I missed the reopening of my favorite Georgian restaurant in 2016 after it had been closed for thirteen years. The restaurant changed owners and chef, brought back its famous Georgian dishes and replicated the interior to revive the Cold War image and recapture its infamous past. It has been forty-three years since I tasted the Khinkali (fat Georgian dumplings), Khachapuri (cheese topped bread) and the grilled chicken with nuts and garlic, washed down with Georgian red wine.
The Aragvi Restaurant at 6/2 Tverskaya Ulitsa, Moscow opened in 1938 during the Stalin era as a State-owned restaurant. Stories suggest the Aragvi was built or opened by Lavrenty Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police and also from Georgia, to bring Georgian food to the capital. The restaurant was within walking distance of the Lubyanka and at night senior members of the NKVD (KGB), in their drab suits, filled the cellar bar drinking vodka and Georgian wine. It was their “Boys Club”.
My early visits to Moscow, in 1972 and 1973, were interesting but unsuccessful commercially. In 1972, the Cold War was in its twenty-sixth year, President Richard Nixon had travelled to the USSR for talks with Leonid Brezhnev and business opportunities were opening up in all the Eastern European countries. I travelled to Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia for discussions with their Government import agencies about the sale to them of bulk minerals.
Before my visits to Moscow I was briefed on things to avoid – exchanging US dollars for local currency and selling prohibited Western goods on the black market and visiting illegal night clubs. Foreigners and the few senior Russian officials who had access to foreign currency were able to buy imported goods at the State-run Beriozka stores and pay with US dollars, Pounds Sterling or German Deutschemarks but ordinary Russians were not. A thriving black market existed in the streets near hotels where foreigners stayed and outside the Beriozka stores. The popular items on the black market were imported liquor, wine, beer, cigarettes, food items, electronics, appliances, watches, shoes, denim jeans and foreign currency. I was approached many times in the streets with offers to change money at an attractive exchange rate and one night a waiter in the hotel dining room slid a US$20 note under my plate. He said his brother was in the Russian Army, loved American cigarettes but couldn’t buy them, so would I buy a carton of cigarettes at the Beriozka for him. I left the table with the $20 still under the plate.
Another piece of advice was to assume that all hotel rooms, apartments, offices and telephones used by foreigners were bugged. To test this I complained to the reading lamp in my hotel room that there was no toilet paper in the bathroom. Minutes later the housekeeper appeared and handed me a roll of toilet paper. On another day, while talking to a contact at the Embassy from the phone in the hotel room, a voice interrupted to ask if we would hold the conversation for a few minutes while they changed the tape. We knew we were followed by men in black leather coats, our telephone conversations were recorded and attempts would be made to entice us into illegal activities. They were some of the games The Boys played.
Travel to and within the USSR in 1972 and 1973 was organized by the Russian Intourist Bureau. After arrival at Sheremetyevo International Airport foreigners were escorted to a car for transportation to an assigned hotel. In 1972 I was sent to the towering landmark hotel Leningradskaya on Komsomolskaya Square. Travel around Moscow was arranged by hotel staff and use of local taxis and the subway was discouraged. All foreigners at the hotel dined in a separate restaurant to restrict contact with the local population. The hotels used by foreigners had a “hard currency bar” where only guests and visitors with hard currency could drink imported liquor, wine and beer. The local beer, liquor (except vodka) and wine was not drinkable. In the hard currency bars a good shot of Scotch cost US$5 and the customer slipped the five dollar note into a slot in a box on the bar. The staff did not handle the hard currency so no change was given. If the customer only had a $10 note then that was the price for the Scotch. I soon learned to buy two drinks each time.
After the unsuccessful business trip to Moscow in 1972 I returned the following year, flying from Vienna to Moscow on Austrian Airlines to avoid traveling on Aeroflot or one of the Eastern European airlines. I was assigned to a smaller hotel, the Metropol, near Red Square. Arrival at Sheremetyevo Airport was more interesting than the previous year. When I presented my passport, the same one used the previous year, the young Army officer looked at it carefully before asking me to accompany him to a room at the side of the arrivals hall. His English was limited but he made it clear he believed my passport was false and pointed to the number (H 80) printed on the second page. He then pointed to the number that was perforated at the top of each page (H 000080) and said “The number is different!” I tried, without success, to convince him that in the English language H 000080 and H 80 were the same. After half an hour of questioning about my real name and why I was visiting Moscow, and requests for the names of family in the USSR, a senior Army officer entered the room. He listened to the young soldier, inspected my passport, and whacked the soldier across the face with it before handing it back to me. As he opened the door for me to leave he muttered something that sounded like “stupid idiot”. The brief visit to Moscow was no more successful than the first but I became more adventuresome in exploring the city and its restaurants.
In June/July 1974 President Richard Nixon travelled to Moscow to meet with Leonid Brezhnev and in November President Gerald Ford continued the dialogue and met with Brezhnev at Vladivostock. President Ford met Brezhnev again at Helsinki in 1975, the Vietnam War had ended and the Cold War was slowly becoming warmer.
I visited Moscow again in late 1975, encouraged by a former Government trade official who had worked there in the Embassy before he joined a company specializing in trade with the USSR. He was Russian-speaking, had served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, his second wife was Russian and he had close ties to the intelligence organizations, perhaps on both sides of the Curtain. He was handsome, charismatic, always immaculately dressed and a generous host with a fine taste in food, wine and cars. “Bill” reminded me of the easygoing, charming character with strong social connections in John Le Carre’s novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” which I had read earlier in the year.
Light snow covered the ground when the Pan Am flight landed at Sheremetyevo Airport. I passed through immigration and customs, after handing over my copies of Sports Illustrated and the New Yorker magazine, and walked into the arrivals hall where Bill was waiting. He had arranged a room for me at the National Hotel near Red Square, helped with the check-in and foreign exchange desk formalities, handed my bag to a hotel porter and ushered me to his office on one of the upper floors. He said we needed to talk before the guests arrived for the cocktail party. We brushed past a burly man in a drab suit leaving Bill’s office pushing a trolley with a new American-made refrigerator. Bill explained it was a gift for one of his contacts. The party, organized for government officials to meet me prior to our discussion the following day, included the female cabin crew from the Pan Am flight. Bill suggested after the business meetings next day he would show me some of Moscow’s nightlife.
It was bitterly cold the next evening when we left the National Hotel and walked along Tverskaya Ulitsa to the Aragvi Restaurant. The restaurant was in a building dating back to the early 1700s near the monument to Prince Yury Dolgoruky in Tverskaya Square. In the 1800s the building was converted into a hotel named the Northern and later the Dresden. It was extended upwards in the 1900s and government offices were established on level one. Lavrenty Beria had an office there and in 1938 the Government converted some of the offices and stores into the Aragvi Restaurant. It was the only Georgian restaurant in Moscow. In 1975 the Aragvi was still a popular meeting place for senior members of the NKVD and the Russians who frequented Moscow’s illegal nightclubs.
We passed a long line of men in heavy coats and fur hats waiting in the snow for a table or seat at the cellar bar and Bill knocked on the solid black wooden door. The door was partially opened by a surly doorman and Bill said something in Russian I didn’t understand. The man opened the door so we could step inside and another unhappy-looking man ushered us down the stairs to a small table along the limestone wall. The padded stools at the bar were occupied by men in drab suits, silently watching us as we were shown to our table. The air was thick with foul cigarette smoke and the smell of cheap booze. After the waiter left with our drink orders (vodka) Bill put a finger to his lips and with the other hand pointed to the lamp on the table. Like everyplace else, the tables in the restaurant were bugged.
The faces at the bar turned away from us and the noise level increased as conversations resumed. At the ends of the bar were men drinking and smoking alone. Kim Philby, who lived nearby, was often at the bar drinking alone. He was not there that night. Philby was a Soviet agent who worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS and formerly MI6) for thirty years. He was a member of the notorious “Cambridge Five” who passed UK and US secrets to the Russians from 1933 until he defected to the USSR in 1963. In 1968, Philby’s autobiography My Silent War was published in the UK but not in the USSR until 1980, eight years before his death in Moscow. Phillip Knightly wrote in the “Introduction to the 1989 Edition of My Silent War” that his interviews with Philby in 1988 were at Philby’s apartment “within sight of Red Square” and at a “secure Georgian Restaurant”. The secure restaurant was the Aragvi.
The menu was in Russian so Bill ordered dinner and the wine for both of us. He insisted I try the Khinkali, Aragvi chicken and the Khachapuri. After a few shots of vodka and a shared bottle of red Georgian wine I was happy to call the night quits but Bill had other plans. A short taxi ride took us to the rear of the huge Rossiya Hotel near Red Square. Bill knocked loudly on the solid wooden door and an eye appeared at a small peephole. Some money was slipped under the door and it swung open to let us in to a crowded and noisy room with a large dance floor and a bar. We had to shout to be heard. Bill asked if I was carrying any US dollars and when they appeared we were ushered to a small space at the bar. The dollars disappeared, replaced by large shots of vodka poured by a buxom Russian woman.
I returned to the National Hotel sometime in the early hours of the morning to get some much- needed sleep and prepare for the next round of meetings. On each floor of the hotel, near the elevator, a large person sat at a table with the room keys set out in front of her. I pointed to my key and she walked me to the room, unlocked the door and looked inside – checking that I was alone and had sufficient toilet paper.
The meetings with Government officials in their drab clothes at a drab building were long and polite but unsuccessful. The Soviets still did not have access to the necessary hard currency to cover regular large shipments of raw materials and I was not interested in being paid in oil or in using an international trading company. Bill was no help as he imported meat, butter and wheat to the USSR and exported Stolichnaya vodka and other Russian goods. The visit in 1975 ended without success and several years later I heard that Bill’s trading company had failed and was wound up with a huge debt and unpaid tax. He had left the USSR to live in a secluded place where he could enjoy his lifestyle and luxury cars, and died in 1987 at the young age of 57 years.
Sheremetyevo Airport was snowed in and I spent the night sitting in the huge, empty departure lounge waiting for my flight to arrive. It was illegal to take Russian currency out of the country or into the departure lounge so my few remaining US dollars barely covered a warming vodka or two. The uniformed cockpit and cabin crew for my Aeroflot flight were enjoying themselves in the bar and by morning were barely able to walk to the departure gate when flights resumed. I watched them board the aircraft and was relieved when they sat among the passengers on the IL-62 to New Delhi and Bangkok where I transferred to a Thai Airline flight. The movie shown in the cabin of Thai Air was the 1975 Oscar winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It seemed an appropriate ending to my visit to Moscow.
The Boys Club still exists but meets at a different place, and it is no longer necessary for the KGB to bug hotel rooms, restaurants, offices and apartments; or try to catch foreigners selling hard currency and imported goods on the black market. As John Le Carre said: “The mentality that is operating in Russia now is absolutely….no different to the mentality that drove the most exotic conspiracies during the Cold War. It worked then, it works now.” (New York Times, Sunday Book Review August 25, 2017. Spies Like Us: A Conversation With John Le Carre and Ben Macintyre. By Sarah Lyall, a writer at large for The Times). What has changed is the technology, the introduction of social media and use of the internet to compromise and manipulate people.