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Dear John

Published in The New Yorker, January 28, 1961

Now that more and more tourists are going to Russia, there rises the vital question of what’s to be done if and when you are followed by the secret police. One answer that has come to my attention is that of Mrs. Robert B. Meyner, the Governor's wife, whose thought-provoking report appeared under the headline "MRS. MEYNER ROUTED RED WITH SWEETNESS" in the New York Daily News of July 25, 1959.

The attractive wife of Gov. Robert B. Meyner of New Jersey gave a lesson yesterday on how to handle suspicious characters who follow you in Moscow.

Interviewed at International Airport after she and her husband returned from a governors' tour of Russia, Mrs. Meyner said a man had followed her for about 20 minutes while she was shopping

"He might have been a security policeman," she said. "I stopped to buy an ice-cream cone, suddenly turned and gave it to him, and he thanked me in Russian and disappeared."

"Spasibo" is the Russian word for thank you. With that in mind, a little imagination can bring alive the whole heartening incident -- Mrs. Meyner elbowing down the aisles of GUM, the Moscow department store, the Russian secret agent treading behind her, Mrs. Meyner ordering him a double scoop of chocolate chip, the Russian muttering "Spasibo," and, with a shy, apologetic smile, disappearing through the door on Kuibysheva Street. We can also imagine the presence of Meyner himself, tagging along at some distance and grumpily picking up the bills. "Who the blazes was that?'' he asks her.

"I don’t know. He might have been a security policeman," Mrs. Meyner replies.

"You seemed to set him at ease quickly enough."

"Shucks, I gave him an ice-cream cone, that's all."

"An ice-cream cone…clever! How did you think of that?"

"Well, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach – Mother always said."

Much the same reassuring experience has been reported by other visitors to Moscow. Memorable among them are Marvin L. Kalb, the correspondent there for CBS News and author of Eastern Exposure, and Mr. X, an English scientist who appears under that pseudonym in John Gunther’s Inside Russia Today. Let me rehearse their adventures. Kalb’s occurred on January 29, 1956, while taking the Kirovsko-Frunzenskaya line of Moscow’s subway from the Gorky Park of Culture and Rest to the Sverdlov stop. It was in this subway car, he writes in his book, that he first became suspicious of a man standing to his left, dressed completely in black.

He was not at all bad looking, rather young, and somewhat nervous (he kept twitching his moustache). He stood not two feet from me, looking at me, not smiling, dead serious.

At the third stop, I got off, walked out to the street, and spotted the huge and marvelously impressive Bolshoi Theater. I stood looking at it, but the cold made me change my mind about too long an appreciation, and I darted back quickly, only to bump into someone. The same man in black. I suspected he was on my tail. I had heard in Washington that, though times have changed, the Russians might put a tail on a newcomer to Moscow. By the time we reached Red Square, I was certain. He was right behind me no more than 10 feet away, and no one would follow me around on this freezing afternoon who wasn't assigned the job. I entered GUM's the fabulous, large Macy-ish department store which fronts on Red Square, to get out of the cold and to look around. My man was right behind me. I smiled to him. He did not smile back, I approached a small stand where a woman was selling ice cream. I asked her for two cones. I paid her, started to eat one and then, without looking around but sensing he was right behind me, I simply extended one of the ice cream cones back. To my amazement, he took it.

And never came back again, according to Kalb.

Mr. X’s beguilement of the secret police occurred in 1956, Gunther reports, and it seems to have followed a similar pattern in spite of X's rather pinch-fisted behavior in going Dutch.

A young Englishman whom I shall call Mr. X arrived in Russia early last year to do some scientific research. He knew Russian perfectly. On his first afternoon he took a walk. He noticed at once that a man who had been waiting in the hotel lobby followed him. Mr. X walked hard and fast down one street and up another; his shadow stuck close behind. Mr. X took a bus. His shadow got on the same bus. Mr. X. went to GUM and wandered through its corridors, but he could not separate himself from his friend. He left GUM, took a ride in the subway, and walked back. His shadow never left him.

At last, exhausted, he stepped into the elaborate ice-cream shop near the Red Square and ordered some morozhenoye. His shadow sat down at the next table, and ordered the identical dish. Mr. X then turned to him with outstretched hand, grasped his warmly and exclaimed, "We might as well be friends!" From that day he never saw the man again and, so far as he knows, was never shadowed or followed a second time.

I am citing these episodes for a reason. As fortune would have it, I myself was sightseeing in Moscow not long ago and... More