• U.S.

Russia: Sin Along with Sig

4 minute read

To some of the younger staffers in Britain’s Moscow embassy, smooth, charming Sigmund Mikhailski was living proof that a Communist needn’t be a cad. An interpreter, smiling Sig was hired in 1954 and soon made himself a regular Man Friday around the chancery offices on Sofiiskaya quay. When no one else could get Bolshoi ballet tickets, Sig did. He was equally skillful at producing hard-to-get goodies, or black-marketing their clothes or Western currency for a handsome profit. He always went out of his way to help the lonely ones, showed them the sights, even took them to restaurants where they invariably met Russians who seemed not at all afraid to talk freely with Westerners.

Older embassy hands were skeptical about Sig, knowing that he was probably a Soviet spy. After all, local help in Moscow must be hired from U.P.D.K., the government personnel agency for foreign employers. But if the embassy fired Sig, they reasoned, he would probably only be replaced by another spy who might be a bounder to boot. In any case, the younger Britons, who invited him to their parties and went to his, felt certain that he hated the Russians. “You see,” explained Sig, “I’m a Pole.” He made a determined pass at every new English girl he met—and at the boys as well. When they resisted, he explained mournfully that life in Moscow was hard on a passionate Pole.

Unusual Happenings. Alas, poor Sig! One day in 1956, with no advance warning, the British fired him. Not without cause. Sig’s saga finally came to light last week in a remarkably bland report by the judicial tribunal that has spent three months investigating the latest British spy scandal: the strange case of William John Vassall, a homosexual Admiralty clerk who had been assigned to the Moscow embassy for two years, and had been spying for the Russians for seven. Vas-sall’s superiors, and all but one of the officers who picked him out of 40 applicants for the Moscow assignment, were exonerated by the tribunal, which judged him “weak” but not overtly queer. However, admitted the report, Vassall’s young colleagues in the embassy ridiculed his “effeminate” ways and called him “Vera.” The passionate Pole soon guessed his secret, and life began anew for Vera Vassall. Eager to share his new conquest, Sig introduced Vassall to other gay types. “I shall never forget,” Vassall wrote to an older man in London, “the many unusual and extraordinary happenings that go on here, which must come to few people.” He did not apparently regard it as too unusual when one of his new Russian friends photographed him in the act one evening. It was not until Vassall was caught Red-handed with a Soviet officer that Russian secret police intervened and explained to him the gravity of his offense. When they threatened to show the compromising photographs to Lady Hayter, wife of the ambassador, Vassall agreed to provide them with the classified embassy documents they wanted.

Manufactured Compromise. During his years at the British embassy, said the tribunal’s report, Sig tried to blackmail three other Britons for black-marketing, got at least two members of other Western embassies involved in homosexual activities ; all these victims were hustled home by their governments after refusing to spy for him. Sig also tried his best to seduce a female secretary in the British embassy, but she guessed his aim and reported him. Still Sig stayed on.

“The manufacture of compromising situations,” concluded the judges’ report last week, “must be regarded as one of the regular instruments by which the Soviet secret service seeks to suborn and enlist British agents who can furnish it with our state secrets.” Thus was Brit ain’s security system warned about Soviet Sigmunds. But would it ever get wise to British Veras?

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