When a dark-haired young man walked up to the Honorable Desmond Bernard in the public room of the Aristophanes Club and silently presented him with a fresh Cuban cigar, the old spymaster couldn’t hide his delight. He turned the Cohiba Robusto over and over in his gnarled fingers, already enjoying the sight and spicy tobacco smell of a real Havana masterpiece. Located a half-mile from the White House, the public room of the Aristophanes Club was infamous as a meeting place for patriots, pragmatists and fools.
“Well, young fellow,” Bernard said, “this is a pleasant surprise. You know, since they retired me I have few pleasures that beat a fine cigar.” Deftly, he worked the distinctive black and yellow paper ring off the cigar and slipped it into his jacket pocket. “For my collection,” he said, with a wink. The cigar was, technically, contraband.
“I suppose I shouldn’t ask where you obtained my favorite kind of cigar,” Bernard said. “But if you don’t mind, I would like to know who you are and how you were directed to me. Perhaps you would like to sit outside in the garden,” Bernard waved toward tall windows in the opposite wall of the room and the young man’s glance followed his gesture. “It is a beautiful day out there.”
“This room good for conversation, yes?” The young man touched his chest with oval fingertips. “My name is Dimitri Merkushin. I am archivist for Russian Republic with job of researching certain … activities during Cold War. I now concentrate on events during year 1969 involving attempted defection of Ukrainian Pitor Yulensky—and yourself.”
Although Bernard’s bushy white eyebrows rose, he showed no other response—and simply thumbed a gold Dunhill lighter to fire-up the prize cigar. Bernard leaned back in his chair and let his eyes rove over the high, carved ceiling of the public room as he exhaled a blue-white stream of smoke. “What is it you want to know?”
Dimitry smiled. “Everything.”
Bernard took in a deep breath and began. “It was the European sector of Istanbul. I was sitting outside the Café Turco,” he said, “in a coffee shop near the Cathedral of St. Antony Padua, smoking a Montecristo Especial. Just after noon that day, Pitor Yulensky walked past me. He was a young man, not unlike you in appearance. He stumbled in front of me but caught himself and walked on. However, there was now a newspaper on my table—a common piece of tradecraft known as a ‘brush pass’.
“Folded inside the newspaper was a handwritten letter. Pitor, was an engineer, educated in Moscow, who hated Stalin and the Kremlin for killing his family in Ukraine. Pitor wished to defect, but would only be in Istanbul for two weeks and after that he didn’t know when the next opportunity might arise.
“He asked that I meet with him in the old souk after dark, at the shop of a certain spice merchant. Ah, the old souk at night! A teeming maze of tiny streets, alleys and walkways. Intoxicating to anyone with a sense of romance. In the back room of the spice shop I told him that I would hear his story, but it would be investigated and he would only be allowed to defect if his résumé was good. Pitor became angry at that suggestion and paced up and down in the tiny room with its burlap sacks of raw spices, seeds and dried herbs. He eventually calmed down and returned to his chair.
“Pitor said his family had been devastated by the Holodomor, the deadly famine of 1932-’33, when Stalin forced collective farming on Central Europe and Ukraine. Armed Russian agents would confiscate the entire harvest of a farm, leaving the peasants nothing at all for their year’s labor, not even a pound of grain. There was mass starvation and rumors of cannibalism that winter.
“Pitor’s father, Yuri, escaped through the woods and rode an empty railroad car to Kiev, where certain White Russians arranged for him to go to Moscow and attend technical school. Eventually, he married and took up residence in Moscow. Pitor followed in his father’s footsteps as an engineer and graduated at the top of his class. He knew the location of scores of bridges and dams in the USSR—valuable strategic knowledge in the days before satellite cameras.
“He provided me with the name of his father’s village, Kremenchug, and of the White Russian family in Kiev who had helped his father. I said I would meet him in the same place a week hence and give him my answer. He would have to be ready to defect at that time, but I would make all preparations. I myself would go into Russia to verify his story.
Dimitri looked up from the notes he was making. “Was not difficult entering Soviet Union?”
Bernard couldn’t hide a smile as he answered, “Well yes, of course it was. But we had probed and probed all along the Soviet borders and finally we established several places where bribes were effective or security was not so tight. Those were the favored points of entry, especially when we were in a hurry. The port of Odessa was one such place.”
“When I came to the address in Kremenchug that Pitor gave me, it was nothing but a pile of rubble. It appeared to be a dead end—after all that trouble and risk. Across the street, I sat down on a fallen tree to consider my next move. As part of my disguise of a merchant seaman, I had several coarsely rolled Toscano cigars in my duffel bag, so I lit one. The cigar was black as an old boot and quite strong. Its gray smoke flew down the street and vanished on the cold wind. You see, I hadn’t considered how a good smoke can be a siren song.
“In a few minutes an old man staggered up to me and begged for tobacco. I nodded and gave him one of my leathery Italian cigars. He lit it with a heavy wooden match and savored the strong aroma. With a nearly toothless smile he nodded and thanked me lavishly for the cigar. Then he stumbled back the way he came. From a few steps away, the old man turned back and gestured for me to follow him. I asked about the name Seminovna. His yellowed eyes widened and he nodded and beckoned me on again. We rambled up Krasnia Street to an old brick building. There, the old man knocked twice and twice again on a battered wooden door. After a long interval, the door opened and we went in.
“Inside that room was the soul of Ukraine. The tall, tiled stove glowed with heat, a samovar steamed with fresh mint tea and two long tables were set for dinner with an assortment of cabbage, turnip and beet dishes. The peasants were thin and worn but smiled at me. No one but I had a full set of teeth.
“I said that I had a private message for the Seminovna family. A handsome woman at the far table stood up and said, I am Ludmilla Seminovitch Druchenko. She took my hand and led me up to the second floor. We entered a bedroom with a single candle burning on a bureau and three crude beds against the walls. Ludmilla sat on one bed, I on another.
“I told her that knew Pitor Yulensky, and he told me that she could vouch for him and his family. In an instant, her bearing changed. Her face reddened. Comrade, she said, I have never known a merchant seaman who had such smooth, soft hands. We may be simple people here but we are not fools. Tell me what your real business is or move on.
“Could I trust this woman or was she luring me to my death? I noticed that there were no pictures of Lenin or Stalin in this room, or the one downstairs. And there were several Icons, gilded religious artworks, in small frames where a basin and pitcher stood on an old pine table. Those icons were forbidden by Moscow. I took a chance.
“I swear to you on my mother’s life, I said, that I am not a Soviet agent. I wish Pitor well and want to help him escape from the USSR. But I must know if he is to be trusted or if he is KGB. And I have never known a peasant woman to wear French perfume.”
“Yes, she said, I have just come from Paris to visit my family. I am a teacher of music and I despise the Soviets because my father and brothers have all been sent to the gulag. Their great crime was to own recordings of western music. Especially German music. Beethoven, Brahms, Shubert. The KGB recruited many from Ukraine because the boys would do anything for a crust of bread. But this boy Pitor and his father Yuri, I never heard that they became spies.”
“I am your obedient servant, comrade Ludmilla. And now let us rejoin the others before they think we are having sex up here. With a delightful laugh, she stood and led me down the staircase. She introduced me to her brooding husband. He seemed like a drunken brute. A large bottle of Vodka appeared and made the rounds. The men sang lusty Slavic songs till well after midnight. There was much laughter. Strange, I thought, to spend so sweet an evening in the bosom of my enemy.
“By hiding in deserted railroad cars and flagging rides on ancient diesel trucks, I landed in Kiev and made for a safe house in the Solomyansky District. When I arrived at the meeting place in the morning—a local cemetery—my contact was lying dead in a ditch, a piece of rope still wound tightly around his neck! I heard a police whistle and the harsh barking of police dogs as they began to close in around me.”
Dimitry looked up from his notes. “Who is blamed for such betrayal?”
“I didn’t know at the time,” said Barnard with a sigh. “My main goal was to get away from the dogs. And, strangely, it was the local police who pursed me, not the KGB. I believed that Pitor himself had denounced me, because I went to Kiev as he suggested and there I was, running for my life.
“Fortunately, there was a large butcher shop across the street and by charging into the shop and out a side door, I was able to escape. Once the dogs entered the butcher shop, they became uncontrollable and fastened their teeth on sausages, chops and blood puddings, not my carcass.”
“The real destination in Kiev was a grand house that pre-dated the Revolution. I approached it with some fear, and knocked on the front door. A man in a peasant shirt opened the door and spoke to me frankly, saying Comrade we have fed the poor all week and there is but little left for those in the family. Please go to one of our neighbors and ask them for alms.
“I believe I shocked him when I spoke in my Muscovite accent and said that I sought news of comrade Yuri Yulensky and his family, and not food—although I was quite hungry at the time.
“With a look up and down the street, he pulled me inside and gave me a close inspection. I am Johann Kedrov, he said in a deep voice. Come sit down with me and I will try to answer your questions. The serving girl brought in a small silver samovar on a tray and placed it on a low table. She drew out two glasses of tea and handed them to Johann and myself. Eager for warmth, I burned my mouth on the first sip, but it was still delicious.
“Johann said, our family has helped many who were in need. I don’t remember the name myself, but let us go upstairs and talk to babusha, my grandmother.
“In a large bed was a tiny old woman, her pale face wrinkled as a walnut. Johann gently took the old woman’s hand in his. I lingered at the foot of the bed, in near darkness. He said, Baba, do you know the name Yuri Yulensky?
“The ancient woman blinked and moved her shriveled lips. She spoke in a hushed, crackling voice. He came to us in the Great Famine last year, she said. We sent him to Moscow for school. Johann shook his head. Not last year, baba. Long ago.
“Did he stay in touch, I asked? Or was he a plant by the KGB? The old woman shook her head with the petulant expression of a child. Yuri was taken by KGB soon after he arrived in Moscow, she said, and tortured, but then released. He was an innocent country boy!
“The truth is, I shouted, that you betrayed Yuri Yulensky as you have now betrayed me. No, said Johann, we betrayed no one. Those who were against Stalin and the Soviets always found help here.
“Look out there, I said, pointing out the back window. Johann’s eyes followed my pointing finger and he gasped when he saw the gathered policemen and their dogs.
“Come with me, he said abruptly and we charged down the stairs two at a time. On the first floor, he opened a hidden door under the staircase and we ducked down a steep, narrow stairway. I pulled a pen flashlight from my duffel bag as we bounded down a long flight of stairs into the dank cold of a deep sub-basement.
“Johann ran to the back wall of the clandestine basement and pulled open another secret door, so well concealed that its opening seemed magical, like something in a story by Jorge Louis Borges. Johann pushed me into the opening and pointed straight ahead. He breathlessly gave me instructions and pushed the door shut behind me.
“I could hear heavy footsteps somewhere above and the excited barking of dogs. I pushed ahead into the gloom of the tunnel. It stank of roots and decay. The deepest part of the tunnel was flooded as Johann had said, but there were still a few inches of air at the top for me to breathe. My god, that water was cold!
“At last I came to a wooden door with a glimmer of light around its edges. Finding the latch, I cautiously opened the door and stepped out into the supply room of an underground public toilet. The door closed behind me and vanished into a tile wall. I removed my hat, turned the seaman’s jacket inside out to a leather lining, put on a Lenin cap with a short bill and pulled a doctor’s bag out of my duffel, which I discarded into a waste basket near the door. I added a pair of thick glasses and emerged from the filthy pissoir a different man altogether.
Now I had a real puzzle to solve. Johann told me to meet my contact at the Duck’s Eye! What was it? I scouted up and down the Dnipro River but never saw a boat called the Duck’s Eye, or a tavern or restaurant or cinema. “I spoke to many people who shook their heads. I was becoming worried but when I consulted a map of Kiev, I saw it at once. Trukaniv Island has the shape of a duck’s head facing south in the waterway of the Dnipro River. There’s an oval pond in the head that resembles an eye—that had to be it.
“It was a heavily wooded area. Police whistles blew in the distance and I realized that I was only minutes ahead of them. At the ‘Duck’s Eye’ pond, I met a man who hurried me into a small boat which we used to cross the river after dark. He pulled on the oars with a practiced stroke. The dark green water of the Dnipro slid under that boat silently and soon we docked. A Lada taxi waited at the roadside. I was put into that cab and it raced to the Darnytsia railway station.
“I found the ticket seller and asked for a ticket to Riga. That’s a long way, he said. Yes, I said, but I want to see the circus. Save your money, he told me, the dancing bear is dead. Where else do you want to go?
“I said Odessa and he nodded. He selected a ticket from a rack full of narrow cardboard stubs. Twelve rubles, three kopecks, he said. I gave him one hundred rubles. He slid the cash out of sight and pushed my ticket under the glass partition. Track number four, he said. Get on the train now and be sure you have papers to show the conductor. He’s KGB.
“Grateful for that warning, I boarded the train, showed the conductor my ticket and my fake travel papers and was left to myself for the rest of the trip back to Odessa. In the warmth of the train, I slept like the dead.
“From Odessa I returned to Istanbul by stowing away on a freight train and after a long, hot bath, checked my dispatches. The reply from Langley was coded and labeled most important. The CIA had information that a man taking the name Pitor Ulensky was a KGB agent. Someone else had used an almost identical story in an attempt to defect from East Berlin.
“When Pitor arrived, I wasted no time telling him that he would not be offered asylum in the West, he would not be allowed to defect because he was, in fact, a KGB agent who wished to become a double agent and spy on the USA. He became violent and produced a gun, a 9mm Makarov, standard weapon of the KGB. It became necessary for me to kill him, to keep him from calling the Turkish police. And there you have it.”
Dimitry, the Russian archivist made notes as Desmond spoke but now he closed his notebook and sighed. “Is remarkable story. Is most remarkable. Except is all lies. Lies and contortions of truth.”
“Distortions?” Desmond suggested, with a smile.
“Da, da. You decide Pitor is KGB before making such journey. You set out to prove that he is spy, not to find out truth. You have idea that Pitor must not defect. Can it be because you are KGB double-agent? In all records of this time, never one Russian defector come across at your station—always something happening and they are betrayed, denounced, killed by Secret Police or Turkish police. Most strange, da?”
“That’s a curious premise, young man. And I’m not saying that you are wrong. It would be very clever of me to be a double-agent all this time, don’t you think? But here in the USA, we have a legal system that requires proof before one is punished. And you have no proof.”
Dimitri stood up and collected his notebook and other papers. He nodded at Desmond Bernard.
“Da. What you say is true. But leaving out one thing. Full name is Dimitri Merkushin Seminovitch Druchenko. Woman you kill in Kremenchug was my grandmother—making visit to her family after difficult birth of my father. You did poor job killing her and she survive two days with broken neck. She told story that you were western agent and she attempt to save one Ukrainian who hate Soviets as much as she.”
“Well then,” said the old CIA agent, “I’m afraid your revenge is rather a dud, isn’t it?”
“Nyet,” said Dimitri. “This cigar you have smoked with such enjoyment contains one gram Polonium dust—radioactive and toxic chemical. By now, tiny particles of such deadly metal have worked their way into your mouth and throat. Death will be long and painful. And revenge will be complete. Good day to you, Comrade Bernard.”
With that, the young Russian stood up and turned away.
Desmond Bernard called out, “Just a moment, young man. There are one or two items I have left out from my story and I should like to make a complete confession. Since I haven’t long to live now.”
With a superior lift of an eyebrow, Dimitri returned. “Please not to keep me. I have appointment with news outlet to speak of your treachery. Cable news will find story most appealing.”
“Cable news is it, not Pravda? How times have changed.”
“Joke is on you, I think.”
Bernard’s face took on a hardness the young Russian had not seen before. “I have never been a traitor to my country, nor would ever be,” Bernard said sharply. “Secondly, most of your information is wrong. Fed to you by the remnants of the KGB. Events of 1969 were exactly as I described them to you, in every detail. Except that now I realize it was your grandfather Ulenski, who killed your grandmother. He must have believed I was intimate with her in that upstairs room and in beating her to make her confess, he killed the poor woman. It was he who then called the Ukrainian police and nearly had me taken in Kiev.”
“Never!” said the young Russian, his face running pale.
“Dimitri, your people have been lied to for so long, I don’t believe you can recognize the truth. However, you were right about one item. None of those who attempted to leave the Soviet Union through Istanbul ever survived. That’s because it was a scam. A gigantic scam. We routed the ones who wanted to defect down the coast from Istanbul to Gallipoli, where security was a joke. And, if needed, we produced a corpse that roughly matched the defector.
“So I’m afraid your version of events is a bit muddled. Just as your attempt to kill me during our interview.”
“Is too late. Polonium now doing work deep inside you!”
“I’m afraid not, my young friend,” Barnard said. “First of all, we’re taught never to accept anything from a stranger—especially food, drink or tobacco. Much too easy to drug or poison a man. So, after I slipped the ring off the cigar you handed me, I turned your attention to the beautiful garden outside and in that moment I switched your cigar with one already in my pocket —identical in size, shape and color—it is my favorite kind, after all. The cigar I smoked just now was a harmless Dominican.”
Dimitri looked stricken; he became aware of two large men in suits, one at either side of him, and two more quietly approaching.
“Tradecraft,” Bernard said with a smile. “Once learned, never forgotten. You will be deprived of your sick pleasure in watching me rot from the inside out. But I will enjoy the sight of you in Federal custody for quite a long while. And a very good day to you, comrade Druchenko.”