Lunch with a Russian spy: kind of, well, ordinary

The alleged Russian spies lived unobtrusively among ordinary Americans, but US officials say their mission was to make influential contacts over time. Here's one account of a brush with a Russian spy, back in the cold-war days, that fits that pattern.

Rich Schultz/AP
A woman photographs the house where Richard and Cynthia Murphy, suspected Russian spies arrested on Sunday, lived in Montclair, N.J.

The Soviet Spy folded his menu and leaned across the table. He sighed, world-weary.

“My kids are making me crazy,” he said. “They keep begging to go to Disney World.”

“How do they even know about that?” we said. “You haven’t lived here long.”

“They watch too much American TV,” said the spy, whom we’ll call Dimitry.

Spying has been in the news of late, with the arrest of a ring of alleged Russian agents. These agents were supposed to establish American contacts who could provide them with secrets, according to the FBI. A number of people – OK, our mother-in-law and a lifeguard at the pool – have asked Decoder how that kind of thing works.

We’ll illustrate by talking about the KGB’s attempts to recruit us.

Dimitry was an acquaintance of a more senior member of the Monitor’s Washington bureau. He was officially a diplomat at the Soviet Embassy. One day in the late Reagan era, he called and invited Decoder to lunch.

We had a pleasant meal, talking diplomatic chit-chat, nothing special. Ten minutes after Decoder’s return to the office, an FBI agent appeared unannounced at the door.

His message: Dimitry was under surveillance by the US government for reasons that he would not say but that Decoder could guess. He wanted to know what Dimitry had said.

After consulting with the bureau chief, we told the agent that we were under no obligation to inform him of specifics but would be happy to tell him about subjects in general terms. Those were: what looked good as an appetizer, Moscow weather, and Dimitry’s kids.

We lunched with Dimitry, off and on, for a year. He talked only about personal issues – his kids, which horrid cartoons they were watching now, where to go on vacation. He never asked about secrets. He was either simply happy to get an expense account meal or trying to establish a relationship that might not pay off for years.

The FBI agent showed up, off and on, as well. We said nothing occurred. We’re pretty sure the US was eavesdropping during the lunches anyway.

Then Dimitry was gone. Without warning. He and his family – out of the country. We never found out why.

Oh, did we say KGB “attempts” to recruit, as in more than one? The second was in Central Asia, and involved a more hardened agent. He hauled us into a bathroom at a party, locked the door, turned on all the water taps, and said, “I can be of help to you if you get in trouble in my country.” But that is a story for another occasion.


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