And the sign said, ‘You are leaving the American sector’…

By Martin Kufus

Sometimes a movie, even fictional, can trigger real memories that transport a viewer decades back in his own life. The 2015 film “The Man from UNCLE”—a remake of an old American TV show—was such a time machine for me, a middle-aged American and military-intelligence veteran of the Cold War.

The spy-fi film is set in 1963. It begins in West Berlin as a man in a business suit, wearing sunglasses and carrying a briefcase, confidently strolls eastward toward Checkpoint Charlie. American agent Napoleon Solo begins a secret mission into the city’s Soviet sector. The CIA’s best agent, he already is under surveillance by Russian Illya Kuryakin, a violent but gallant man who is the Soviet KGB’s best agent. Soon, the two adversaries abruptly are ordered into a CIA–KGB partnership against neo-Nazis who secretly have built an atomic weapon. In 1966 my family watched the original “Man from UNCLE” every Friday evening on a black-and-white television in our little house on the American prairie. A 10-year-old boy then, I thrilled at the international adventures of Solo and Kuryakin—and wondered how an American and a Russian could work so well together. Weren’t our countries enemies?

  In the darkened theater, seated beside my girlfriend, I gazed at the movie screen as my memories leapt forward in time… East Berlin seemed gray as we entered. Having transited the Wall, passing through Checkpoint Charlie on a chartered bus scrutinized by rifle-toting East German border guards, a few dozen of us GIs soon were strolling around like tourists. The bus had stopped in front of a large department store at Alexanderplatz. The building had several floors of public commerce; above them were several floors of big, mirrored windows: likely surveillance perches, I thought, for the KGB, GRU military intelligence, or East Germany’s Stasi secret police. It was early 1988, a time reverberating with the West German antiwar rock band Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” Austrian singer Falco’s “Der Kommissar,” and US President Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech. The Cold War paranoia and restrained menace were exciting. I felt a bit of adrenaline.

After World War II, the victorious Allies—Britain, France, the USSR, and USA—carved up war-torn Berlin into four sectors. In the following decades, the US Army encouraged its GIs (the better-behaved among us) to visit East Berlin to exercise the Allied right of access. Soviet troops, however, weren’t so privileged. Seemingly the only Soviets who passed westward through Checkpoint Charlie into the American sector were military, perhaps GRU, officers in little marked cars of the Soviet Military Liaison Mission—followed at a polite distance by our counterintelligence personnel. Having travelled “the corridor” to West Berlin from my Army station in Bavaria, I made two half-day treks into East Berlin. It was so cool; if I had had any hair on the back of my clean-shaven neck, it would’ve been standing up. This was, after all, the Checkpoint Charlie—the cross hairs of the Cold War. For this farmboy from Oklahoma, it was an international adventure!

I wore my business suit, the pickle-green, Class-A uniform of the US Army. The crazy thing about these East Berlin excursions for American soldiers was that, by regulation, we wore our uniforms but only without name tags. Of course, any informed observer like a KGB or GRU officer not only could clearly see the American soldier’s rank (I was a sergeant) but also unit (I was in the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command), and medals (I didn’t have many ribbons). Also, there might be signs of additional training and skills: I wore a Ranger (special infantry) qualification tab on my left shoulder and both American and Egyptian paratrooper “wings” on my chest.

A Russian linguist in signal intelligence who also spoke German—and, unafraid to open my mouth for short, polite conversations—I suspected I was being watched as I strolled around East Berlin. (And, of course, I tucked a copy of Pravda under my arm.) With other tourists, I slowly walked through the Museum of the History of the Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany; outside the building sat an immaculate T-34—the tank that won the European war—on a concrete-block pedestal. A slogan in large, white letters on the tank’s turret proclaimed “Mother–Country!” I made a point of paying my respects at the Treptow war memorial that held the mass grave of 5,000 of the 80,000 Red Army troops who died in 1945 in the Battle for Berlin. I had never seen anything like this place. Later, there was a small lump in my throat as I left the memorial. A married couple approached on the sidewalk as they entered the grounds. I politely asked them in Russian if they would take my photo with my camera. “Da, da,” the husband replied. I posed in front of a magnificent statue—a Red Army soldier in full battle gear, kneeling in grief—as the man snapped my picture.

At a corner I quietly joined a handful of Soviet soldiers (in their best uniforms) waiting for traffic to stop for the crosswalk. In my peripheral vision I detected the one on the end leaning forward slightly, slowly turning his head to the right to look out the corner of his eye at me. I was a “wise guy” at that stage of life; so, I leaned forward and slowly looked to the left. Our eyes met. The young Soviet soldier looked away and stood upright. Traffic stopped and we all walked off. I suppressed a chuckle.

Nowadays, in the “post-Cold War” world, I occasionally have this odd thought: Was then-KGB counterintelligence officer Vladimir Putin watching me in February 1988 in East Berlin? That thought makes me laugh out loud.

(Copyright: Martin Kufus, 2015)

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