancy and the extra expenses to which we would be put.

The reader will by now have asked himself why l should have put up with this charade for so long. I find it hard to give a good reply. Certainly I enjoyed the lunches to begin with and I was inexperienced enough to hope that sooner or later Mr Y would give me a deeper insight into the real Soviet -position in the Sino-Soviet dispute. The affair also had its amusing episodes; l would occasionally “bother the post office" and telephone or write to cancel an appointment. Mr Y’s features were more than usually Slavic at our next meeting.

Yet a more profound reason now occurs to me at a distance of four or five years from my lunches with Mr Y. I was disarmed by his very ineptitude, by his transparent and laborious attempts to compromise me -- and he knew that I was. As long as I felt myself to be in control of the situation and wise to his game, for so long would I be prepared to maintain contact. Doubtless I would not go unobservcd by those who take an interest in these affairs, but that may not have mattered. Yet another acquaintance of Mr Y (not a British citizen) was informed by his own authorities that they had him under observation — and would he please keep the contact up for their benefit? Mr Y probably did not care too much which way that particular ball bounced, since he could always play it straight back.

Fortunately I left England not too long after the pleasures of good eating had begun to pall. I was told by Mr Y that a colleague of his in the South American country for which I was bound would be in touch soon after my arrival. The contact was never made, perhaps because I took up writing for a local pro-Cuban (and anti-Soviet) magazine before very long, and I was shortly denounced by the official communist newspaper as an “objective instrument of the Central Intelligence Agency”.

Last year I returned with my family from Hong Kong through the Soviet Union, stopping for a week in Moscow. We had barely settled in when the phone rang  -- it was Mr Y, who had heard from an unnamed friend that I was visiting his fatherland. We mot in the Hotel  Rossiya, where he had booked a table in the best restaurant to which he now steered me, ostensibly “just for a quick drink” while my wife put the children to bed. There was caviar, vodka, all kinds of salty sidedishes and none of the usual waiting for service. The comrade supervisor kept a special eye on us.

Mr  Y was doing very well for himself these days. He carefully explained that his full-time pay was less  than that of a factory worker, but that he derived a steady freelance income from writing articles about the crimes of  the “anti-Soviet anti-socialist Mao-clique”. In this connection, I might like to know that my own writings on the Cultural Revolution had been attentively read in the appropriate quarters, and were not without their effect.

Back on his home ground, Mr Y was more sure of his footing. He had a natty English suit and that air of knowing where he belongs (a good way up the social ladder) which every Russian  bureaucrat possesses. It did not take him very long to come to the point, although expressed with an oblique delicacy of which he would have been incapable in his London days. Could he, my friend Yuri, ever look forward to the day when I, his friend Chon, would understand that the forces of peace were indivisible— and work in harmony on the same side? We drank a quick toast in vodka to friendship before I politely said no.

We had one more meeting before leaving Moscow. Mr Y consented to be my guest at a farewell lunch in the presence of my wife and two rowdy small children. Previously he had shunned such encounters, refusing even to leave phone messages with my wife if I was out, and we expected a frigid affair. He was a little ponderous hut charming. Later I was reproached for making him sound such a boor. Eating, at last, at my expense, and meeting, at last, in mixed company, the past was exorcised. Mr Y turned out to be a nice family man himself. I must have been paranoid to have ever suspected that he was anything else.





Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong), June 4. 1970