Our Russian neighbors in London: friends or spies?

IF my friend Yuri is -- as Her Majesty's government contends -- a Russian agent, then the KGB's training program must have gone sadly awry. They should at the very least teach their spies to tell you the time in good English. ``Four to 20,'' the man in the dark, old-fashioned suit informed me, peering intently at his watch, as the No. 53 bus to Highgate swayed to and fro. ``You mean 20 to 4?'' I inquired.

It was the start of a brief friendship that would be interrupted by Yuri's hasty departure from this country in the round of retaliatory expulsions by London and Moscow that began with the defection of a reported Soviet double agent last week.

I must say I was surprised when Yuri eagerly accepted my on-the-spot invitation for him and his family to visit us. It had turned out we were neighbors. The Soviet trade delegation's headquarters were close by, and he lived not far from there, though he never told us precisely where. Neither did he ever give us his home phone number, saying there was only a communal phone (suitably communist), and whoever answered was unlikely to speak English. Should that have raised our suspicion?

Should we also have wondered why he had the freedom to visit us, when other East-bloc people are so reticent toward us local folks who live near the trade delegation? When you greet them in the street with your best effort at pronouncing ``Dobryi dyen'' (``Good day''), they only respond with a thin smile or a curt nod. A previous attempt at breaching the Iron Curtain -- when I accidentally joined three East-bloc people in a game of tennis on our local public courts -- ended abruptly in embarrassed guffa ws after I told them I was a journalist.

Anyway, Yuri and his wife, Natalia, came to tea, along with Lena, aged 4, and one-year-old Irina, the same age as our daughter, Laura. The subject of children proved to be useful for breaking the ice. Natalia, an attractive woman wearing casual but elegant clothing, was ``astonished'' at how scantily the British clad their youngsters.

``Back home, we dress them very warmly,'' she said, a point reinforced by Lena's and Irina's woolen hats and layers of clothing, as our child frolicked barefoot on the carpet.

Laura was presented with a small Russian wooden doll, and we recounted aspects of our enjoyable vacation in the Soviet Union four years ago, avoiding unfriendly details, like the tour guide who whispered: ``I think Solzhenitsyn is a very brave man.''

Yuri and Natalia had arrived early this year and were planning to stay for three years. Ours appeared to be the first Western home they had been in: They were clearly impressed, explaining that homes in Russia were considerably smaller. They were even thinking of putting Lena in a British state school, although Natalia worried that Lena's lack of English would inhibit her.

Lena delivered her only English sentence with great gusto, however.

``Tasty, tasty -- very, very tasty!'' she intoned, imitating a well-known television commercial here.

Yuri and I found much common ground in our interest in sports. He would sit glued for hours watching British soccer on television. I even took him to a cricket match I was playing in.

``If you want to understand British society and politics, you must understand cricket,'' I told him, explaining how, as with British politics, one side comes in to bat and the other side tries to get the batting side out. Then government and opposition swap sides, and very often the game ends without a result, but no one seems to mind. I do hope that insight did not give the Soviet Union the key to future subversion.

Our Russian friends popped in from time to time, and even often offered to take us for a ride in their newly acquired motorcar.

But then the spy scandal blew up.

There it was in the morning paper: ``Yuri P. Rozhkov, 37, translator, International Cocoa Organization. Dependents: wife and two daughters'' -- second to last on the list of the 25 Soviets being expelled for activities ``totally incompatible with their status and declared tasks'' -- the diplomatic euphemism for spying.

What dark secrets of global strategic import, I wondered, lurked in the vaults of the International Cocoa Board? Surely only cocoa powder.

I am proud to say I betrayed none of my country's state secrets. It was just as well, however, that no one had entrusted any to me. Mind you, I had to sign acceptance of the Official Secrets Act upon joining the British Broadcasting Corporation, so perhaps the Soviets figured I was more important than I am!

Was I really seen as a potential ``mole,'' or is the more mundane explanation for Yuri and Natalia's friendship with us simply that they wanted some Western company, just as we were interested in getting to know some Russians?

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