Couch Surfing with KGB Agents

“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.

After all, we’d been throughout the former Soviet Union – including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan — and to places like China and Burma.

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.

But why?

Lenin on Top - Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan
In some places, Lenin still keeps an eye on things.

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.

And really, we’re not that interesting anyway. Everything about us is publicly available on our website and on Twitter and Facebook these days.

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.

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Comments

  1. says

    Interesting experience, I just signed up for the couchsurfing network. I wanted to do some hosting before I hit the road next year where I plan to utilize the network.

    I’m not going to let that discourage me though …

  2. says

    @Nick: CouchSurfing is great – we’ve done it a few times on this trip. I can’t recommend it enough. However, I just want to be clear (see the box a the top) that this experience did not happen through the CouchSurfing network – it was a connection we had locally.

  3. Millie says

    Very neat experience. It’s funny – because I live in Washington DC – and we just had the big hoopla about the Russian spies that have just been deported. While I know DC is chock full of spies – it’s always interesting news when it comes out in the open. And for you it must have been even more a shock since you actually met this person!

  4. says

    Wow, that’s really crazy if he was! The only time I’ve ever felt like I was being followed was when I was in Bogota, Colombia. I felt like my every moment was being watched…creepy feeling!

  5. says

    @Millie: DC is a funny place because of that – you know they are around, but it only becomes real when it comes out in the open. I used to go to Oakton High School in Vienna, VA and every time I’d meet someone from Langley High School I could usually tell pretty quickly whether the parents were CIA based on the bizarre job description.

    @Andi: We only spent a day in Bogota, so didn’t have much time to get followed. Do you think you were being tracked by the police or by people wanting to perhaps separate you from your belongings?

    @Lola: Glad you enjoyed this. I would have loved to have seen a photo of the look on our faces when we received this news! Some of our best experiences in Central Asia happened when we were at homestays, so if you travel to this region don’t let this scare you off of them.

  6. says

    So interesting. I lived in Russia for a few months, my brother much longer, and he was tailed, poisoned and shot at. So glad you guys made it through safe, though it must feel quite unsettling to know all was not as it appeared to be.

  7. says

    That’s a really interesting story. I got talking to an Aussie guy who lives in Vietnam and he told me that he was definitely being spied on. Obviously I don’t know the truth of it, but he seemed like a fairly sane guy. He told me that in Vietnam the government uses a lot of the motorbike taxi guys as informants, a handy bi product of this interest is that when he was going around Hanoi he never had any problem getting a ride, and that the taxi guys always knew where to take him without him having to tell them!

  8. says

    @Krista: Woah, poisoned and shot at?! That’s pretty intense. I hope your brother made it out of Russia without too many physical or psychological issues!

    @Tom: That’s an interesting connection with the government using motorbike taxis as informants – they would be the right people since they naturally know the movements of everyone. I wonder if he had some sort of interesting job that the government wanted to know more about.

  9. says

    Yeah, it was crazy, Audrey! He was volunteering in a school and they put rat poison in his food. He was horribly sick for months with internal bleeding, but he’s fit as a fiddle now. :-)

  10. says

    Wow, I have never really considered that anyone would bother to tail/follow/track me in any way – particularly because as you pointed out, pretty much who I am is presented through the blog so I can’t imagine what interesting secrets people might assume I have! What an interesting experience…glad it worked out seemingly fine but hoping you don’t encounter another couch surfing like it :-)

  11. says

    @Krista: Rat poison? Holy cow. That’s like something from a bad movie. I’m so glad to hear he’s doing well now.

    @Shannon: Now, what would have been fun would have been to have had this knowledge in advance and then been more aware of things during the homestay! Perhaps plant a few interesting stories :)

    @Kyle: Funny, my parents haven’t really said anything yet. Then again, since they were diplomats they were used to our phones being tapped and being taken for CIA.

  12. Millie says

    @Audrey – that’s funny, you went to Oakton High School – I went to South Lakes High School – we’re rivals! But I know what you mean… I have plenty of friends and family who work for the government or are contractors. And when I meet someone and they say they work in Langley/McLean – CIA, Fort Meade – NSA, Quantico – FBI. Have you read the new Washington Post article/project – called Top Secret America (http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/) It’s definitely not only the Russia spying!

  13. says

    Here in Libya during a trip to a border town in the Sahara, the hotel owner where we were staying told us that after we had left for our (escorted) tour the police had come round asking about ‘the tourists’ (we were a group of 11 people)… We hadn’t even been there for 30 min and the police knew about us already… Left us questioning how they knew about us so quickly…

  14. says

    I’ve gotten to stay with the daughter of an FBI agent on my adventures in couchsurfing – but that too, like your note box at the top, was not arranged through CouchSurfing.com.

    I got to meet the guy, and he was friggin huge! Ultra firm handshake.

    Reading your article totally brought back the memories :) I did get to see them later on, as I was invited to the daughter’s wedding. She took out the stitches I had gotten in my head– which were not put there by the FBI man, but rather by a goofy mishap on a luggage cart :)

    My trip has only been through the USA so far… I’m dying to hit some of the destinations that you listed in the former Soviet Union, and China.

  15. says

    @Millie: I think I used to play South Lakes in tennis – small world. My parents were diplomats and still have a lot of government connections, so there was always speculation on which of their friends were spooks. As she just wrote me, “After all, spies are people too.” The DC area is a funny place to be.

    @Tony: Wow, that is quick to get news. Perhaps the last guesthouse called ahead to the police? When we stayed in a guesthouse in Burma, the owner opened up to us and told us that each time a foreigner checks in she has to make 11 copies of the passport and distribute to everyone from the firemen to the police station.

    @CouchSurfing Ori: While our first formal couchsurfing experience happened this year in South America, we did a lot of homestays in the Caucasus and Central Asia (friends of friends or community tourism organizations). It really enriched to our experiences there to stay with such a variety of locals, even with the threat of a KGB informant here or there. I can’t recommend traveling through Caucasus/Central Asia and China enough – a really fascinating areas.

  16. says

    Terrific article. This is what I love about travel — you open yourself up to experiences never before thought possible. Personally, I would have found it exhilarating to discover I had stayed with someone who works for the KGB.

    On a different topic, I’ve recently moved to South Korea to teach English, and I’ve found the language barrier to be a bit problematic. Do you have any articles on overcoming that barrier or any tips to learning a language quickly? I’ve been reading your site for a few hours now, and you just have so many posts. But I love it! Your website is really inspiring.

  17. says

    @Rebekah: It’s funny you ask about language barriers or how to pick up languages. I have a half-written draft about that topic since I tend to pick up languages pretty quickly on the road and I’m often asked how I do it. My best piece of advice in picking up languages is to try to speak all the time, even if you feel like you’re butchering the language, and be comfortable laughing at yourself. I find people are patient and will try to help you through. I also concentrate on phrases people say often in certain situations and begin mimicking those phrases until they become natural. It can be exhausting at times though since you’re concentrating and working all the time for just basic interactions.

    However, most of my experience has been with European languages (Estonian, Czech, Russian, French, Spanish) – I think Asian languages with the tones and character-based languages would be more difficult. Good luck!

  18. John Crane says

    I had such an experience in Pinsk, Belarus about ten years ago. I was the only person in this huge “tourist” restaurant – strange since there really are no tourists in Belarus to speak of. After I had ordered, a man walked into the restaurant, made a bee-line for my table, and asked if the seat across from me was free. Intrigued, I said it was. He then asked me questions about how I liked Belarus, why did I come to Belarus, and asked if I had had any problems with my visa. Then he asked, “Have you met any interesting Belarussian people here in Pinsk?” To which I replied, “Nope – only other tourists.”

    John

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