“In your travels, did you ever feel like you were being followed?” a friend recently asked.
We looked up as if to page through our mind-file of creepy experiences: “No. At least we don’t think so.”
Even when we answered, our response struck me as supremely naïve. Although we aren’t terribly important in the geopolitical grand scheme of things, somebody somewhere must have taken more than a casual interest in our movements.
Surely we had a tail somewhere along the way.
Then, last week, we were giving a presentation at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. We sang the praises of the people we met along our travels in the Caucasus and Central Asia. We fondly remembered the people who took us in; we highlighted one family in particular.
Then from the audience, the woman who actually introduced us to that family interrupted: “Yeah, and her husband turned out to be KGB.”
It was no joke.
“What?” We were struck silent for a moment, mid presentation. As we recovered, we made some joke about how this news made our experiences in the region even more exciting, and we moved onto the next story.
“He had a firm handshake,” Dan recalled later. “I don't remember what kind of work he said he did. He was rather vague — and he wasn't home a lot.” We tried to recall our few interactions with him to ex post facto piece together signs of his career. We thought in terms of Le Carré novels and bad 1980s Hollywood spy movies. Nothing came to mind.
“It feels odd, icky. Like some sort of violation,” we agreed with one another.
Freedom of Anonymity
When you are a diplomat, recognized journalist or business person, you should expect that in some countries your movements and actions will be noted, reported to somebody somewhere. However, there is a level of anonymity enjoyed by the independent traveler – you are an individual representing only yourself and you enjoy the latitude that comes with that. Life is untethered, you have nothing to hide.
Sure, we represent our country to some degree as any traveler does, but we don’t travel on behalf of a corporation or a government. And there's a certain level of freedom of movement that we enjoy because of it.
Public vs. Private Faces
When I lived in Estonia as a Peace Corps volunteer, people I spoke to often characterized the atmosphere of the Soviet times: “You had two faces. Your public face and your private face. You never knew whom you could trust, so it was safer to have your public face on any time you left the house. The only people you could really trust were family…and even then there were surprises.”
The more we spoke to people who lived with the StB in Czechoslovakia, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the junta in Burma (Myanmar) and the ubiquitous plainclothes police in Cuba, the more we heard similar stories. The common assumption in oppressed societies is that anyone can be an informant or a member of the secret police. Because of this, one was to be held in a sort of trust purgatory until he could somehow prove otherwise. Sad, really, when you think about it. But this approach and attitude was for many a matter of safety and survival.
And while some things have changed from Soviet times in Central Asia, a cloud of “Big Brother” fear still hangs. I imagine just about any well-informed citizen of Central Asia shrugging off the news that his neighbor is a KGB informant with, “Well, what did you expect?”
Trusting Your Neighbor, American Style
In contrast, most Americans traditionally grow up under an opposing assumption that no one is an informant. For the great majority of us, the concept of home-grown spies on our own soil just isn’t part of our mental space. It’s a topic reserved for espionage studies and spy novels, not everyday life.
Perhaps this is why so many people found the recent unmasking of KGB agents in suburban New Jersey so disturbing. A bubble of trust had been broken. (But frankly, people were titillated.)
And although I agree that sometimes Americans are almost too willing to share with complete strangers, there is something refreshing in this openness of expression.
Is He Really KGB?
While I believe that informants are alive and well in many parts of the world, I also believe that the hype and drama can sometimes trump reality. In other words, my skepticism runs in both directions.
So, in the midst of this revelation about our host, the purported husband-by-day and spy-by-night, we wonder: was he really working with the KGB? While we trust our source, perhaps she’s relaying a rumor herself. We’ll never know.
Well, almost everything.
Note: Although we use the term “couch surfing” in the title, the experience related below was in no way connected to the CouchSurfing network but was arranged through a friend. We are satisfied members of the CouchSurfing community and in no way mean to imply that CouchSurfing is unsafe.