Chapter 16 – An Apprenticeship in Spycraft
Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
After I'd agree to work for the Americans, Carol started asking me about the people I knew in Khartoum. She had realised that as a Hungarian, I had far easier access to the Russians and others from the Soviet bloc than any US citizen.
So she created a challenge: if I want to go back to Hungary as an agent, let's do a trial here, to show what I can do.
My assignment was to put her in touch with a Russian or someone from the Warsaw Pact bloc, if possible a diplomat, and in such a way that others wouldn't know about it.
Her first suggested target was Nicolai's father, but I knew that wouldn't work out. He blamed me for taking his son into all sorts of shady business. We didn't like each other, he only spoke Bulgarian and frankly, he was like an old, brooding bulldog.
I had another idea: the Russians – more properly, the Soviets - also had a club of their own. In fact, ex-pat Russians in Khartoum could go nowhere else, except their own club. I knew Nicolai sometimes went there, so I'd work to get myself in with him, and see what worked out. It seemed a way forward.
So next time we met, I asked Nicolai what kind of films they showed at the Russian Club. He said they were mostly Russian, of course, but they could be good, especially those on the Second World War, lots of soldiers, blood and shooting. Well, for a teenager, that was fun and games.
So, we went to the Russian Club together one day. Because Nikolai was known there, I could go in if we were together. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, they weren't very happy about it. If Hungarians or any others from the Socialist bloc went in, I wouldn't say we were welcome. So much for the 'fraternal Socialist brotherhood of nations' of the propaganda writers.
But after a couple of visits, we made friends with a Ukrainian guy, also named Nikolaj, who was working in the commercial department at the Soviet embassy.
Nikloaj was into martial arts, specifically Sambo, which is something in between judo and wrestling. His problem was he had nowhere to train in Khartoum. He'd heard we were keen on judo, and asked if there was any chance he could join our training sessions in school?
Well, Nikolaj was no schoolboy, he was in his late 20s or early 30s, but we said sure, come along and train with us.
He joined in a few times, and was very happy. Then, since we usually went swimming at the German Club after training, I invited him there too. This was a test: the club was off-limits to Soviet citizens. Adding to the risk, the club was quite near his embassy. But the allure of slipping into a western club unnoticed was obviously strong, and after some hesitation, Nikolaj literally 'took the plunge'.
It was actually quite amusing. He always looked around, up and down the street, before he went in. It reminded me of a schoolboy sneaking into the pantry for some sweets, looking first to see if his mother was watching. You could see he was very proud of himself for daring to come to the German Club!
I think we went there two or three times, and got quite well acquainted with each other. Nikolaj knew that we also went for training at the American Club, but that was definitely off limits: the house opposite the club entrance was occupied by Russian officers, who we all assumed kept watch on visitors.
But after a few sessions at school, Nikolaj's original delight at finding somewhere to train began to wear off. We could train together, but it wasn't really fair. He was a young man, near 90 kg on the scales, and compared to him, we were children. Throwing us was hardly physical exertion.
So I suggested that if visiting the American Club was too dangerous, we'd invite Gary, the American marine, to our school as a guest trainer – and a far better match for Nikolaj.
I discussed this with Carol, who was all for it. She brought Gary into the conspiracy, and arranged for him to come into school, with the aim of making friends with Nikolaj. The ploy worked like a dream: the two were soon getting on well with each other during sessions.
This prompted Carol to ratchet things up. The US embassy had three big power boats, which they used for cruises up and down the Nile. We would invite Nikolai for a trip.
It worked. Nikolaj agreed to come along, thinking it would be with myself, Bulgarian Nicolai, and Gary. But on the day, Nicolai dropped out, and Carol came instead of Gary, who had “duties” to attend to. Carol was in charge of the boat.
The Nile at Khartoum is full of small, isolated islands, many ideal for a picnic, and the plan was to beach the boat on one of these. I was then to go off for a swim, leaving Carol and Nikolaj alone.
Once again, it worked: we found an inviting island, got out the hamper with food and drinks, and I excused myself to swim the Nile.
By the time I returned, about an hour and a half later, they were chatting and in good spirits. I don't know if Carol was successful or not, nor do I know if they met up again.
Since they didn't tell me, I didn't ask. I sensed, without any instruction, that in this business the fewer people know the better.
Certainly if Nikolaj was ready to work for the Americans, he could have considered it, but he didn't give any signs. I met him dozens of times in training afterwards, but he didn't mention anything.
Whatever, I did my bit, I got a Russian embassy official to meet Carol, in private. They could talk, face to face, without anybody else knowing it or hearing them.
After this, Carol told me to try to make friends with any Russians stationed in Khartoum.
Again, I used Nikolaj and visits to the Russian Club, hooking up with four or five who were stationed there. In fact, it turned out they lived in the house opposite the American Club.
It wasn't very easy to talk to them, because only one spoke decent-ish English, so he was always translating.
But, funnily enough, I found that these young army officers were, well very human. After they learned that I, as a Hungarian, was interested in what they were doing and how they were living, and that I didn't have any aversions to them – well, I tried to show that I didn't – then they became more friendly. You could, after all, discuss things with them.
Once they even invited me to their flat, and I was treated to some genuine Russian hospitality, with Slavic dishes washed down with lots of vodka.
Perhaps inevitably, they asked me about the American Club, just across from their front gate, and what you could do there. I told them about the swimming pool, the tennis courts and the martial arts training, and you could see on their faces that they were frustrated, unable to even get peep into a slice of the west that was so close, yet still so far.
It was forbidden fruit: they didn't feel free, and it annoyed them.
Interestingly, I didn't think their duties included watching visitors to the place as I had assumed. But apart from sensing they were not happy as Soviet citizens, with their movements so restricted even thousands of miles from their homes, I couldn't learn much about what they were actually doing.
I knew they were training soldiers on equipment that the Sudanese army had bought from the Soviet Union, but I could never learn what kind of weapons were involved or which army units they were teaching.
The Russians were very tight lipped when it came to anything military: I didn't want to ask directly, and I couldn't get any concrete information from any relaxed chatting.
Nikolaj and these Russian officers served as my apprenticeship in espionage.
I found it all interesting, even exciting. It was certainly increasingly more serious. In this phase, Carol outlawed our meetings in the club. Henceforth, we would meet in the evenings, either in her car or flat, away from any prying eyes: just in case.