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War Story – The Crusty Conservative Meets the KGB

The Crusty Conservative Meets the KGB

While watching the Sochi Winter Olympics from Russia and seeing Russian President and former KBG operative Vladimir Putin taking a prominent role in the events, reminded me of my past encounters with the Russians and the KGB.

In the 1970s, I was a lobbyist working for a major U.S. multinational firm in Washington, DC,  As a result, I had the (now funny) experience of getting to know and spend time with several active kgbKGB agents who were posted to Washington for the specific purpose of spying. One thing that I can guarantee is that I didn’t pass on any secrets to them. I wasn’t privy to any!

At that time, my employer was highly involved at that time in attempting to take advantage of the so-called Nixon/Kissinger détente to open new markets in the Soviet Union. This resulted in the company’s Washington office personnel, including myself, spending a considerable amount of time working with the various trade attaches at the Russian Embassy.

All of us knew that these so-called trade attaches at the Soviet Embassy were all also KGB agents. This we  knew because the FBI and CIA virtually told us so.  Every time someone in our office had a meeting with one of these “attaches”, the FBI would subsequently show up at our offices to find out what was discussed and what kind of questions the Ruskies were asking. On top of that, several times each year, the CIA would show up and request that we ask our Russian associates certain questions when we next met. As a result of these visits, it was obvious to us that we were dealing with ”persons of interest” to both the FBI and the CIA – most likely spies.

Since I was handling the Washington health care beat for the company and they were working diligently to license several Russian medical devices while also actively pursuing a pharmaceutical manufacturing joint venture, I was often included in meetings with the trade attaché from the Soviet Embassy who was in `charge of chemical products, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, biological agents etc.. These meetings resulted in several memorable exchanges.

Russian President  Vladimir Putin

Russian President
Vladimir Putin

A guy by the name of Gennani  (his Russian cover last name I now forget) was the trade attaché at the Russian Embassy who handled the above areas and my most frequent contact. He was a tall, slight man who we were told (by the FBI) was a high level karate expert who possessed unbelievable upper body strength. In hindsight, Gennani resembled current Russian President Putin (also a former KGB agent) in appearance, stature, and build. He spoke fluent English and could easily pass as an American were it not for a slight accent. He was a likable guy and if I didn’t know he was the enemy, we might have become good friends.

My most memorable story regarding Gennani took place at a lunch meeting with him, at a small, quiet restaurant on 15th Street near his embassy. It was in the early summer of 1976 – an Olympic year – when all of the talk of the town was about the upcoming summer games. The US had not done well during previous post-war Olympics –  losing medal after medal to Russia and other Eastern Block countries. Our whole country was transfixed with the well founded idea that our amateur athletes (which in those days they truly were) constantly lost medals to state sponsored, professional athletes.

During our luncheon, the conversation turned to families and Gennani told us about his family back in the Soviet Union.. He was very proud of his teenage daughter, as he explained at length, because she had been so successful in competitive swimming over the past year. Despite (or maybe because of) being KGB, Gennani was a proud father. I followed his comments about his daughter’s swimming successes by commenting that this I thought that was great and that maybe with some luck may someday would become a good enough swimmer to represent the Soviet Union at the Olympics. Without hesitation he responded – “Oh No, I would never want her to be a professional athlete”. He immediately turned beet red when he realized what he had just said. The cat was out of the bag. He, a Soviet diplomat,  had just publicly admitted that they( the Soviets), considered their Olympic athletes to be professionals – not amateurs as required by the Olympic movement at that time. Score One for the U.S.A.

US olympic logo

Another memorable luncheon was at the Washington International Club with a larger group. Gennani brought a new, older (probably the senior KGB) operative with him and I was seated next to this newcomer. During the lunch to make conversation, I asked him what he liked to do in his free time. He enthusiastically replied that he liked to go out into the woods and countryside and pick wild mushrooms to use in his cooking. I asked if he was able to do this in the US full well knowing that the Soviet Embassy staff’s travels were greatly restricted in the US at that time. He replied that yes he continued to do so in this country. I then asked him if the mushrooms here were a different variety than what he picked at home. Oh yes, very different. Don’t you, I asked, worry that if they are so different from what you pick at home, you might get poisonous mushrooms by mistake in the US. “No problem, I can tell the difference” he replied. How, I followed up?  “Simple, I taste them’. End of conversation, but I will never say that the KGB weren’t risk takers.

All these years later watching Putin and his Russian Olympics, I wonder if Gennani and his mushroom picking boss are now Russian capitalists or maybe even U.S. citizens. I’ll never know, but it is fun speculating what these former KGB agents are doing now that they lost the Cold War. One thing I would guess is that, if they are still alive, they are probably watching the Sochi Olympics just like the rest of us.

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The Crusty Conservative

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“… individuals may injure a whole society, by not declaring their sentiments.

It is therefore not only their right, but their duty, to declare them.”

–John Dickinson, Letters of Fabius, 1788