Andrew Andersen Victoria, BC
It was in the late 1970s when I was studying at the university. During my student years and for some time after, I had a very close friend (although later, due to political and other reasons, we eventually drifted apart, but that's a different story). His name was Norman, and he had a more or less German background with roots tracing back to Austria and East Germany.
His biological father was some East German official who worked in the Soviet Union and disappeared without a trace from radar shortly after Norman's birth. As for his maternal lineage... on his mother's side, he had an Austrian grandmother named Gerda Rikhardovna. Grandma Gerda was an Austrian communist. In the 1920s, she came to Soviet Russia “to build socialism and communism" and apparently quickly became a Chekist (secret police officer). Soon after arriving in the "state of workers and peasants," she married a Crimean Tatar, and as a result, Norman's mother was born. The Crimean Tatar (whose name was never told to me, so I refer to him by ethnicity) was also a staunch communist, but that did not save him from arrest and death in 1937. He had a fierce temper (which, incidentally, was partially inherited by Norman), and according to their family legend, during an interrogation by the NKVD, he stabbed a disrespectful investigator in the eye with a fountain pen and was shot dead on the spot by the guards.
Grandma Gerda was also arrested at that time and sent to a logging camp in the Gulag, where she worked strenuously, just like a good Austrian girl should. At the end of 1941, she was released from the Gulag, reinstated in the "organs" (the security forces), and sent to a red partisan unit somewhere in the forests of Belarus. For her service with the partisans, Grandma Gerda was awarded Soviet orders and medals, but after the war, she found herself behind bars again, all on the same charge - espionage in favor of Germany...
In 1954, Gerda Rikhardovna was released again, rehabilitated, and reinstated in the ranks of the security forces, where she likely served until her death in 1983. During her funeral, a unit of soldiers fired a salute over her fresh grave. Despite all the twists and turns in her challenging life, Grandma Gerda, for some reason, did not harbor resentment against the Soviet authorities. However, her Russian language skills left much to be desired: she spoke with a strong southern German accent throughout her life.
And why have I been talking about Grandma Gerda all this time? I guess, because without her, there wouldn't have been that meeting and conversation which I would like to share with you here.
So, this very Grandma Gerda arranged for her beloved grandson a rather attractive "perk" every summer during his university years: four weeks of highly paid work as a "guide-interpreter" with the representatives of police and secret services of the "fraternal Eastern Block countries" (Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria) who came to the USSR for vacation. This "job" took place at the best Crimean resorts, involving swimming in the sea, indulging in delicacies not accessible to the average Soviet citizen, enjoying cocktails, and more... Norman was formally suitable for this position since he was fluent in German (which was spoken at his home) and also knew Czech, which he studied at the university.
And in the second year of university, at the insistent requests of her beloved grandson, Gerda Rikhardovna also brought me into this "perk," considering the fact that I also had a good knowledge of German and could manage some Polish (not very well, but better than nothing). However, in reality, it wasn't even necessary because all the guests (except some from East Germany) could speak and understand Russian quite well.
Years later, I started feeling a bit ashamed of that experience, realizing that "feasting from the same trough with THEM" wasn't exactly dignified, but at the time, I hadn't grasped that. Besides, I only got that perk once; they didn't take me again, allegedly because it was suddenly "discovered" in the documents that I had never studied German or Polish anywhere (In fact, I only studied English and French at school, while my knowledge of German and Polish came from my family). So, "how could I know those languages?" they questioned. However, it's more likely that THEY didn't appreciate my conversations and the questions I asked the guests. Although I tried to be respectful and politically correct, somehow it still didn't seem right... Not in the KGB way, perhaps...
So, on that day, after thoroughly enjoying ourselves in the sea, the three of us, Norman, a Bulgarian colonel, and I, sat under an umbrella on the veranda overlooking the tranquil sea. We were sipping Cuban cocktails (there were even two genuine Cuban bartenders at that place, crafting authentic Cuban concoctions – cocktails weren't a common thing in the USSR, except for Estonia and Latvia). As we sat there, basking in the moment, we began to discuss what would happen if, God forbid, a Third World War were to break out. Unexpectedly, a youthful and handsome Czech guy, resembling a Czech or Polish rock musician (tall, blue-eyed, clad in blue jeans and a white shirt, with long flaxen hair), joined our circle. He introduced himself as "Major Ivanek" (I don't know if that was his real name or a pseudonym, but it doesn't matter now) and joined our conversation:
"Oh, there's nothing to worry about, comrades! For instance, we Czechs - in the event of war - can easily take and hold Austria and Italy, even without your Soviet assistance!" exclaimed Major Ivanek confidently.
I was taken aback and responded, "Wait, how do you plan to take them? I can understand how a fifteen-million-strong Czechoslovakia might capture a nine-million-strong Austria, but a sixty-million-strong Italy?! No way, that's too much! The human resources are clearly incomparable!"
To which Major Ivanek replied, "We'll take them alright, even with almost no shots fired! You know why? BECAUSE OUR MEN HAVE BEEN IMPLANTED AT ALL LEVELS THERE, in these two countries!"
In that day, I didn't bother arguing, but I thought it was just Czech boasting. However, years later, after traveling to many places and learning a thing or two, I realized that Mr. Ivanek wasn't just showing off. Now, think about this: if the intelligence agencies of relatively small Czechoslovakia could control two Western European countries, can you imagine how extensively the intelligence services of the USSR and East Germany, had entangled the West? And yet, some of us still wonder why all that's happening today in what was once a free world?
P.S.: By the way, besides the Cuban cocktails, there was another "bonus" over there: free sex for the guests and their "interpreters." I found out about it accidentally when, on the first night, the sanatorium's super-intendant knocked on my door (his position was indeed called "super-intendant," which says a lot in itself) and whispered, "Do you want us to send someone for you to have fun with?"
At first, I didn't quite understand what he meant with my "other Russian language," but when I realized, I firmly declined ("No, no, thank you..."). At that time, I was young and romantic, believing that it was like having sex under coercion, and thus - despicable.
Now I wonder if I made the right choice to refuse back then. It could have enriched my experience. Moreover, it wasn't under coercion. It was just part of their job... More like military service, as all the girls were probably ranked from corporal to senior lieutenant.