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The Spy Who Loved Me

What I learned from my own contacts with Russian intelligence agents.

I never thought I’d identify with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the other Trump associates who are under scrutiny for their contacts with the Kremlin. Yes, their meetings with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak sound fishy. Yes, they failed to disclose direct exchanges with Russian intelligence agents at a moment when Russia was apparently meddling in the U.S. election. But what about my own dealings with Russian envoys?

Soviet, actually. In the late 1980s, when the USSR was still intact, my wife, Geraldine, and I went to work as Middle East reporters, based in Cairo. We knew nothing, and no one, and in the great tradition of foreign correspondents, we spent a lot of time trying to coax information and alcohol from diplomats. Our American envoys were no help: The U.S. embassy in Cairo was a citadel, drawbridges up, and the ambassador’s rare press briefings were so icy and anodyne that we stopped going. Egyptian officials were far more gracious, serving us endless cups of sweet tea while helpfully informing us—the night before a presidential election—that Hosni Mubarak had won another term, with 97 percent of the vote.

Our Egyptian hosts also sent us frequent invitations to Foreign Ministry receptions, affording us a chance to practice our kindergarten Arabic and execrable French with low-level envoys from minor nations while sipping fruit juice in a genteelly shabby salon. It was at one such leaden gathering that we met a handsome, charming Russian who spoke excellent, if heavily accented, English and seemed eager to become better acquainted.

Alexei, as I’ll call him, said he was second secretary for sport at the Soviet embassy. My wife had visited Moscow as a student and was something of a Russophile. I’m of Russian Jewish descent and grew up on tales of czars and Cossacks. We chatted about the Olympics and Russian literature, and exchanged phone numbers.

Before long, Alexei began turning up at our apartment, always with a gift: flowers for Geraldine, a bottle of cherry brandy. For expats in Cairo, buying spirits required a trip to a distant state outlet and pharaonic sheaves of paperwork. So we welcomed the brandy, and Alexei’s company, while recognizing that his visits weren’t just social. Veteran hacks in Cairo often played a parlor game, guessing who were the “spooks” working under diplomatic cover. Being an inquisitive second secretary in a minor sector was judged a sure giveaway.

And sure enough, over brandy one night, Alexei asked, “So. What do you think of Shultz visit?” At the time, then–Secretary of State George Shultz was touring the region. Geraldine laughed and told Alexei he could find out all she knew by reading that day’s Wall Street Journal. As the paper’s Middle East bureau chief, she covered the peace process and other hefty matters. As a stringer, I mainly wrote color features, from which Alexei could learn all about Egypt’s camel-riding border patrol or chewing khat in Yemen. Undeterred, Alexei invited us to dinner at his apartment, where his wife cooked cabbage dumplings and he plied us with enough vodka to animate the Sphinx.

Over the next few years, we would see Alexei from time to time, with much the same routine. Drinks and chat, then a leading question we’d laugh off before returning to pleasant conversation. I liked to think we were doing our bit for perestroika, while enabling Alexei to advance his career by telling his bosses he was developing American assets.

Near the end of our Cairo posting, my father sent me letters about his father’s shtetl childhood. My mother’s grandparents had also fled from rural Belorussia, and no one on either side of the family had ever returned. When I decided to visit my ancestral homeland, the U.S. embassy in Cairo warned me that Americans were almost always barred from that region. But Alexei just smiled and advised me to fly to Minsk and visit the Intourist office—where, a day after my arrival, an Intourist “inspektor” named Vladimir volunteered to be my translator, arranged for a car and driver, and spent several days guiding me to my forbears’ remote homes.

Like Alexei, Vladimir was warm, well-informed, and implausibly cast, in his case as an Intourist agent in drab, untouristed Minsk. The peasants we met treated him with cautious deference, and during our long drives, he would take out a notebook and ask, “What is your opinion of cooperation between Common Market and socialist bloc?” When I noted, as other journalists had in print, that some Arabs had joined the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, he asked if this was “official information.”

Not long afterward, Geraldine and I left Cairo for a new posting in London and lost touch with Alexei, though I corresponded with Vladimir as the USSR crumbled. “Time is running and you can’t stop it or slow it down,” he wrote. “I hope for the better.”

My encounters with Alexei and Vladimir didn’t amount to much. I had no secrets to share, and they weren’t providing me with sensitive information. But in retrospect, I view them both as minor but effective practitioners of “soft” power, even if they were also spies. They gained a little insight into how Americans think, and I got a rare glimpse of life behind the Iron Curtain that left me feeling warmer toward the Russian people.

In a different time, at a very different stratum, Sergey Kislyak appears to be a virtuoso of this essential art of statecraft. By all accounts, he’s a polished and persistent diplomat, adept at ingratiating himself with influential Americans and putting the best face possible on his nation. He reminds me of Nizar Hamdoon, Saddam Hussein’s ambassador to the United States and United Nations in the 1980s and ’90s, who spoke at schools and Rotary Clubs all across the country and helped persuade Americans that Saddam was someone we could “work with.”

Hamdoon acted as the eyes, ears, and mouthpiece of a monstrous regime. Some would say the same of Kislyak and Russia. But however sinister the motives of such figures, they are doing their job, and doing it well, and perhaps we can learn from them.

Most of the American diplomats I met during my decade overseas were all but imprisoned in their compounds, even before September 11 accelerated such bunkerization. Now the Trump administration wants to slash the already minute share of the federal budget devoted to foreign assistance and outreach, while spending billions more on defense.

This strikes me as an opportunity lost. Even in the “hostile” nations I’ve visited, including Iran, Sudan, and Yemen, foreigners who resent U.S. policy almost always like Americans as people. Not so long ago, we were masters of soft power: think the Marshall Plan, the Voice of America, our magnetic cinema, the thousands of Peace Corps volunteers who sowed goodwill in developing countries.

Make America great again? Absolutely—by becoming true diplomats, in ways both little and large, and projecting our open, big-hearted personality around the world.