Tea with the KGB

Susan On Writing

I receive a lot of letters from readers asking where I got my ideas and how I did my research…here’s a little glimpse into that answer…

Tea with the KGB

Valentina met us at the door with a bit of a stern look, as if we were late. Andrew seemed oblivious as he pulled off the kids’ valenki (Russian boots). Valentina stood aside and held out her hand, ushering me in. Stout, with a wizened face and sharp eyes, she looked me up and down carefully, barely a hint of smile on her face. Her long gray hair, dyed cranberry on the ends was tied back in a severe bun, and she hustled about the kitchen with a no-nonsense about her that would have made my grandmother proud. She wore a shapeless gray polyester dress over her barrel body with an antique topaz pin fastened to her collar and she looked every inch like the matrons I’d seen in old Communist Party pictures.

She was a former KGB Colonel.

Of course Andrew didn’t tell me her lifelong profession until after we’d sat down to tea with pickles, which had been soaked in vodka, boiled potatoes, tomatoes and brown bread. She even sliced up some cheese and sausage. It was quite a spread for a pensioner.

She told me she’d been a translator. I was trying to make conversation, so I asked her what kind of things she translated. There was a pregnant pause…then she said, “Let’s not talk about it.” That was the moment Andrew realized that I had no idea who I was talking to. I was drinking tea with someone who ten years ago would have had me under bright lights, maybe inserting painful objects under my fingernails, for asking such a question. “What did you expect her to say?” he teased me later, “that she had translated the wire taps in President Kennedy’s office?” Oops.

But the realization that we were in the home of a former KGB Colonel made drinking tea with her like old friends and talking openly about who we were and why we were in Russia, that much more profound. She asked why we had come to Russia and I told her plainly, “To tell the Russians that God loves them.” Amazingly, she looked interested.

My children sang a song for her, recited a poem and David told her about Christmas. As we were leaving, she pulled me aside and asked where and when we were having Bible studies. She said she wanted to send her granddaughter, but I wondered if she wanted to send herself.

Since then, Valentina has invited us back. This is only significant in that, to her, this is a complete embracing of the enemy. She told me that although she could speak fluent English she was never allowed contact with foreigners. Ten years into Perestroika, we are the first. I would suspect her to be wary. Instead, she is welcoming.

My friendship with Valentina taught me much about God, and His grace. By the world’s standards, Valentina doesn’t “deserve” heaven. She has spent her lifetime denying its existence. But God doesn’t operate that way. Although none of us deserve it, His grace is available to everyone.

And, I don’t know about you, but that gives me a great sigh of relief.