(Chapter from a book)

Yosef Begun

Translated by Sydney Skully

A foreign tourist, about to leave for the USSR in order to make contact with Jewish activists, was given these parting words: "Be wary of taking in any Jewish books... Constantly keep in mind that the KGB will be following you everywhere. They have equipment that allows them to know your whereabouts and activities at any time and any place." And that was true.

In its struggle against the Jews, the KGB employed a wide range of methods and techniques, applying the latest scientific and technological advances to such activities as eavesdropping, tracking, photography, etc. It was perplexing and indeed - incomprehensible - to discover that by some means unknown to us, they often learned of our plans almost before we had even begun discussing them. An episode that preceded my first arrest in 1977 can serve as a case in point. The incident was mysterious, and it unfolded almost like a detective story.

* * *

It was the end of February and soon it would be Purim. Dr. Veniamin Fain had asked for my help, but warned me that it was by no means a routine matter.

As we were preparing to depart, he reminded me once again that "the day after tomorrow a representative from the American Embassy will be waiting for us under the clock." The meeting was to take place at exactly one o'clock in the afternoon on Insurrection Square, about a hundred meters from the U.S. Embassy near Chaliapin's house.

The next day, the children's Purim spiel was staged in the apartment of Boris and Lena Chernobylsky. I arrived with my twelve-year-old son Borya. The children were boisterously enjoying themselves, amused by the misadventures of Haman, while the adults discussed their business in the kitchen and entryway.

Volodya Prestin took me aside. "Did Venya [Dr. Veniamin Fain - Translator's note] talk to you?"

I nodded.

"Where is your briefcase? Point it out, but do so inconspicuously."

All the guests had piled their briefcases and bags in the entryway. With a glance, I indicated which one was mine.

"I'll put a packet for Fain in it."

Soon the guests began to depart. Borya and I went outside with Alla Drugova and her ten-year-old son, whose name also happened to be Borya. At the entrance way was a scene that was fairly typical in our lives. Outside, a group of plainclothes KBG agents was stationed waiting for us to leave. Earlier that day, when I had attended a matinee, I detected no "tail", and believed that none of them would follow me now... We made our way through a virtual corridor of plainclothesmen, and set off for the metro. I looked back. One of those characters was following us. Could it be that he was tailing us? I decided to check. Near the metro, I asked Alla to wait while I went down to the public toilet. He was right there! There was no longer any doubt that we were under surveillance. Now we were faced with the long and drawn out matter of shaking him.

In the subway car, we found ourselves accompanied by a whole team of trackers, who openly and intently observed and followed us. Alla, who was to take my son Borya home, prepared to exit at the next metro station where they were to transfer. It then occurred to me that the time had come to lead the cops on a "wild goose chase" by blazing a false trail. I took a package of shoes from my briefcase and looking around furtively, placed it in Alla's bag whispering in her ear: 'Take it. I'll explain later.' Oddly, not one of the "smart guys" took off in hot pursuit as she and Borya left the car. When I exited at Pushkinskaya station, the trackers were still following me like a pack, clearly indicating that they would cut off any attempt at escape. Why? What could be the reason for this? I wracked my brains. How could they have known about the contents of my briefcase? Was it possible they knew about my meeting with Fain?

There was no time to speculate. Since I had no way of knowing their intentions, I had to think fast. What were they going to do? Detain me? Arrest me? Search my home? Under no circumstances, I thought, will I go home with this packet. The situation was becoming extremely grave and complicated. What to do? Almost twenty-four hours remained until tomorrow's meeting, and I could not allow myself to ruin it. At all costs, I had to get rid of my pursuers at all costs.

My friend Zhenya Polevoy lived on a nearby side street. I phoned, and he invited me over. We sat, letting time pass as we sipped cold beer. I sent him out to reconnoiter. Yes, several suspicious types were standing around the entrance way. We sat for another hour or two, but there was no point in waiting any longer. It became increasingly clear that I had to get rid of the packet - at least for a while. I remembered that Luda, another good friend, also lived in the neighborhood, on Spiridonievsky Lane. Since I had no reason to believe the KGB was interested in her, I called and received a kind invitation for a cup of tea.

I sat at Luda's. We chatted pleasantly and discussed the latest news. As I was about to leave, I said:

"Can I leave this packet with you until tomorrow?"

Of course, she said, that would be no problem. To avoid having the KGB agents notice that my briefcase wasn't quite as full, I added a few of Luda's books. With this maneuver, I hoped to kill two birds with one stone. The valuable material would be in a safe place, and if I were detained or arrested, I wouldn't have any incriminating evidence on me. And since Luda was above suspicion, they wouldn't approach her.

I went out into the dank February slush. Raising my collar and hunched over so that the nasty wet snow wouldn't pile up behind my neck, I walked to the metro. I was still being followed, but felt at ease. If they took me - I didn't have anything on me. Nevertheless, the basic problem remained: I had to break away from them because tomorrow I had to arrive at the American Embassy at the appointed time.

The most convenient available place to make a break was on the metro. There is a classic tactic that many of us had used before. You stand by the door, pretending to be engrossed in reading the newspaper. When the automatic doors open, you anxiously stand still and wait until the last fraction of a second before they slam shut. At that instant, you leap from the car, and the KGB agents are usually left behind. However, the KGB was on to our tricks, and sometimes they were so densely packed that you were simply unable to take the final step. As on a previous occasion, when I found myself being followed by a group of agents in the metro, I had hoped to get lost in the rush hour crowd. When the train approached the station, as I began to squeeze myself towards the exit, a female KGB agent pressed her whole body against me and whispered in my ear:

"Don't be a fool!"

But this time, the agents at my heels were breathing down my neck. An odd feeling came over me. What was the matter? What did they want from me? I had actually taken care that I had nothing with me. One of them, a perky guy of middling height with a briefcase in hand, almost overtook me as I squished down the length of snow covered Spiridonievsky Lane. When I neared Gorky Street, I saw that my shepherds seemed to have slacked off. On Gorky, I noticed the green light of an approaching taxi. Perhaps now was the time for me to make a break. I almost jumped into the street, and the cab braked abruptly. I tumbled into the back seat and shouted at the driver:

"To Nogin Square. Fast. I'm late!"

Since an endless stream of cars was moving along Gorky Street, it seemed highly unlikely that that KGB agents would be able to organize a chase. Did I really succeed in making a break? I got out at Nogin Square, at the entrance to the metro, and ducked into the underground passageway. It was empty. I looked around. No one was there. Gone! Now I didn't need to rush down the escalator. Nevertheless, I checked, over and over again to make sure no one was following me. What should I do next? Go home? It's out of the question, for I had to stay out of sight until tomorrow afternoon. I decided to go to friends who live on the outskirts of Moscow. For sure, the KGB agents wouldn't look for me there.

My friends put me up on a sofa in the living room. I got up early the next morning and left this hospitable home while its owners were still asleep. In the center of the city, few people were out and about at that hour. I was free. Nobody was following me and I began to thoroughly enjoy my freedom. I walked the streets at a leisurely pace, dropping into book stores and reading newspapers displayed in glassed-in bulletin boards. [Passers-by often read their "fresh" newspapers while standing in the street in front of large glass cases in which the latest editions had been posted - Translator's note]. I had seemingly outwitted the KGB! Even the weather seemed favorable, for a bright sun and a blue cloudless sky are rarities in Moscow at that time of the year.

At exactly 12:00 noon, I rang the bell to Luda's apartment. Her mother opened the door.

"Luda left a packet for you. It's on the table. Would you like to stay for tea?"

From Luda's apartment to the American Embassy was about a 20-minute walk. Since I had a half an hour to kill, I accepted the invitation and tried not to be distracted by casual conversation. Nevertheless, and for some apparently unknown reason, my agitation began to mount... The reason, of course, was that no one in the USSR was permitted simply to walk into a foreign embassy.

I placed the packet in my briefcase and went downstairs to the entrance way. As I left, I noticed that a man who had come out of the opposite entrance had crossed the street and was heading towards me. He seemed to be one of the men who had followed me yesterday, and he too was carrying a briefcase. My soul turned to ice. Could it be? Banishing such unpleasant thoughts, I made my way along Little Bronnaya Street towards the Garden Ring. I approached a telephone booth, stepped in, picked up the receiver and pretended to be placing a call. I turned my head. What was happening? Everything turned dark. They were already here, and it was obvious that the whole KGB gang was right behind me. Where did they come from? Just when everything seemed to be going so smoothly...

Fifteen minutes remained before the scheduled meeting. I confess that a dreadful feeling overwhelmed me as I slowly made my way toward the appointed location not far from the embassy. I distinctly heard the sound of trampling feet behind me. Fain and I arrived near the Chaliapin house almost simultaneously. The American, a short and very delicate looking person, awaited us. Venya introduced me to the American and I quickly informed Venya:

"I have a tail."

"It's nothing at all. I know. Give me the briefcase."

The three of us walked towards the embassy. From all appearances, everything seemed quite respectable, and passers-by clearly had no idea of the dramatic situation unfolding before them. Meanwhile, the American was making polite small talk. The KGB agents followed closely behind us. There were ever more of them, and it was obvious that two groups of them had coalesced. One of the men was already running, and having overtaken us, said something to the policemen standing guard at the embassy entrance. Policemen blocked our way.

"What's the matter," says the American in surprise. "These are my friends."

"In no way are they friends," shouted a big brawny guy wearing a sheepskin coat as he pushed the diplomat aside.

After that, everything went as expected, exactly like an abduction scene in a gangster film. They piled on us and tied our hands behind our backs. Instantly, two black "Volga" sedans rolled up. Resistance was useless, so we didn't even try to struggle. Nevertheless, we screamed - the emotional response of people suddenly attacked by bandits. We even lay down on the ground, but even that was an empty gesture. We were simply picked up by our arms and legs and thrown into the cars. Then the "Volga" in which I was being driven drove into the tunnel under Kalininsky Prospect.

This time the search was very thorough. They stripped us stark naked and probed every seam of our clothes - even the elastic bands of our underwear. Since Venya had taken the briefcase containing the packet from me at the meeting, they didn't find anything on me. They locked me in a small dirty cell where I waited several hours under the assumption that I had been arrested. But that day my hour had not yet arrived. About midnight, the doors were opened. "Go." I called my friends from the first pay phone that I could find and learned that Venya too had been released. Despite the late hour, many people had gathered at his place. We discussed what had happened and tried to predict the possible outcomes. But no one could have anticipated that within two days I would be arrested. But that is another story, one unrelated to the incident at the embassy.

* * *

Doesn't this read like a detective story? Yes, but in a good detective story the reader eventually learns what really happened. How did they find out that the "sought after object" was in my briefcase? I have my own theory.

The KGB used special equipment to detect isotope radiation - a well-known method using tagged atoms for tracking. They had obviously exposed the typewriter in the apartment where the materials were printed to isotope radiation. The ill-fated packet originated there, and provided the KGB with an easily followed trail. In support of my hypothesis, I note that the behavior of the KGB agents tailing me had been unusual. As a rule, trackers did not carry briefcases. In this case, however, one of them did, and it was the one who had tried to stay as close to me as possible, as a matter of fact, sometimes even overtaking me. This was the man who had followed me down to the public toilet at the metro station. He probably carried an isotope detector in his briefcase.

Some time ago, a similar incident had been reported in the "Chronicle of Current Events." During the early '70s, the KGB had managed to uncover an underground printing press in Lithuania that illegally printed religious literature. When traditional methods failed to locate the "illicit" press, the KGB resorted to the most recent and technologically advanced methods. They irradiated the whole batch of paper bound for the entire Lithuanian republic! Then a helicopter, equipped with a sensitive radiation detector, was flown over the republic until the apparatus reacted and revealed the location of the press, hidden in a hamlet lost in the forest wilderness.

Translated by Sydney Skully
Detroit, Michigan, September, 2017

Editor's note: The chapter you have just read comes from a memoir that is currently being prepared for publication.