M.I.C.E. – the KGB, the FBI, and Me. Part 2

Author: Jim Hickman

The John Denver adventures began in 1984, shortly after the first meeting of the  ASE in France. Through a mutual friend, John asked me to arrange a series of music concerts for him in the Soviet Union. This was in a time when all official cultural exchanges between the US and the USSR had been canceled after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. And it was a time when John was one of the most popular and best-selling US entertainers. Always looking for ways to accomplish contact that the governments could not facilitate, through Esalen connections in Moscow, I arranged for John to be hosted privately by the Soviet Composers Union. John was a relatively unknown personality in the USSR, so that ticket sales for his concerts were dismal a week before his first concert was scheduled. Responding to a question from Alex about the import of these appearances, I assured him that John could play an important role in reducing the tensions between our countries. Alex then reached out to his (the KGB’s) networks in Moscow, and in three days, all of John’s concerts were sold out.

John Denver and Jim Hickman, in front of the Hotel Sovietskaya, Moscow, June 1985
Copyright Jim Hickman
John Denver’s album recorded in the USSR, 1986

Similar assistance from Alex came when I produced the 1987 Billy Joel tours in Russia. Billy was one of the US’ most popular singers/songwriters, and his recording label wanted to film the concerts, broadcast them live to both the US and the USSR, and produce a documentary for HBO. A senior executive at Columbia Records came to Moscow with Billy and was surprised when Soviet customs refused to let him bring in a satellite broadcast dish and accompanying electronics. He commented, “once they find out who I am and how important our company is, they will release the technology immediately.” So, I contacted Alex, explained the situation to him, and asked for his assistance. The dish cleared customs later that day.  The record executive later said to me, “I told you they would let it in once they knew who I was.” Both the concerts in Moscow and Leningrad were broadcast live to both countries, and the documentary, “Live From Leningrad” (of which I was credited as Co-Producer), won the cable television award as the 1987 Best Music Special of the Year.

Billy Joel’s images, his family, and Russian friends during his 1987 concert tour of the USSR. Copyright Jim Hickman

Throughout these and other high-profile gatherings that were produced through the good reputation of the Esalen Soviet-American Exchange Program, the KGB had been helpful, though only peripherally involved. And, in the face of occasional mild threats to withhold visas or logistical support, I had never given the KGB anything. I was feeling quite pleased with myself.  Then, in 1987, the KGB escalated in two directions. First, Alex asked me to take a lie detector test.  Again, he told me that his bosses were sure that I was an American agent and that he needed to justify his involvement with me and prove I wasn’t an agent. I balked at first, but he reminded me of our friendship and said I could establish my honesty.  The whole idea appealed to my – yes, there it is – Ego.

I was to hear a similar pitch from Barry when the FBI asked me to take a lie detector test.  The Bureau had learned from a defector that a key member of singer John Denver’s two USSR tours was a paid KGB informant. It sounds pretty ridiculous now, and I doubt that any defector made such a ludicrous allegation.  But it was a very good way to get an innocent person to take a lie detector test. Barry told me he knew I wasn’t the one, but a test could prove it.  And I could help them find out who it was.

I took both tests, one in a crummy hotel room in Moscow, the other in a much nicer hotel in Santa Monica. The Russians used old, bulky equipment that they kept in one room while I sat in an adjoining room.  The wires from the machinery to my chair were so thick they couldn’t close the connecting door. I could watch and hear the needles on the machinery move with each answer. There were no forms to sign, no truth-establishing procedures to follow. They wanted to know if I was transmitting secret data by satellite, and they showed me a variety of pictures of people and asked if I knew any of them. One person was a friend I acknowledged (and afterward wondered if I would ever see him again), but the rest were strangers to me. After the test, they suggested that the female translator would love to accompany me to dinner and the opera later that evening.  I politely refused this “C” in M.I.C.E.

The FBI test was more professional, and the examiner was courteous, helpful, and concerned that I understood the questions. He had a nice, quiet, small machine.  I answered all their questions. They told me there were some irregularities in my responses, and they asked if I had answered everything truthfully and completely. I told them I had answered every question completely. I added that I had been traveling to the USSR since 1972 and couldn’t possibly tell them everything that ever happened over those 14 years unless they asked all the right questions. True to our policy, I repeated that I would only answer the questions they asked and do that completely. (I’ve since learned that this is a rather standard procedure: tell the person there are irregularities and see what more the person has to say.) There were more tests in other cities over the next two years.

The second change in KGB tactics came when, instead of Alex meeting me, his older hard-line companion Igor appeared. Igor asked me to gather specific information – public documents readily available, but edging on research data – and to meet with certain US Senators to learn about their attitudes toward the SALT agreement. They were starting to lean on me. I was angry and not a little frightened. I would not meet with him again.

I stopped seeing Alex, repelled by his manipulations, but knowing I would miss his companionship. I informed Barry of my decision. He told me that the KGB had carried out a “classic case of recruitment” and that the Bureau believed that Alex would not have helped us with our projects unless I had been providing the KGB with secrets. “I never knew any secrets. What secrets could I have revealed?” I never got an answer.  I hadn’t done anything wrong, yet they continued to presume there must be something.

At least it was over. I felt an incredible relief from the frustration and anger – and sometimes fear – of being caught between the KGB and the FBI. For nearly two years after the episode with Igor, I didn’t hear from either Alex or Igor or any of their associates. Then, walking down the street in Moscow one day, I ran into the man from Intourist who originally introduced me to Alex.  We chatted for a few minutes, and I returned to my office.  Within a couple of hours, my phone rang. It was Alex asking me to come over for dinner. I declined. I talked with him for a few minutes, learned about his “new” job, and again rejected his more insistent offer for dinner and said good night.

After returning to the US, I told Barry about this new approach and Alex’s new career – he was employed by an international joint venture, buying computers from Asia. Did Alex really leave the KGB, or was this just the new face of the old secret police? Barry told me several times that it was important that I never see Alex again. Then, he hesitated – “it sure would be great if you could obtain his business card and see where he is working now.”

Apparently, neither the KGB nor the FBI could let go.

Read the Part 1 of this blog post

Cite this article as: Jim Hickman, “M.I.C.E. – the KGB, the FBI, and Me. Part 2”, in New Age in Russia, 20/03/2023, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/?p=6614

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Anna Grechanaia (March 19, 2023). M.I.C.E. – the KGB, the FBI, and Me. Part 2. New Age in Russia. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/sblu

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