Friday, 3 March 2017

From Russia, With No Love Lost - Umberto Tosi

I have only known one, for-sure, Russian spy in my life. I keep wondering what he would have had to say on the spreading oil slick of revelations about contacts between Trump minions and Kremlin agents meddling with the 2016 election. He'd very likely have deja vu, given his experiences with the Soviet (now Russian Federation) oligarchy and the KGB (now FSB). It's all in our book, High Treason: Revelations of a Double Agent.

I met Vladimir Sakharov in the spring of 1979. His Russian accent - rich as Stroganoff - didn't fit with the name he was using then, Bill Stiller, an alias given him by the CIA, I was to learn. He was supposed to be from West Germany according to his fake dossier. When I got around to asking him how he felt about that, he shrugged stoically. "I keep it to myself. You learn to live with paradox," he said.

Barbara Lowenstein, my then New York agent, had given me a phone number and very little else except that it would connect me with a man seeking a ghost writer for a memoir that had piqued a publisher's interest - something about espionage.

Ballantine's edition
Our first contacts were cloak-and-dagger. He wouldn't say his real name over the phone or tell me where he lived. I resided in San Francisco at the time. His area code suggested he was in suburban Orange County - famous for surfers, Disneyland, and right-wing nuts - sprawled along Pacific Coast south of Los Angeles. He asked me a lot of questions about my background but offered little about himself or his project. We agreed to meet after several back-and-forth calls between which I presumed he had checked me out.

At my suggestion, rendezvoused at a seaside bistro by the Surf and Sand Hotel in posh artsy, laid-back Laguna Beach about twenty minutes from Orange County's John Wayne Airport where my commuter flight landed. I had my reasons. At the time, I was doing editorial side work for an airline magazine based there and its scrambling publisher paid me mostly in free hotel rooms and restaurant tabs on barter accounts that included that ocean front hostelry. The lounge facing the Pacific seemed like a James-Bond-enough setting for our first meeting. I ordered a Stolichnaya martini to set the mood.

Bill - as his then American wife, whom I was to meet later, called him - ordered a Coke. He was nothing like Bond or any of the characters one encounters in spy thrillers. He told me he had sworn off alcohol following excesses in his Moscow college days. Not exactly undercover material as far a blending in, he towered over me like a friendly bear. His eyes wandered, checking exits, as he spoke softly and always with irony.

View from Laguna Beach
Surf and Sand Hotel
His story had the makings of an espionage thriller, with real-life John le Carré layers of personal, social and political ambiguities. One of Russia's best and brightest, a rising star in the foreign service, he had turned on the Soviet regime he hated become a double agent for America in Yemen and Egypt at a crucial time in its history. I was to learn that information Sakharov had provided to the CIA helped Western-friendly Anwar Sadat to become president of Egypt following the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, prevailing over Moscow's favorite, then vice president Ali Sabri. But for that, it's plausible there would have been no Egypt-Israeli peace treaty and that Egypt might even have become a Russian client state like war-torn Syria. After Sadat took power, Sakharov knew he would soon have to defect to the West. The the last thing he had expected, however, was to be loosed in the United States. The last thing he had expected, however, was to wind up with little support living a threadbare existence in a Southern California suburb. But I don't want to give too much of the book away.

Despite our vastly differing backgrounds, I could empathize with his feelings displacement having grown up in California among immigrants and transplants. I'd have to do a lot of homework if I were to take the job. I wasn't sure I would make a suitable co-author, though I did have a bit of background in news writing on international affairs.

He didn't need a Sovietologist, "with a head full of misinformation," he declared. He had lived the life. Inside knowledge gained at great personal express simmered beneath his bland alias. What he needed was a ghostwriter who could help him tell his story in as close to his own voice as could be mustered in English. What I needed to know was that he was on the level and that we could work together.

The biggest question was up to him: Would he author the book under his real name so that it would be a true-life spy confessional rather than fictionalized? I didn't think it right to put my thumb on that scale. Risky, he said. It had been only a little more than seven years since he had defected to the United States after his cover in the Soviet foreign service had been blown. The cold war showed no sign of being over at that point. He didn't want to alienate American intelligence. Neither did he want to make himself even more of a target of KGB agents than he was already. Nevertheless, he opted to come out publicly, with precautions but no guarantees of security. More cloak and dagger. Among other arrangements, I would take a room at Surf and Sand or some other neutral location for our interview taping sessions. I would not visit his home and he would not come to San Francisco. The publisher would pledge security measures. I made a lot of trips to Laguna. I remember drinking a lot of coffee as I went over notes in my beach-front room to keep from dozing off to the rhythmic sound of breakers on the sand outside my room.

After a few months of scoping each other out, we came to an agreement.  I submitted a proposal and sample chapters to my agent shortly thereafter and went back about my business without a lot huzzahs. I figured it for a long shot. To my pleasant surprise, however, G.P. Putnam's Sons quickly offered an eye-popping advance beating out others. We accepted.

It would be in the first person. Though I would be given co-author credit, this was basically a ghost-writing assignment. That didn't mean I could string together a bunch of interview excerpts. The more invisible a ghost writer's work seems the better job he or she has done. Vladimir, aka Bill, had a multilayered and painful trove of memories, heroics, betrayals, triumphs and regrets to untangle and forge into what I hoped would be an authentic and readable narrative.

Errol Garner, c. 1947, Wm. P. Gottleib
Sakharov - aka "Bill" - would be not much older than Russian President Vladimir Putin now. Unlike Putin, who came up from hard-scrabble working class roots, Sakharov - no relation to the famed Russian dissident physicist -  grew up in relative luxury as the son of a KGB colonel and WWII commander. His father was a powerful member of the postwar Soviet Union's  "Nomenklatura" - the secret privileged circle of cronies and interlocking families that ran the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc satellites.

Young Vladimir knew first hand that Marxism-Leninism was window dressing for party aristocrats and their hacks whose the classless society was anything but that. They were - and still remain - a largely parasitic bunch proficient in manipulating information and suppressing opposition to perpetuate their status much like the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm. It's no secret that Putin's billionaire oil-and-banking oligarchy pretty much descends from this crowd.

Sakharov's secondary school classmates included Igor Andropov, the son of Yuri Andropov, the 1960s-70s KGB boss who died in office after briefly succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as head of the Communist Party and Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. American mythology holds that Ronald Reagan "won" the cold war by upping US military spending. But Vladimir's formative experiences suggested a different narrative - one in which the Soviet fish already was already rotting from the head down early as the 1960s. According to Vladimir, Moscow's elite 60s generation loved things Western and despised the Soviet system and its stodgy, corrupt leadership.

They were also nationalistic, much like today's Russians. The pride of the Soviet Union -the sons and daughters of the war generation - considered the Soviet empire oppressive, particularly to Great Russians like themselves who, though nominally at the center. The less-developed Soviet republics and resentful Eastern bloc nations burdened Russia rather than adding to its welfare. The so-called masters, they said, were slaves of an empire run in their name by a pernicious party elite that that oppressed everyone and contributed nothing

Their disillusionment was handwriting on the wall made plain in Vladimir's memoir a decade before the final breakup of the USSR in 1991. Nevertheless, the Soviet breakup is said to have caught Western intelligence agencies flat-footed. It all goes to show that bloated empires and power elites inevitably fall from within - sooner than later in the modern era. The irony to was that the Soviet elite would be replaced in a decade by the Kremlin's current autocrats flying a new flag.

Young Vladimir had been groomed to follow in his father's footsteps and become a KGB officer. The son had other ambitions. He became an accomplished pianist who taught himself to play jazz off of bootlegged American recordings. He had that swing. I heard him play several times when we became friends as well as collaborators and sure enough, he had that swing - playing flawlessly in the syncopated, polychromatic stride style of Erroll Garner.

In Moscow as a bright, hedonistic adolescent, he immersed himself in music and literature, particularly soaking up Western culture. He wanted none of his father's power politics, and in particular, nothing of the KGB. He dreamed of going the national music academy, but his father blocked the way, declaring that  "art careers are for Jews."

Yuri Andropov, 1982
Vlad compromised and opted to study languages, history and foreign relations. The diplomatic service was respectable in his father's eyes. Vlad's precocious fluency in Arabic and English gave him decided advantage. He graduated early from Moscow's prestigious Institute for International Relations, a ticket to the Soviet foreign service. Dutifully, he married a young woman from his social circle and they had a daughter. The Soviet foreign service assigned him to Cairo, then ruled by the flamboyant strongman Gamal Abdul Nasser whom the Kremlin wooed energetically. Vlad's wife, however, did not want to leave her life in Moscow. He went Egypt alone. Despite his abhorrence, he said that the KBG expected regular secret reports. There was no escaping its tentacles.

One of Vlad's classmates at the Moscow institute had been Igor Andropov, son of Yuri Andropov the KGB chief who later succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as Soviet leader briefly in 1982. As KGB chief, the senior Andropov launched a self-serving campaign to suppress Western "corruption" in Moscow in the most heavy-handed way. Vladimir's best friend was caught in Andropov's net and sent to a mental asylum - the favored means of "correcting" dissidents in that period. It was a bitter pill for Vladimir to swallow knowing all the while that both Andropov senior and junior indulged themselves privately in lots of Western music and pop culture.

"I reacted by reaching out to the CIA," Vladimir recounted, "because it was the biggest, badest American bogeyman portrayed all the party hacks that spewed propaganda and spied on us through school." Thus - by the time he was in Cairo, Vladimir had become a double agent. "If you really want to know who turned me," he said, "I'd have to answer that it was Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Oscar Peterson aided by Yuri Andropov."

Vladimir Sakharov, c. 1982
High Treason became a hit. The reviews were positive and sales brisk for a while. Overnight, Vladimir became a pundit regular on ABC's 20/20, NBC Nightly News, CBS, CNN. Reporters sought his comments on every Russian and Middle East development. He spoke at conferences and universities. Random House's Ballantine Books followed Putnam's hardcover with a paperback edition as part of its real-life espionage thriller series. A major Hollywood film producer option the book. It was a wild ride that ultimately led nowhere. The book sales ran their course. The option didn't pan out - which, I was to learn, was the norm. The royalties petered out. Bill/Vladimir went on to security consulting gigs for corporate clients. I moved on to magazine publishing and feature writing and other books. I had my ups and downs and moved around a lot.

Bill and I lost track of each other. I heard from him rarely, then not at all. I learned of his death from a fellow writer in 2004. He had divorced his Orange County wife and remarried only recently. I tracked down his new widow to offer condolences. We shared stories over the phone. She told me Vladimir had finally been allowed to return to Moscow a few years earlier and had reconnected the long-lost daughter from his first wife. I remember the remorse that he had expressed about having to disappear from that daughter's life without explanation after he had been compromised and been extracted by US agents from a desert safe house in Yemen back in 1972.

Vladimir and his new wife had still been on their honeymoon when he died, his widow said - suggesting perhaps a happy ending to a tumultuous life, at age 62. He died of a heart attack in the shower, she said. I felt the hair rising on the back of my neck. I fought down the paranoia.

Sudden heart attack is a commonplace enough way to die. It's also a spy's kind of death. In that case, it would have been from an untraceable poison that simulated a coronary infarction. We read about that kind of thing in spy novels - and sometimes, in the news. No way, I reassured myself. Surely old scores would have been forgotten with the Soviet Union and cold war long gone. But that was in 2004. Today brings a different perspective. We see that it's but a short hop from the old KGB to Putin's FSB. With the Trump election scandal unfolding, the Kremlin looks up to its elbows as ever in stateside mischief. Who can tell what's below the surface of the silent conflicts that continue on all sides? We may never know.


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Umberto Tosi is the author of Ophelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry, during the 1990s an oughts. He has been editor of San Francisco magazine and California Business, and has written extensively for major metropolitan newspapers, magazines online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies.





5 comments:

Andrew Crofts said...

It is stumbling across stories and characters like this that make the ghostwriting life so endlessly fascinating.

Dipika Mukherjee said...

What a spellbinding post! I wish your story didn't cut so close to the politics of today, but it is what it is.

Jan Needle said...

wonderful stuff! thanks

Marsha Coupé said...

Whenever I read one of these essays, I always think your own well-lived-life, Umberto, is the best story of all. Few people have met as many interesting characters, or made a living writing in more diverse environments. This alone imbues your work with a kaleidoscope of colour and authenticity. I very much enjoyed reading this.

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you Andrew, Dipika, Jan and Marsha. I'm most pleased and honoured by your comments.