Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Identifying the Spies - James Baker

"They couldn't have been spies...Look what she did with the hydrangeas." Thus observed a neighbor of one of the recently accused Russian spies, disbelieving the veracity of the government accusations.

Back in 1981 I joined the Orquesta Filarmonica de la Ciudad de Mexico. It was a dream job: great salary, great orchestra and an extended tour of Europe on the near horizon. As it turned out, the tour failed to materialize and the salary toppled when the Mexican currency suffered a precipitous devaluation. However, the orchestra remained very good. It was a mix of fine Mexican players, very talented Americans, numerous other Latin Americans, a generous handful of skilled Polish musicians, and a group of 8 or 9 Russian players which was sponsored by the USSR.

One of the games back then was to watch the Russians, speculating on who might be headed toward defection and who might be the KGB agent. It was assumed there must be an agent, someone to keep the others toeing the line, and especially someone to insure the Estonian cellist didn’t stray. That cellist, Pieter, had let some of the Americans know that he was, in fact, looking to defect.

We Americans came into the orchestra with certain preconceptions about what a KGB agent looked like. Too many spy movies, I guess, or excessive hours leering over Spy vs Spy in Mad Magazine. Armed with this profile, we agreed that Oleg, one of the bass players, must surely be the spy. He looked like the KGB but was otherwise friendly and outgoing. In fact, all of the Russians were more or less friendly toward the Americans. This put us into somewhat of an awkward position. Many wanted to get to know the Estonian cellist a little better. It wasn’t that we had any means to help him defect, but still we were curious. However, if you invited one of the Russians for coffee, you invited all the Russians for coffee. And that’s what we did. They caravanned out to a little compound of duplexes where several Americans lived and we proceeded to enjoy coffee brewed Russian style (the ground coffee spooned directly into the cups of hot water and then allowed to settle) along with an attractive setting of Mexican pastries. There was somewhat the air of a chess match as we opened conversation, probed a middle game and eventually ended with a stalemate. It was a fine afternoon of d├ętente.

From this afternoon and others like it (the Russians reciprocated by having several of the Americans to dinner at their apartment) we came to like each other while remaining convinced that good-natured Oleg was the KGB agent.

Amongst the Russians was a violinist said to have been a concertmaster at the Bolshoi. Boris was elderly and struck everyone as their surrogate grandfather. We all trusted this gentleman and admired him too. It was said he had climbed mountains in the Urals. He was quiet and noble but in the end turned out to be the KGB connection. Boy, were we surprised!

“He can’t be a spy….Just listen to how he plays the violin.”

By the time the Russians received their orders to return to Moscow, Boris had done his job well. Pieter had not defected, nor had any of the others stepped out of line. As for Oleg, spy or not, he made it back to Moscow with some great bowings for Moncayo’s Huapango.

No comments: