New Agers and the Spies who Loved us
Beginning in 1972, I spent three decades collaborating with Soviets researching exceptional human abilities including parapsychology, all modes of healing, accelerated learning, shamanism, and what the Soviets called “hidden human reserve capacities”. My experiences included adventures with Soviet President Gorbachev, three US Presidents, Hot Tub Diplomacy with the Soviet elite, Rock ‘n Roll Diplomacy with Billy Joel, John Denver and well-known Soviet musicians, “spooks from both sides of the Iron Curtain”, and a continuing collaborative search for that place where mind and matter meet. These endeavors, pursued along with dozens of other “citizen diplomats” like me, emerged from our commitment to change the enemy-making atmosphere between the two countries and drew the attention of the intelligence/security communities. This blog series begins with my side of that story.
It began innocently enough, with a phone call in San Francisco and a dinner in Moscow. It ended with a pair of lie detector tests in hotel rooms 8,000 miles apart, one given by the FBI in Los Angeles and the other administered by the KGB in Moscow. I was recruited by the FBI and the KGB in the early 1980’s, never worked for either of them and by the end, each side was convinced that I had been compromised by the other.
This scrutiny by the intelligence communities developed because my colleagues and I at Esalen Institute in California were studying extraordinary human abilities that paralleled Soviet interests in understanding “hidden human reserve capacities”. Our joint interests led us to develop a series of collaborative US-USSR projects designed to “take the high ground” together in a time when nuclear holocaust and the global communist conspiracy held us hostage to the belief that only our leaders could guard us against these demons. As we began to understand at Esalen, it is, in fact, the attitudes of our culture, our leaders, and our unconscious psyche that can keep us prisoners of such a belief. This approach to human behavior and relationships was a hallmark of the “New Age” movement in the US and an attractor for Soviet people in politics, the arts, science, media and business who felt a call to touch their “higher nature”.
What became apparent to millions of people around the world in the last two decades of the 20th century was that individuals in both the US and the USSR working outside of governments could collaborate and create breakthroughs. Such dramatic shifts were the result of changing the misperceptions and dangerous attitudes that had long been promoted in both cultures. This rescripting of perceptions by ordinary people led to the creation of pathways toward peace for governments to follow. The Esalen Soviet-American Exchange Program (ESAEP) was a stimulus for hundreds of citizen exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union in efforts to overcome those fears and misperceptions between the two countries.
Naturally, as such “counterculture” activities among political enemies emerged, the existing power elite sought to coopt the expanding participant community into an asset for the old-line political agendas. In my case, the FBI came first.
As part of the Esalen program, I was traveling extensively between the US and the USSR and every trip was preceded by a visit to the San Francisco USSR Consulate to obtain a visa. Over one four-month period, I had three different FBI agents visit me in my San Francisco apartment. Each one questioned me about my visits to the Soviet Consulate on Green Street, which the Bureau kept under constant surveillance. Visitors were then traced through their automobile license plates. I would explain my citizen diplomacy projects and brief them on my most recent experiences. I didn’t feel any intrusion, except over the waste of time required to educate a new agent every few weeks; why couldn’t the Bureau send the same person? Actually, it was fun, playing a little spy game.
In early 1981, Andrei Kokoshin, one of the Kremlin’s experts on the United States, at that time Deputy Director of the Institute of USA and Canadian Studies, who had an intellectual interest in the Esalen activities, came to San Francisco to participate in our exchange program. I picked him up at the Consulate after his obligatory check-in with the Consul General (or the KGB resident from the FBI’s perspective). I had parked several blocks away just to see what the FBI would do. When I met Andrei on the sidewalk as he exited the consulate gate, an FBI car conspicuously followed us to my parked car. The FBI watcher noted my license plate and zoomed off, making sure that we noticed him.
I told Andrei what had just happened and he scolded me for playing such a childish game. He said, “you have nothing to hide and neither do I. Your stated philosophy to us has been that you are open and honest with everyone. I suggest you telephone the FBI, tell them exactly what you are doing, and ask for an agent to be assigned to you permanently so this kind of thing isn’t necessary. It will save them a great deal of trouble and all of us will be better able to participate in your program.”
So, after Andrei returned to Moscow, I called the FBI and began my relationship with Barry Bonner, then head of counterintelligence at the San Francisco field office. Whenever we hosted a Soviet citizen in the US or visited with a Soviet diplomat anywhere in the country, I briefed Barry about our conversations and plans. In exchange, he provided me with some background information on our guests. And, if he thought a specific Soviet guest had no real interest in our projects but was using us for his own agenda, Barry would give me fair warning. He understood that I placed limits on our relationship. I would not undertake any tasks specifically for him that were outside the normal range of my activities. I would answer his questions completely, but I would not volunteer information. I wouldn’t discuss any personal problems or psychological traits I learned about my Soviet friends. In short, I would not in any way assist him to spy or to recruit spies.
The first test of our relationship provided more laughs than classified information. As our programs attracted more attention in Moscow and increasing numbers of academics and policy makers expressed interest in participating, we were advised to invite Igor Makarov, the Soviet science attaché, to visit San Francisco from the Washington DC USSR Embassy. His endorsement of the program would be influential in expanding our reach with influential members of the Soviet political elite. Upon informing Barry of Igor’s upcoming visit, he informed me that Igor “was a high-ranking member of the KGB who ran one of the biggest spy rings in America and was undoubtedly coming with a different purpose than to discuss the human potential movement.” Igor was charming, well-informed, and intelligent, traits the FBI emphasized were developed as part of his cover.
I agreed to keep Barry informed of all details of his movements and Barry told me that an FBI agent would tail the Russian everywhere. One of our co-hosts, the San Francisco Zen Buddhist Center, provided accommodations for Igor during his stay. Each morning at four, black-robed Buddhists would file into their temple for meditation and bleary eyed, unshaven FBI watchers would scrutinize the throng, certain that a disguised Makarov was lurking among them, looking for his opening to break out of the surveillance net in order to “meet with his spies to subvert our country.” Never happened.
I had become a player. I had called Barry to talk about Igor and had received information from the FBI. I hadn’t done everything they wanted. I wasn’t playing the game as seriously as they wanted. But, they believed, I had definitely put my foot onto the FBI playing field.
The KGB recruitment came later and will be described in my next part.
This blog post in Russian
Cite this article as: Jim Hickman, “New Agers and the Spies who Loved us”, in New Age in Russia, 20/04/2020, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/4529