Publication in Asia Times of the Introduction to William J. Holstein’s book The New Art of War takes me way back. The book is about spies for China. As it happened, I’d first known the author back in the early 1980s when we were both learning from experience how to deal with spies in China.
Correspondents from the United States had only recently been permitted to reside in Beijing, as part of the thaw that had begun in the early ’70s with China’s “Ping-Pong diplomacy.” Holstein in his article alludes to the omnipresence of Chinese spies, who watched – and listened in on – us pretty much full time.
But the Soviets were also out in force, as they had much to lose from the Sino-American rapprochement. One Soviet spy very obviously was assigned to get close to Bill Holstein, who represented United Press International, and to me, the Baltimore Sun’s man in Beijing.
George Terekhov officially was number two in the TASS news agency bureau, but Bill and I didn’t need to be geniuses to realize that, behind that cover, he actually worked in one of the intelligence services. After all, it had been reported in the newspapers, shortly before his arrival, that he’d been expelled from India for spying.
George had a wife, real or pretend, named Lucia, who was said to have been a practicing neurologist back home in the USSR. Two children lived with them in their apartment in a diplomatic compound.
Bill and I and our wives liked the Terekhov couple and had no objection when they made clear they wanted to be social friends. After all, we might learn something from bringing the Third Man into our little group, something that we could use in our news-gathering work.
We spent many an evening in their company, with the always charming George finishing things off by strumming on his guitar and singing.
We knew very well, Bill and I, that we needed to avoid being compromised. George before long tried to persuade Bill to bring him, from the Holsteins’ Hong Kong shopping trips, technical documents on Western electronic products – a request that Bill realized would more than likely be replaced later, if he acceded to it, with more serious requests for information.
Instead, Bill brought in Scotch and traded some bottles to George for the excellent Georgian brandy that all Soviets abroad had access to back in those days. Bill made sure the balance owing on his side of the transactions was never large.
Over to me
Whether it was purely a spy’s attempt to create obligation or a normal human kindness, or both, the Terekhovs saved the life of my then-wife, who had given birth to a baby in a Beijing hospital and in the process contracted a rare and quite serious blood disease, idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura.
My editors in Baltimore had conveyed her diagnosis to the world-renowned Johns Hopkins University Hospital, also in Baltimore, and passed along to us the hospital’s prescription: a vast quantity of Prednisone, a steroid taken by mouth.
When Lucia heard how much had been prescribed she was horrified. My wife must have daily calcium injections or that quantity of Prednisone would turn her bones to powder, the doctor said. Had the world’s greatest hospital neglected to mention that?
It had. So the former neurologist set up a routine in which she would show up at midday in our apartment and inject the requisite calcium.
One day I happened to go home from the office just as the doctor was giving the injection in the bedroom. In the living room I found her husband George, who had accompanied Lucia.
He was seated in my favorite easy chair and reading a 1978 novel by Graham Greene, The Human Factor, which I had just finished. The plot, briefly, involves a British secret service man who feels an obligation to a communist who once helped the MI6 man’s wife out of a precarious situation in South Africa. As Moscow has planned all along, the MI6 man ends up helping the communists.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “Do you like Graham Greene?”
“Very much. I actually had lunch with him in London, when I was there as representative of Soviet medical book publishers.”
“Well, by all means, please take the book as our gift, just a very small token of thanks.”
We lost touch after changes of posting some months later but it eventually became clear that Dr Lucia had been absolutely right. Her calcium injections had saved my wife’s life.
When the Cold War ended, quite a few of my Soviet journalist friends in Tokyo revealed themselves to have been KGB agents, in some cases colonels. However, the one I really wanted to talk to at that point – in order to thank him and Lucia – could not be found. None of those other Russians even knew his name. Bill Holstein, likewise, was unable to track the Terekhovs down.
The best I could figure was that George hadn’t given his real name and he was such a high-level spy – a general, I continue to imagine – that he was still in the game somewhere, strumming his guitar for targeted Americans on behalf of Vladimir Putin and other holdouts. My guess is, he never came in from the cold.
Bradley K. Martin’s spy novel Nuclear Blues is currently being serialized by Asia Times.