“The Russian Dissident Viktor Fainberg and Me.”
I studied Russian Language and Soviet Studies at Portsmouth University (UK) between 1972 and 1976. Never having studied Russian before, I had to do the Russian ‘A’ Level in the first of the four years.
Part of my course was the history of the Soviet Union, which obviously included Russia. The Russian history lecturer was Dr. Pavloff, who had studied at Berkeley University, California.
Dr. Pavloff was no fan of the Soviet Union and was heavily involved in the Russian dissident movement. In our second and third years, we were allowed to go to the Soviet Union for six weeks a year to improve our language skills.
The trips were always accompanied by a lecturer and my first trip was to be led by Dr. Pavloff. However, the Soviets refused to grant him a visa, so he couldn’t go.
He and I got on very well and a few weeks before we were to go, Dr. Pavloff asked me if I would meet a friend of his Viktor Fainberg, who was a famous Russian dissident (see Wikipedia for details).
Mr. Fainberg had become famous for demonstrating on the Red Square with Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babitsky, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremliuga, Pavel Litvinov, Natalya Gorbanevskaya and Tatiana Baeva in 1968 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Mr. Fainberg had spent years in corrective camps and psychiatric wards for dissent against anti-Semitism and dictatorship. Anyway, I met Viktor with Dr. Pavloff in the Wiltshire Lamb public house in Portsmouth in the summer of 1974 when I was 19.
We talked in a mixture of Russian and English, partly because my Russian was not good enough and nor was his English and partly to discourage eavesdroppers overhearing our conversation. Dr. Pavloff translated both ways for us too.
We talked about this and that for about an hour then Viktor asked me if I would do a favour for him when I went to the Soviet Union. I agreed, so he gave me a sealed envelope within an open envelope. He said that the inner envelope contained a letter to his son, who was still trapped in Leningrad.
The inner envelope carried no address for security reasons, but the outer one bore contact details. I was to memorize them and destroy it before boarding the plane. He described his son in some detail and told me about his background so that I might better recognize him as he was shy and retiring.
He also asked me to distribute a dozen Russian Bibles for him, which he would get to me later. I knew that Bibles were banned in the USSR. Dr. Pavloff would supply them just before we set off for Leningrad.
One day, about two weeks into the trip, I met a girl on the Nevsky Prospekt. That happened several times a day, because foreigners stood out by their clothing. She asked me if I would like to go back to her parent’s flat for a meal and help her with her English homework. She was about 21, so I supposed she was a university student too.
I went with her and while she cooked, I talked to her father. We got on well, but that is another story. Just before leaving, I had a brainwave. Public phones were traced, so I asked if I could use his. I rang Viktor’s son and arranged to meet him outside our hotel in 30 minutes.
I stood on the corner about five minutes early and saw a very nervous-looking young man walking towards me. His eyes flicked from side to side and at me. He fitted the description, so I took a step towards him when he was about four feet away.
Suddenly, I was tapped on the shoulder and the nervous man changed direction sharply and walked away. I turned to see a well-dressed man with the looks and physique of a film star standing there beaming at me. He held out his hand:
“Hello”, he said, “I am Viktor’s son. How is my Dad? You just rang, so I dropped everything to meet you. Let’s go in here and you can tell me everything over a cold beer”.
This man spoke with an American accent, but the man on the phone only spoke Russian. This man was confident. The man on the phone had been frightened and this man was leading me into a valuta bar, a foreign currency only bar, where Russians were not allowed to go.
We talked for an hour and he kept ordering more beer for us. He wanted to know where ‘his father’ was; what he was doing; was he still insane; did he still hate the USSR etc, etc, but all in a jovial off-hand way as if he were talking about a wayward, silly child.
I told him a few things that I made up but did not give him the letter. I shook his hand and took his contact details which I said that I would pass on to Viktor, which I did do.
He paid the bar bill and we left the hotel bar. A car pulled up immediately and he jumped in. He was waving as it sped off.
I was left on the pavement, thinking about what had just happened. Viktor’s son’s phone must have been tapped – I hadn’t thought of that.
I was thinking that it might be better to ponder it over another beer, when I saw the first man across the road. He was walking up and down a 10 foot stretch very quickly, turning on his heels to walk back and forth, but his gaze never left me.
I ran across the road and as he turned to run off, I grabbed him, said in Russian ‘Your father is thinking of you’ and stuffed the envelope into his hand. He looked at me from a few inches with tears in his eyes and he took off without looking back.
I don’t know whether the nervous man was Viktor’s son or not, but I know that the film star definitely wasn’t.
Owen Jones Bio: Owen Jones was born in Barry, South Wales, where he lived until going to Portsmouth to study Russian at 18. After finishing his degree, he moved to s’Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands where he lived for ten years.
At 32, Owen moved back to Barry to work within his family’s construction company, first as a painter and then as a director, or, as the bank once corrected him, a painter and decorator. He was also office manager for ten years.
At the age of 50 Owen moved to Thailand to live with a Thai girl that he met while there on holiday. He married the woman and now lives in her village of birth in remote northern Thailand.
Sonia Marsh Says: This is an intriguing “spy” story. Your life seems to be full of “gutsy” adventures. I know you live in a small village in northern Thailand today which sounds interesting to someone who lives in a crowded city.
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