It was fitting that we met on a cinder-strewn, two-lane road behind a furniture warehouse. The cold January wind blew. I shivered, waiting. He walked up with another guy. I must have been slow; he met me more than halfway with his firm handshake.
Ironically, he was born in privilege in a supposedly classless state: his father was a functionary in Stalin‘s secret police. With that position came the power and perks: Country house, special cars, and guards, guards everywhere. His playmates were like him, walled off from regular people, set apart by rank. He’d traveled during those years, his teenage ones. He’d gone to schools, the best schools, then to Columbia on a Fulbright Scholarship. He studied journalism and honed his writing and language skills there. Worked at the UN, ran agents. Media credentials gave him access. He was one of the best and the brightest of his generation, and richly rewarded for his work. The nation was proud; it would guide him to greater responsibility.
I was trying to be one of the guys. My thoughts were about girls and not much else. I went to public schools like every other kid. My Dad worked feversihly at an ice cream plant. My grades were average, my desire low. Junior year I went to a meeting, an assembly about international student exchange programs, mostly because a girl who I liked was going, no other reason. I went home, mentioned the program, and in less than a week, found myself signed up to spend nearly a school year overseas. I changed there, and changed my work ethic. Got recruited and joined the government when I graduated.
We’d crossed paths when he’d just left his teens. He knew where, I didn’t. He was a diplomat, the KGB Resident assigned to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. I was just starting out.
I worked on secret things. He tried to uncover those secrets. The symmetry of intelligence and counterintelligence, I guess. I was one of hundreds of people working to get American POWs out in Hanoi in a daring raid; he was running an American traitor, navy radioman John Walker; allowing the Soviet Union to read our messages, to prevent the POWs from being in Hanoi when we landed. I never knew until much later, till the wall came down.
We’d both been teenagers drawn to government service. He'd been destined for it by a family connection, a personality, and a flair for learning English. In short, he was the perfect KGB officer. I stumbled onto the life, as we called, through a series of unrelated events. I did 38 years; he did 32.
But he crossed over, came in from the cold. He saw what the KGB did to its own citizens, he spoke out. After the fall, he was elected to Parliament, got disenchanted, and moved to the US. The Russians held a secret trial in 2002, charging him with treason. He would spend 15 years at hard labor if he went back. They stopped his hundred dollars a month pension, the one that he earned as a Major General in the KGB.
I looked into his penetrating blue eyes, his round, expressive and kind Slavic face. He still had my hand in a grasp. Major General Oleg Kalugin, KGB retired, needed my help. People could write letters in support to keep him here, allow him to become a naturalized citizen. He mentioned his wife was ill with terminal cancer, the strain showed.
. It was hard to see him as an enemy. Instead he was, like me, a cog in a giant wheel. We were both dedicated soldiers in a war that was over, one that we’d won.
“Of course Oleg,” I said. “We were teenagers once.”