YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Shcharansky Free at Last After Brisk Trade in Symbols

February 16, 1986|Ross Thomas | Ross Thomas' novel "Missionary Stew" was awarded the Deutsche Krimi Preis 1986 as best crime novel of the year by the Bochumer Kriminal Archiv in Berlin. and

Only a few Western reporters, a mere handful, really, were unable to resist calling it "the bridge of spies." But that angle was dead even before Anatoly Shcharansky crossed over last week from Potsdam to West Berlin.

At first it was the story of the biggest spy swap since the days of Stalin, a story broken by the breezy West German tabloid Bild with its immense circulation credited, in part, to a steadfast right-wing editorial policy and, in larger part, to a generous daily serving of prurience.

By using Bild--with its impeccable anti-communist credentials--to leak the news of Shcharansky's release, the Soviets made a clever preemptive strike. The Americans immediately counterattacked with barrage after barrage of deep backgrounders and guidance statements.

The first victim to fall was the short, snappy "Spy Swap," which soon disappeared--from U.S. headlines, at least--to be replaced by "Prisoner Exchange." The Bridge of Spies also vanished, Gott sie dank, and its proper name, Glienicke Bridge, was substituted--accompanied by vague descriptions of its being green, snow-covered and about 100 yards long. Sometimes, as an afterthought, reporters mentioned that a long time ago some Russian spy called Col. Abel had once been traded on it for some American spy called Gary Powers.

The de-espionageization, if there is such a word, was entirely American. The point that Administration spokesmen tried to make was that while they were quite willing to swap some Soviet spies they had caught for Shcharansky, it must be acknowledged that the 38-year-old mathematician, human-rights activist and computer boffin was not now, nor had ever been a CIA spy, and certainly should not be regarded as such.

The Soviets blithely ignored the American argument and went right on calling Shcharansky a CIA agent who had been sentenced for espionage to 13 years, serving almost nine of them in the prison at Chistopol of the Tatar Autonomous Republic and a labor camp near Perm. If he's no CIA spy, the Soviets seemed to be asking anyone who would listen, then what's he doing in our jail? And why don't the Americans simply admit they're willing to swap their spies for our spies?

Finally realizing that there was no possibility of Moscow ever upgrading Shcharansky to human-rights advocate, Soviet dissident or just plain troublemaker, the Americans fell back on symbols.

Symbols, of course, are highly useful tools in the public-relations practitioners' arcane trade. But what symbol could be used during the swap on the Glienicke Bridge? Surely not such tried and true ones as a flag rippling in the background. Or a statesman's single tear in a cemetery--almost any cemetery. Or even a nice clean old man with a smiling, fairly clean tot. Although each was time-tested, none was appropriate.

So how to separate--symbolically, at least--our human-rights activist from their grubby spies? Washington certainly didn't want to tar Shcharansky with the likes of Karl and Ana Koecher, the Czech couple who became naturalized American citizens. Eventually, Karl Koecher wangled a job with the CIA and later fingered one of its moles--possibly the only one it had in the Soviet Foreign Ministry. And Ana proved to be an embarrassment after being arrested for serving as the spy ring's courier. The government couldn't make its case stand up after the FBI neglected to allow Ana access to a lawyer while they questioned her for 20 hours straight in a New York motel. Washington certainly saw no need to link Shcharansky, even by inference, to a pair like that.

So once again the Administration called upon the good services of Wolfgang Vogel, the East Berlin attorney, professional go-between and self-styled humanist-Marxist, an old hand at spy swaps and no mean judge of symbols. After much haggling, it was eventually agreed that Shcharansky would be released first, all by himself, 30 minutes ahead of the main swap, thus separating him nicely from the sinister spies. Afterward, Frau Vogel would use the gold family Mercedes to ferry those still to be traded back and forth along the 100-yard bridge.

And thus Anatoly Shcharansky was finally met in the middle of the Glienicke Bridge by Richard R. Burt, the U.S. Ambassador to West Germany and ex-newspaper reporter. Shcharansky wore a fur hat, black overcoat and pinned-up baggy pants. Ambassador Burt was resplendent in what appeared to be a tailored outfit. He also looked even more saturnine and self-confident than usual, although that's the way ex-newspapermen often look once they have left their dreary trade for presumably better things.

Los Angeles Times Articles