A bleak, overcast day in Riga had given way to a night that was clear and bitter cold. The red lights on the last car of the Riga to Tallinn overnight train glowed in the frigid air as the train backed into the station. I gathered my things and walked to the seventh car, where I handed in my ticket and boarded the train. I entered my compartment and was surprised to see a young woman seated on one of the bunks. She had black hair, which was freshly set, a heart-shaped face, pale complexion, and lovely dark eyes. I guessed she was about 28 years old.
I took off my coat, put my suitcase under the bunk, and sat down opposite her. Two other people soon joined us. The first was a tall, sandy-haired man with broad shoulders who was wearing a heavy coat and a double-breasted jacket. He said he was a boxing instructor from the Ukraine. The second was another woman in her twenties, who entered the compartment carrying several packages. She was thin and birdlike with a petulant expression. She had red hair and wore bright red lipstick. She said her name was Masha Ivanova.
As the train began moving, the attendant gave us back our tickets and brought us glasses of tea. Rivers and the skeletons of bridges passed by in the moonlight. The pale lights of occasional villages appeared and disappeared on the horizon, and the train was soon rolling rhythmically through a landscape of pine forests and snow-blanketed fields.
It occurred to me that it might be more than just a coincidence that a man and two attractive women my own age were riding in the same compartment with me. But I decided that this compartment on a train between two Baltic capitals on a quiet Saturday night--which the KGB was undoubtedly taking off anyway--was a sanctuary. I felt relaxed. Besides, I believed that members of my generation had something in common wherever we happened to be.
I had decided to travel to the Baltics at the suggestion of Kestutis Jokubynas, a former Lithuanian political prisoner I had met in Moscow. Kestutis and I agreed to meet in Vilnius, where he lived, and he promised to give me the names of contacts in Riga and Tallinn. Being new to the Soviet Union, I also asked the Soviet news agency, Novosti, for help in setting up official interviews.
I arrived in Vilnius by train on February 15 shortly after dawn, and met Kestutis at my hotel. We took a bus to his apartment. He lived in a single room in a housing block in a new area of the city. A solitary window let in the gray light of an overcast day, and the walls were bare except for a rectangle of barbed wire over the foldout bed, a reminder of the 17 years that Kestutis had spent in the camps. Kestutis poured me a cup of tea. He said he had little hope that he would live to see an independent Lithuania. He then mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that the next day, February 16, was the anniversary of Lithuanian independence.
At 5 P.M., it became dark. We traveled by bus to the Old City, the heart of historic Vilnius, a section of weathered stone buildings, winding narrow streets, and gloomy inner courtyards in the shadow of ornate Catholic churches. From there, we took a bus to see Antanas Terleckas, another nationalist, who lived outside of Vilnius, on the edge of the Nemencine Forest. When we arrived, Terleckas welcomed us, and we entered a small room crowded with people of all ages who were sitting on worn couches and chairs. The conversation was about what would happen the next day, with nearly everyone predicting a show of force on the streets as in past years on February 16.
Several of the teenagers said that they would try to put flowers on the grave of Jonas Basanavicius, the father of the Lithuanian national movement, who, by an odd coincidence, had died on February 16. The point of laying flowers on his grave was to mark the national anniversary. But if stopped by the police, they could pretend that it was a personal gesture on the anniversary of Basanavicius's death. This would convince no one, but the police could be counted on not to arrest them at the graveside because that would acknowledge their fear of nationalism, which officially did not exist.
The dissidents described the Lithuanian national activity in recent months--underground journals, the raising of the old Lithuanian flag over the Ministry of Internal Affairs, arrests. I filled up most of a notebook. When we parted, I agreed to meet Kestutis in front of my hotel at 7 the following night.
The next morning was cold and overcast. I went with my Novosti guide for an interview with a government official, then in the afternoon for a trip to a collective farm. On the way, our car stopped to pick up a man who said he was an agronomist.
We left the collective farm in the late afternoon, and the agronomist proposed that we take tea at a nearby club. I was anxious to return to Vilnius but agreed, and we drove for 20 minutes before arriving at an isolated house. Although we had supposedly come for tea, the table was set for an elaborate meal. The agronomist said the club contained a Finnish sauna. He referred to the sauna several more times and then, elbowing me gently, asked, "How would you like to try it out?"
I declined politely, trying not to show how uncomfortable I was with the suggestion. An hour passed in increasingly stilted conversation. Finally, ignoring the agronomist and addressing the guide, I said I wanted to leave. This brought an angry response from the agronomist, who insisted the time had come to try out the Finnish bath. The agronomist, the guide, and the manager of the club began chanting, "Finnish bath, Finnish bath." I finally got up, took my coat, and walked out to the car. It was only after I'd stood outside for 15 minutes that my guide and the agronomist joined me and we drove back into town.
I arrived in Vilnius at 7:30 P.M., but there was no sign of Kestutis. I called Valery Smolkin, one of his friends. He said Kestutis had probably been arrested, and suggested I come to his apartment to wait. I caught a cab, and we turned down one of the side streets, where I saw the scene the nationalists had predicted the previous night. At each corner, uniformed police surrounded by milling crowds of obvious plainclothesmen were stopping passersby and checking their documents. The cab driver, a Russian, said a policeman had been shot in a robbery of the state insurance company.
I arrived at Smolkin's apartment at 8:40 P.M. Three hours later, there was a knock at the door and Smolkin opened it to Kestutis, who took off his coat, wet with new-fallen snow. He said that he had been on his way to meet me in front of the hotel when he'd been surrounded by five plainclothesmen. He was taken to a police station--the same one where he was taken after his first arrest in 1947--and put in a cell. He was then interrogated by a police officer who appeared drunk and spoke in a weird combination of Russian and Lithuanian and told him he was a suspect in the robbery of the state insurance company. "I've been in the camps," Kestutis said. "I'm not going to participate in your comedy."
In the end, we spoke for several more hours, and Kestutis gave me the address of Ints Tsalitis, a Latvian nationalist in Riga, and the names and addresses of dissidents in Estonia. He also made one request. He asked me to make sure my notes from Lithuania never left my hands. I agreed, and at that moment, I certainly intended to keep my promise.
The next morning I flew to Riga (the train from Vilnius to Riga was closed to foreigners). After I checked into my hotel, I realized that my notebook was full and I would need a new one to interview city officials. I remembered my promise to keep my notes with me, but the notebook was an awkward size. I finally forced it into my jacket pocket and left for the interview. That afternoon, however, I put the notebook in my suitcase and locked the suitcase in my room, leaving the key with the room clerk downstairs.
When I returned to the hotel, it was already dark. I asked the girl at the reception desk for the key to my room. But she looked and said she could not find it. I went upstairs and asked the floor attendant, but she did not have the key either. Now seriously worried, I went out for a walk. When I returned, I asked the girl at the desk to check again for my key. "Here it is," she said, reaching into a slot in the key rack, "it was here all along."
I took the key and went upstairs to my room. The light of the street lamps cast a pale glow in the darkness through the room's nylon curtains. I opened my suitcase and saw that the notebook from Vilnius was still there. Everything appeared untouched.
I put the notebook back into my jacket pocket and caught a cab for Vecmilgravis, outside of Riga, to meet Tsalitis. I arrived at his home at 9 P.M. He welcomed me, and as we sat in his kitchen I told him about the events in Vilnius and warned him that I was probably being followed. He put on his coat and went outside with his dog, a large St. Bernard. When he came back, he said there was a black car parked at the end of the street with four men in it. "They've probably been there for several hours," he said. "They don't have to follow you. They know there are only a few places for you to go. It saves them time and energy."
Tsalitis said that, in general, the situation was quieter in Latvia. There were no active dissident groups or samizdat journals. "The Latvians find it easier to get along with others," he said. "It's a virtue, but it's also our tragedy." Half an hour later, Viktors Kalnins, another nationalist, joined us, and he and Tsalitis gave me the names and addresses of Estonian nationalists in Tallinn. I wrote them on a separate piece of paper, but they were the same names Kestutis had given me in Lithuania.
The next day in Riga I visited another collective farm courtesy of Novosti. That evening I checked out of the hotel and prepared to go for a walk. Once again, I put the notebook in my suitcase. Not wanting to take a walk carrying a suitcase, I decided to leave it with the doorman. When I returned, I opened the suitcase. It appeared that nothing had been touched.
It was only on the night train to Tallinn that I began to feel at ease. The Ukrainian boxing coach poured drinks for all of us, and Masha asked me where I was from. I told her that I was an American and that I was working in Moscow for the London Financial Times.
The coach asked what women were like in the United States. I said that they were better dressed than Soviet women but not necessarily prettier. Masha asked if I believed in God. I said that I did. This puzzled her. "Here, no one believes in God," she said. I then began to explain my views. As I continued, trying to make sense in less than perfect Russian, Masha moved slightly forward, leaning over the small table and resting her chin childishly on the rim of one of the tea glasses. The dark haired girl also fixed her eyes on me. Inexplicably relaxed, I motioned to Masha to sit beside me. She complied, and although I tried to continue what I was saying, she put her arms around me and began kissing me. The coach immediately went over to the other bunk and started kissing the dark haired girl, holding her in his arms and pressing her against him.
This situation did not last long because the two girls almost immediately told us to go into the corridor so they could make the beds and get undressed. Most of the other passengers in the car had retired for the night. As we waited in the corridor, it occurred to me that the women in the compartment, the offer of easy sex, were the standard techniques of entrapment. But it was exactly this that allayed my fears. Planting women in an overnight train compartment was too obvious. If the goal had been entrapment, the KGB would have tried something less primitive. The idea that my new friends had been seated in my compartment for no other reason than to compromise me was just too incredible to believe.
When we went back into the compartment, the women were in their nightgowns. Masha was sitting on the upper bunk, her breasts and a crucifix visible through the opening of her gown. The dark-haired girl was lying on her side on the bottom bunk. We began to undress, and the boxing coach turned off the overhead lamp so the only light came from the reading light above each berth. I climbed into the upper berth and the coach got into the lower berth. The small lights were then turned off, leaving nothing to illuminate what went on until several hours later when the first filtering rays of sunlight indicated the break of day.
During the night, I was troubled by a dream, an indistinct image of the dark-haired girl moving around the compartment as if she were making preparations to leave. In the morning, after I opened my eyes, I became concerned about my suitcase. I pulled on my pants and climbed down from the upper bunk. The fields and forests looked blue in the early morning light. The coach was already dressed and sitting on the opposite lower berth. The girls were asleep in their beds. Joking with the coach, I reached for my suitcase. It was then I discovered that it was gone.
Suddenly, the coach began feeling the pockets of his jacket. "Wait a minute," he said, "my watch is gone!"
He looked down at the bunk where the dark haired girl was sleeping, curled up facing the wall. He pulled back the top blanket and under it found other blankets tightly rolled and arranged to create the impression of a sleeping person. I woke up Masha Ivanova and asked her what she knew about the dark-haired girl. She said that she had met her that evening for the first time. I called the attendant and asked her if she had noticed anyone leaving the train in the middle of the night. I explained that I had lost my suitcase and the boxing coach had lost his watch. She promised to alert the police.
The train arrived in Tallinn at 8:30 A.M., and we were met by the police and taken to their headquarters in the station. The police made clear that they viewed the case with the utmost seriousness. They insisted that we write detailed statements and stressed that any omission could impair the investigation. The coach and Masha wrote their statements and then Masha helped me to write mine. Reading the statements, the officer in charge began to wonder. "Two men and two women in one compartment," he said, his voice trailing off thoughtfully.
I now faced a dilemma of my own making. My notes from Lithuania were gone. It was urgent that I find the Estonian dissidents whose names and addresses were in my suitcase. Fortunately, the piece of paper where I had also written them was in my wallet.
We left the station and got in a line at the taxi stand. It was a cool, foggy morning, and behind us the Upper City of Tallinn, with its medieval walls and spires, was wreathed in mist. A jeep pulled up and a policeman offered us a ride. He took us to the Viru Hotel. As I got out of the jeep, Masha gave me her address in Tallinn.
I entered the hotel and got in line to register. As I waited, I gradually became aware of a short man in a fur hat and long coat trying to attract my attention. He finally cleared his throat, walked up to me, and shook hands, leaving a tiny piece of paper that had been folded over several times in my hand. He then turned and walked quickly through the lobby and out the front door of the hotel.
As I put the piece of paper in my pocket, a change came over me. For the first time, I started to feel like a spectator at a play in which I was also an involuntary participant. In spite of myself, I began to look forward to the next act.
I registered and took the elevator to my room. Once in my room, I read the note. It asked me to call a telephone number in Tallinn from a pay phone. I went downstairs and dialed the number. I told myself that if a Russian answered the phone, I had reached the KGB. If the voice was Estonian, it might be the Estonian dissidents. The voice was Estonian. In heavily accented Russian, a man asked me to wait in front of the Tallinna Kaubamaja, the city's main department store, at exactly 1 P.M. The man who had given me the note would meet me there. When I tried to ask another question, he hung up.
I left the hotel and went to the department store. At one o'clock, I was met by the man from the hotel lobby. He signaled to me to follow him, and we proceeded in single file down a diagonal street between five-story housing blocks to an archway and entered a courtyard. He then stepped into an entryway and up a flight of steps. The door opened for him, and as soon as I followed him into the small apartment, it was quickly closed and locked behind me.
I was ushered into a dimly lit sitting room. In the middle of the table, there were several empty glasses and an unopened bottle of cognac. The man who had brought me to the apartment motioned for me to take a chair at the head of the table, and the others--three men of about middle age--gathered in chairs around the table in a rough semicircle. My guide then took up a perch directly opposite me on the windowsill.
I looked around at my companions. The man on my right was tall and thin with a mournful expression. Next to him was the man who had met me in the hotel. The next person was also short with a sheaf of sandy-colored hair over his forehead. On my left, the fourth member of the group sat in a large armchair. He had a round face and intelligent, gray eyes. He was the only member of the group with a genuinely humane expression.
The tall, mournful-looking man got up, opened the bottle of cognac, and poured me a drink. I nodded and took a sip. He then returned to his chair and said in Russian but with a thick Estonian accent, "What happened to you? We saw you with the police at the station."
For some reason, I suddenly was convinced that I was in the presence of the KGB. "I think you know the answer to that question better than I do," I said.
"We are very worried," said the man with the sandy hair, ignoring my reaction, "we want to know what happened to you."
"I was with the police," I said, "because my suitcase was stolen in the middle of the night from the train. Why don't you tell me where it is?"
"Our movement may be in danger because of you," the sandy-haired man continued. "Were our names in the suitcase that was stolen?"
"I don't know who you are. I also don't know anything about any names."
"Did Viktors Kalnins give you our names?" the sandy haired man persisted.
The tall, solemn man seemed demoralized by the hopelessness of the situation. "Viktors called me," he said, "and we went to the station to meet you, but we left when we saw you talking to the police."
"So," I said, "you are trying to tell me that someone arranged for you to meet me in Tallinn?" Several of them nodded their heads yes.
"Show me some identification," I said.
"No, we don't show any identification," said the sandy-haired man, shaking his head firmly.
"I'm glad to hear that," I said, "because for a moment it occurred to me that you might actually be the dissidents, but if you won't identify yourselves, it only proves to me that you're the KGB."
The superficial politeness that had prevailed up until that point disappeared. The tall, solemn member of the group leaned over the table. "I spent twelve years in the camps," he said. "My friends have spent six, seven, and eight years in the camps. You're not going to treat us like a bunch of niggers."
This remark took me completely by surprise. Could it be that I was accusing them unfairly?
"You're operating on a false assumption," said the older man whose expression had been the most sympathetic. "The KGB can forge any kind of identification it wants. In a situation like this, you can't rely on documents." He hesitated and then added gently, "You have to believe what is in your heart."
He asked me if I had the names and addresses of the people I was to see. I said that I knew who I was supposed to see. I then removed the paper with the names and addresses from my wallet. "Now, tell me," I said, "who are you?" The tall, solemn man on my right said, "I am Valdo Reinart." The man who met me in the hotel lobby said, "I am Endel Ratas." The intense, sandy-haired man said, "I am Mart Niklus," and the older man on the left smiled and said, "And I am Erik Udam." Udam was the leader of the Estonian dissidents. Udam then asked if there were addresses written on my note. I said there were, and each man gave his correct address.
Reinart got up, a little less obviously distressed, and filled my glass with cognac and then poured drinks for the others around the table, who also began to relax. Udam asked me to tell him about the theft of my suitcase.
I hesitated for a moment and then decided to tell them what had happened. If they were dissidents, they were entitled to know, and if they were KGB agents, what I said would come as no surprise. I began to describe what had happened and, as I told them how I was distracted, pained expressions came over the faces of the four men. When I finished, Reinart said, "I'll call Viktors immediately so he can warn everyone that your notes are missing."
They then began to argue among themselves. Udam suggested that the theft was organized by black market operators, but Niklus disagreed. "This was the KGB," he said. Reinart asked me what we talked about. "Not much," I said, "just trivialities."
"They didn't ask you any questions?"
"That doesn't sound like the KGB," Reinart said. "They always try to find out everything they can."
The conversation shifted to whether or not it was safe for us to meet later. We finally agreed that they would try to assess the situation, and Ratas would meet me at 10 P.M. that night in front of the Tallinna Kaubamaja.
Before we got ready to leave, I told Reinart that I was sorry about what had happened. For the first time, his manner seemed to soften. "What can you do," he said reflectively, "a young man, a beautiful woman . . . "
Udam said he had one request before I left. He wanted me to leave the list with the dissidents' addresses and names with them. "It's not that we don't trust you," he said. "We just can't afford another mistake." I took the list out of my wallet and gave it to Udam, and he put it in an ashtray and lit it with a match, holding the match to the list until it had been reduced to a wisp of ash.
I returned to my hotel where I met my official guide. We agreed on a program for the next day. I then left the hotel to look for Masha. But I soon discovered that the address she had given me did not exist.
I returned to the Viru, went to my room, then went to the lobby where I stopped to buy a postcard. I suddenly had the feeling that someone was watching me. When I turned to look, the only person I noticed was a young man with a mustache and goatee who was holding a square attaché case.
I finally left the hotel and walked to the Old City. There had been a slight break in the weather and a fine rain was falling. Some of the accumulated ice on the roofs was beginning to thaw, causing water to drip from the eaves and run down the drainpipes. In the streetlamps' hazy light, the paint peeling from the façades of the buildings made them look particularly shabby. I turned down one of the side streets, and through the window of a gabled stone building, I could see people queuing, waiting to test loaves in the bread racks for freshness. The drumbeat of dripping water was punctuated by the slamming of the heavy wooden door to the bread store as people left with their purchases. A little bit further down the same street, I passed a dimly lit café where, through a gauze curtain, I could see pensioners carrying their tin trays to metal tables and an old crone mopping up the broken tiles on the floor. I entered a quiet alleyway that ran along the city wall. At last, I came to a cul de sac, where I was surprised to see an old woman with a few wisps of scraggly gray hair, a lined face, and a dazed look in her wide-open eyes. She stood motionless in the rain holding a tin can filled with pencils and made no effort to speak, looking past me as if I weren't there.
Shortly before 10 P.M. I returned to the hotel, where a group of Finnish tourists were showing the effects of heavy drinking. Finally, I walked to the door and glanced behind me. On the upper mezzanine, I saw the man with the attaché case.
At 10 o'clock, I met Ratas at the Tallinna Kaubamaja. "They're following you!" he said, his face completely contorted. "Be here tomorrow, 2 P.M."
The next morning I went with my guide to an agricultural institute outside Tallinn. The meeting lasted for several hours. I excused myself from the lunch that had been prepared and left the institute at 1 P.M.
As we rode back to Tallinn, I tried to imagine how I could meet the dissidents without being followed. Suddenly, I recalled a rundown hotel in the Old City called the Hotel Baltika that I had noticed the previous night. As we approached the Old City, I asked the driver to let me off at this hotel. There was a moment of confusion but the guide agreed that the driver could stop there.
I got out of the car. I then cut back through a small park and started to climb the stone steps to the Upper City. Factories and railroad lines, the yellow cranes of Tallinn harbor, and rows of brown and grey Soviet apartment blocks spread out before me. Glancing back, I turned and saw a man in a silver jacket at the bottom of the steps starting to climb rapidly. I got to the top and hurried along a narrow path between the stone houses. Looking back again, I saw that my pursuer had reached the top of the steps. I turned into the entryway of a Lutheran church, where an official Soviet guide, mistaking me for a tourist, began to describe the torture of heretics that had been performed there.
I left the church, turned down a cobbled path between two stone walls, and then hurried across a broad square. My pursuer appeared from around a corner. Finally, in desperation, I turned and began to advance on him. When he realized that I was coming toward him, he quickly turned his back. I changed directions and doubled back behind one of the government buildings and made my way to the wall of the Upper City. I began going down the steps, watching for my pursuer. To my surprise, I did not see him. I plunged into the crowded streets of the Old City and flagged down a cab. With 15 minutes to go before the scheduled meeting, I arrived at the Tallinna Kaubamaja, where scores of people were stepping through the slush. There were old, fat women with canes, young women with pallid faces and stringy blonde hair, nondescript men in worn overcoats, and, off to one side, the old woman with the can of pencils whom I had encountered the previous night.
At exactly 2 P.M., Ratas appeared on the street and led me to a nearby courtyard. He said that KGB agents were everywhere and the group had decided it was too dangerous for us to meet in Tallinn. They wanted to meet not in Tallinn but in Moscow. I asked Ratas if he had reached Kalnins to tell him about the loss of my notes. He said "our friends" had been informed.
The train for Moscow left as darkness fell, and I was relieved to see that my companion in the compartment was a woman engineer in her 50s with a dark mustache. As we rode to Moscow, I tried to recreate my notes from memory, adding to them and elaborating on them.
The next few days in Moscow were uneventful. Life assumed its previous rhythm. I began to think that the events in the Baltics were an aberration and maybe even, to some extent, the product of my imagination. One night, about a week after I had gotten back, I decided to call Kestutis in Vilnius, although I had no doubt that Udam had already told him what had happened on the Riga to Tallinn train. I called from the central telegraph office, reaching him at the institute where he worked as an archivist.
After I described the loss of my suitcase, there was silence at the other end of the line. "What happened," Jokubynas asked, "were you drunk?" "Kestutis," I said, "We have to be careful. They may be listening." "Oh, yes," Kestutis said, and then his voice began to tremble. "They're listening. Of course, they're listening. They're listening to every word." With that I broke off the conversation and promised to call him again.
A week passed and there was no word from anyone in the Baltics, until one night I received a frantic call from someone who said he had to meet me and was waiting in front of the Puppet Theater across the street from my apartment on the Ring Road. I didn't recognize the caller's voice, and after the affair in the Baltics, I was wary of provocation. But I decided to go. When I pulled up in my car, I saw Antanas Terleckas and Ints Tsalitis.
We got into my car and began looking for a place to talk. It was too dangerous to talk in an apartment, and we would have had to queue for hours to get into a café. Finally, after driving around for half an hour, we adjourned to the stairwell of a building on Leninsky Prospect.
Neither Terleckas nor Tsalitis appeared upset about the consequences for them of the loss of my suitcase. They were more concerned to make sure that I did not lose the opportunity to write about nationalism, particularly in Lithuania. During the next hour, they repeated to me the information that I had received in the Baltics, much of which I had already reconstructed from memory. When my notes were complete, we left the building and went for a ride in my car.
"The one thing you'll never find," Terleckas said as we turned into the Lenin Hills, "or at least almost never find is a Russian who is willing to recognize a small people's right to its own country. If you talk about Lithuania, they say that's our Russian land, our country."
I told Antanas that I liked the Russian people.
"They are good, sweet, kind people," he replied, "but it doesn't occur to them that the Lithuanians consider Lithuania to be their country and want to be able to live in it without them."
"By the way," Tsalitis said. "Why didn't you meet our friends in Estonia?" Below us, Moscow was a carpet of apartment lights broken by the shadows of gothic government skyscrapers. "They called me and wanted to know why you never contacted them."
"Who called you?"
"The Estonian nationalists, Udam, Ratas . . . "
"They said I never contacted them?"
"Ints, I spent two days in Tallinn with Udam and Ratas. I'm expecting them to meet me here. Did either of you get a telephone call from Estonia telling you that my suitcase with the notes on Latvia and Lithuania had been stolen?"
"No," Tsalitis said, "we heard about it from Kestutis." I pulled the car over to the side of the road. A light snow began to fall, and the snowflakes seemed to hang immobile in the arcs of light cast by the streetlamps.
I turned to look at Tsalitis and Terleckas who were sitting in the back seat. "If I didn't spend those two days with Udam and Ratas," I said, "then who did I spend them with?"Read the rest of the article here