On a limpid autumn day in 1977, my phone rang in the Age’s office in the Canberra press gallery. We were in the rabbit warren of second-floor rooms in what is now the Old Parliament House. A heavily accented voice said, “Good afternoon, Mr Thomas. My name is Oleg Petrovich Tsitsarkin. I am with the Soviet embassy.”
“Well, hi, Oleg Petrovich! What can I do for you?”
“I would say first, that at the embassy we think highly of your economics writing.”
That was nice, I love compliments. I had been Economics Writer for the Age for seven years.
“Thanks. I do my best.”
Mr Tsitsarkin continued, “I must tell you I have a problem. My boss Mr Shilin sends a monthly briefing on economic policy back to Moscow, and he has gone on leave and these briefings I now have to write. But I do not know much about your economics and my reports will be criticised. Perhaps you can help me with advice?”
“Sure! CPI, GDP, SRDs, whatever. I’m a walking encyclopaedia.”
“Mr Thomas, let us have lunch and a talk. You can explain about Mr Howard’s Treasury policies perhaps. May I suggest next Monday, the 19th Hole at the golf club?”
I don’t know about other journalists but I would sell my grandmother for a swanky lunch. Plus I had been angling unsuccessfully for an exclusive interview with the reclusive Soviet Ambassador Mr A.V. Basov, and Mr Tsitsarkin could be a useful lever.
The Royal Canberra Golf Club’s restaurant is no longer called the 19th Hole, but it’s still a ritzy joint for “a memorable and enjoyable experience”. That’s what I got, four decades ago.
I gathered for Mr Tsitsarkin some economic bumph that cascaded across my Age desk, and a speech or two by the Treasurer.
He was a slim and nervous chap about my age (then thirty-seven). The restaurant had glossy panels and pretty views of the links. I ordered a rare steak and breezily selected a shiraz. Mr Tsitsarkin gallantly approved my choice. He was full of bonhomie and seized upon my “Treasury Round-Ups” with gratitude. I impressed him with the finer points of fiscal and monetary settings.
I mentioned my desire to interview the ambassador. A great idea! He would talk to the first secretary, Mr Pavlov, this very afternoon on my behalf.
By the end of the bottle I was full of goodwill. Poor Mr Tsitsarkin, he didn’t get out much, literally, holed up in the Soviet residential compound. His wife Ekaterina would get out even less. He was a guy just trying to do a difficult job. We had things in common.
“Tell you what, Oleg,” I said brightly. “Grab your wife and have dinner at our place in Empire Circuit. What about next Thursday?”
That was only a few days ahead. I was taking a real risk here, not because I was dealing with sinister Russians but because my then wife did not like being sprung with dinner guests at short notice.
Oleg gave a startled response. Sure, thank you, he said, he would ring me back to confirm. He seemed to have come by taxi so I offered to drop him back at his office in my Cortina. As we neared the embassy in Canberra Avenue, he suddenly remembered some dry-cleaning to collect at the local shops. I dropped him off there and returned to Parliament.
I waited for his acceptance to dine with Mr and Mrs Thomas. Days passed, Thursday came and went. I was curious about this breach of good manners, but spared a row with Mrs Thomas, so I didn’t think much more about it.
A couple of months passed and the phone rang again. It was Oleg, as if he’d never stood me up. How about lunch? Well, why not.
His new choice of restaurant was a budget-priced Chinese at Belconnen about fifteen kilometres out. When we met, he was at a table at the edge of the room. (Interjection from John le Carré—“So he can check out anyone else entering!”) Oleg had a few things to discuss and I was happy to enlighten him: the press secretary to the Minister for Resources was so-and-so, the private secretary was so-and-so, to get an appointment you would go through the chief-of-staff.
My interview with the ambassador? Oh, he’s been travelling, no opportunity. Expect an invitation any day now.
We parted amicably. He didn’t need a lift home.
He would ring now and then with inane questions. All my calls back to the embassy, I later realised, were three-way, with ASIO listening in and keeping an eye (ear?) on things.
The embassy now seemed lukewarm about my value. The next Oleg invitation, in early 1979, was for lunch—at McDonald’s!—to talk more economics. I liked getting tidbits about the diplomatic circuit. This time I showed up with my three-year-old daughter, who loved Maccas and chips, and I again handed over a few economics bulletins in an A4 envelope.
He looked a bit surprised to find we had a threesome. In fact it was a fivesome. ASIO, I later learned, had assigned a young man and woman, ostensibly courting or skirting domesticity, to join us at Maccas. Sadly, the racket in the store made conversation too hard to record.
Oleg accepted my envelope somewhat nervously. The ASIO couple took careful note. Technically it was a “live drop”, much interior to the favoured “dead drop” in the espionage world.
Oleg fobbed me off again on the ambassadorial interview. I still thought it would be nice to meet the friendly couple at home over dinner, and this time he accepted for lunch. But Mrs Tsitsarkin didn’t speak good English and he would come solo, he said.
Mrs Thomas was far from pleased but turned on some chicken and salad. Oleg arrived bearing children’s books for our three-year-old. They were dowdy but nice and the Russian illustrators ignored the Western convention (to this day) that puppy dogs lack an anus. All the rear views of the Russian puppy dogs included a small black dot.
At the table, the awkward atmosphere got worse when Mrs Thomas, who had never wanted this socialising, abruptly turned the conversation to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, now in the USA. Why was the Soviet Union bad-mouthing him? she demanded.
Poor Oleg. Whatever he replied would have repercussions. He would give the party line on Solzhenitsyn, even if it meant hostilities with Mrs Thomas and loss of best-buddy status with me.
Solzhenitsyn was a dishonest person who had cheated in his high school exams, he said, and became an army coward and was now in someone’s pay to blacken the good name of Soviet society. Mrs Thomas revved up the dispute.
The rest of the lunch was frosty. Oleg decided he had little to lose, and made an announcement: “I wish to speak to Mr Thomas—alone!”
Mrs Thomas’s face changed colour at being ordered out of her own dining room. She exited with bad grace. I sensed I was going to hear more about this later.
With her out of the way, Oleg came close and lowered his voice. “I want to ask you, will China invade North Vietnam?”
I was dumbstruck. Why ask me? I had an inspiration. “You know, the Far East Economic Review had a piece on this topic only yesterday. I’ll find it.”
I rummaged through the pile on the coffee table, found the magazine, flicked to the article, ripped it out, and handed it to him with a pleased expression. He took it, unimpressed, and soon after he departed. I never heard from him again. A month later, China invaded Vietnam.
Alert readers may wonder how I know ASIO was on my case. Here’s how. A couple of years later I stayed the weekend in London with a friend, Ken, in the Australian public service. Also staying was another chap, Maurice. Ken mentioned that Maurice was with ASIO. I got chatting privately with Maurice and related my trysts with Tsitsarkin. We were interrupted and I never got to finish the story. We all went our separate ways.
Months later, back in Melbourne, Maurice phoned me and suggested lunch. Nothing loath, I agreed and over steak and shiraz, this time ASIO-financed, I gave him the full saga.
Maurice had done his homework and probed my inconsistencies. He seemed less interested in Oleg than in the Soviet embassy’s press attaché, Mr Lev Koshliakov. “Tell me about your contacts with him,” Maurice said.
I racked my brains. He was the chap I originally phoned for an interview with the ambassador. But I denied any other contact. Maurice kept at me. Eventually he disclosed his hand: they had logged me making a couple of calls I had forgotten about. Maybe Maurice was concerned I was using innocuous lines as code to Koshliakov. I hope I straightened him out. I also explained what was in the A4 envelopes I was handing over to the Soviets.
“Why so concerned about Koshliakov?” I asked.
“It’s like this. Koshliakov was the senior KGB man in the embassy. The press attaché bit was his cover. Some of his stuff was illegal and we hoped to expel him back to Moscow.
“Now about Oleg. He wasn’t that important but we like to know what they want to know. He was low-level GRU, that’s the military intelligence. He was called third secretary. I don’t know why he was cultivating you. Sometimes it’s cloak-and-dagger but sometimes these guys are genuinely at sea and need a local’s advice.” I was relieved. I usually take people, even Russians, at face value.
What about that first dinner invitation to Oleg and his wife, that he ignored? Maurice laughed. “To him, entrapment. Same as you trying to drive him back to the embassy. Everyone knows that we have photographers across the road.”
My economics help to Oleg? Useless, said Maurice. “Anything published, they already had. That’s why you got downgraded to McDonald’s.” I flinched.
In Canberra a few years later, a Labor Party apparatchik, David Combe, formed a friendship with a Russian diplomat and KGB man, Valery Ivanov. It blew up, Bob Hawke expelled Ivanov, and Combe was severely punished—by being sent to Western Canada as senior trade commissioner. Why am I never punished like that?
I was stupid to have any truck with Russians. Or, and this is delicious, I should have rung ASIO to be “wired” for my meetings with Oleg. But how would this fit with my day job? Technically, I should also have asked my Age editor Greg Taylor if he wanted an agent on the payroll. (Probably not!)
As for my hopes of an interview with Ambassador Alexander Vasilievich Basov, he was most unlikely to have been beguiled into giving me a colorful, potentially Walkley-winning scoop. I now know from John Blaxland’s Vol 11 ASIO history that Basov was a full member of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee (most unusual for an ambassador), and freshly arrived here from ministering to the ill-fated Marxist President of Chile, Salvador Allende, who shot himself while literally besieged by the CIA’s minions. ASIO found Basov ‘dogmatic, thrusting and difficult to deal with’. During his tenure in Canberra he flooded ASIO with work, from his ‘political interference in local affairs’ and ‘recruitment of agents of influence’ (ouch!).
The other day I acquired my ASIO file. It showed me tick-tacking with Tsitsarkin about a lunch at the Lotus restaurant (sounds plausible) on October 19, 1977. Then there were many pages about Tony Thomas doing rabid agitprop for the Palestinians against the Israelis—mistaken identity by ASIO, as that was a different “Tony Thomas”.
Then nothing (time-travelling backwards) until December 1972, when I attended evening cocktails at the Soviet embassy in my capacity as National Press Club treasurer. This evening appeared uneventful to me but a Soviet official, Lazovic, kept calling in as Duty Officer to see if everything was “in order”. It wasn’t. Soviet official Morosov “was reported to be ‘very drunk’ at 2225 hours and was collected from the residence and taken home”.
Geronty Lazovic, it emerged last year, went on to recruit a top agent inside ASIO or Defence and earned a medal for it. More satisfying than carting drunk Russians home from cocktail parties.
As for Koshliakov, he was rated Moscow’s most dangerous agent in Australia, with more than 115 press contacts. I could have been number 116. He became KGB station chief in Norway, was busted for spying, and got handed a top job at Aeroflot where he remained until at least 2010, about his retirement age of sixty-five.
On the excitements of my briefings of Oleg Tsitsarkin, ASIO files were blank. Not blacked out, but blank. Yet according to my chats with Maurice, ASIO was seriously interested. A little mystery there!
As to my part in Brezhnev’s downfall, well, sticking him for my steak and shiraz at the 19th Hole was another straw on the camel’s back.