By June 13, 2010January 27th, 2021Peter Sprague
I was perfectly equipped;  BWM 250 cc motorcycle bought used in Stockholm, 6 various James Bond paperbacks for training materials, Burberry trench coat, riding in the rain from Turku to Helsinki. Everything was perfect – except for the rain. Driving rain, soaking through the Burberry. Soaked to the skin, cold and wet, like sitting in a 60 mph hurricane. Not supposed to be wet in my Burberry. Don’t remember James Bond getting wet except when swimming – 60 miles to go.
Ahead was the Eighth World Youth Festival to be held in Helsinki from July 29  – August 6, 1962. The Festival was organized by the Russian Communists to convince the world that they were the future, My job was to make the festival less convincing.
I qualified as a youth, age 23, I had graduated from Yale in 1961 and gone on to MIT in Political Science. Yale was a good place to graduate from if you wanted to be a secret agent. OSS, CIA, Skull and Bones etc. Lots of spooky alumni. Gentleman spies in the British tradition. Somebody had to do it.
Ok, I was young enough, and on the way to a festival that wasn’t likely to be very festive, where I was supposed to mingle with youth who I expected wouldn’t be very young.
In the meantime I was soaking wet and did not have a clue where I was going to stay and when I was ever going to be warm and dry again.
After an endless ride – all motorcycle rides in the rain are endless – I arrived in Helsinki. Somehow I found myself on the waterfront in front of a small 8-10 story Palace Hotel. Palace was a bit of an exaggeration. I dripped all over the lobby and found the desk on the right attended by two attractive girls, one of whom was also running the switchboard. I continued to drown the floor until they took pity on me and asked what I wanted. I asked for a room and they both giggled. The Hotel had been sold out for months.
I continued to drown the floor and looked and felt miserable. The girls were as young as I was and entered into a conspiratorial conversation in opaque Finnish. They smiled broadly and announced in fluent English that there was a room so small and awkward that they never rented it. They rented it. I gratefully rode the elevator up to a corner under the eves and removed my 25 lb. Burberry and every other soggy bit of clothing. 30 minutes under a hot shower helped the problem. My duffle bag had somehow kept some of my clothes dry and I returned to the lobby looking better than I did when I arrived.
I thanked the girls at the desk and offered to buy somebody a beer. The switchboard girl accepted and off we went around the corner. Over a couple of beers she explained that she was a student, the hotel had been completely booked by the Russian delegation to the Youth festival, and her father was the chief of police of Helsinki. Well I’ll be damned, it was a good beginning.
I had a phone number in my pocket that was supposed to be memorized in my head. Didn’t trust my head. The next day I called the number and went off to meet my handlers, who I had met once before in Washington. They were holed up in a non de-script apartment, looked to be in their 40’s, wore suits, short hair, serious expressions and seemed to know what they were doing.
I wasn’t really a delegate. The American delegation was staying slightly out of town. The self appointed youth organizers kept tight control over who was accepted as a delegate. I probably would not have made the cut.
I visited where the official delegates were staying. I remember part of their abode was a large room with a lot of early hippies with sleeping bags and the detritus of youth. I felt very smug about my Palace.
I got a few jobs from my handlers including a 30 lb. bag of anti-Soviet anti-Krushchev literature that I was supposed to distribute. The Palace was located at the end of a long pier where the Russians had parked a cruise boat that contained their delegation. Their leadership had parked themselves in my Hotel. The leadership did not look like youth, they looked liked middle aged male bureaucrats with a handful of large thugs thrown in for good measure.
The boat disgorged its passengers in the early morning. I dreamed up the idea of dropping the propaganda off from my motorcycle with the pamphlets held between my legs. I rode up and down the pier at around 2 AM and covered a couple of hundred yards of pier with paper. I did not worry about littering, did worry about getting caught. I did not get caught. I watched my stuff get picked up in the morning from the relative safety of the Hotel. Later in the week I met the poet Evegeny Evtushenko strolling down the same pier. He was staying in the boat and was a celebrity delegate. We had a short chat. I got to know him well in the years ahead. We were on different sides of the game, or so I thought. It later occurred to me that anti – Krushchev literature might not have been the best use of the paper it was printed on, he did start the de Stalinization of Russia. Mine not to reason why, I did what I was told.
Somewhere during the next few days I met a slight 35 ish Russian apparatchik and we began a conversation in my bad Russian, which was practically fluent compared to his worse English. I had worked as a photographer in Moscow for UPI as a summer job from Yale in 1959 and 1960. I  covered the Nixon vice presidential visit and somehow managed to get into Outer Mongolia in 1960. I knew enough Russian to carry on a basic discussion about “Mir e Drujba” (Peace and Friendship), defend American “Bizrobotich” (unemployment) , and generally hold up the cause. The Russian held up his end and we met 3-4 times on a park bench. I would visit my handlers to report and he probably met his handlers to report.
I got his name address etc and he did the same. I was never recruited. I don’t know about him. It was curious.
On the first Sunday I was invited by my receptionist to the countryside to meet her father the Police Chief and enjoy lunch with her family. He was fed up with the Youth Festival. It had been diplomatically forced on the Finns by the Russians who had also forced the previous Youth Festival on the Austrians in Vienna five years before, He was looking forward to everyone leaving Helsinki. The Finns have historically gone to a lot of trouble to get the Russians to leave Finland.
I ended up for the night  with an extra occupant in my tiny room. I was newly married and sort of behaved myself. So much for my James Bond manuals on how to carry on as a spy.
The Yale Russian Chorus was in Helsinki. Formed in the late 50’s they carried on Yale’s superb tradition of singing, in their case in Russian, and had performed in concerts around the US and Europe and had sung in Russia the summer of 1959 when I was there. Some of the 40 + chorus members were official delegates but probably not all. They were fond of things Russian but definitely not things Communist, As a result they did not perform officially with the delegation but instead sang in the streets.
On the first night they sang near a shopping center and a crowd quickly developed. After about 40 minutes someone shoved someone. The Festival organizers did not approve of anything that was not on their agenda. I helped in the shoving and a small altercation became increasingly agitated. The Helsinki police arrived with tear gas. Along with everybody else I was gassed. Very unpleasant, and I ended up being chased by a mounted policeman on a horse. He was chasing me in the Shopping center which fortunately had a marble floor. Boys with sneakers do well against a horse on metal horseshoes around 90 degree corners. The cop had a five foot club. He did not get to use it.
The gas stays with you. The second time around is worse because you are already irritated. The next night the Chorus sang in front of the Town Hall opposite the Metropole Hotel,
More shoving, more cops and more gas. I left early and adjourned to the Metropole bar on the second floor, ordered a Scotch and soda and watched the struggle below through the picture windows in the bar. That was more like James Bond. I was getting into it. The gas stayed on the street.
One night the festival organizers had a BIG night in some park. Speeches in a variety of incomprehensible languages, there were supposed to be over 130 different national delegations – maybe. There was a illuminated stage and TV cameras and a lot of milling around. I had a Swiss knife. The cables were irresistible, I cut a few, with no discernible affect. Oh well, maybe something happened. It would have been nice if I had blown a fuse. I probably didn’t.
The major delegations from the West seemed to be divided into three parts:
A radical left led by experienced organizers often with serious Communist Party credentials.
A right wing of anti communists who intended to disrupt the Festival. This group seemed to have strong attachments to various Intelligence organizations.
A large muddle headed middle of varying persuasions, some of whom may have even believed that they were attending a free and open Youth Festival, a sort of early Woodstock without the music, the sex, the drugs, or the good vibes. It was rarely festive.
Underneath the surface there was a major battle going on between the delegations from the eastern bloc Communist countries and the various Intelligence organizations. The carefully vetted East German delegation arrived on it own cruise ship. It was called the Volksfreundshaft (Peoples Friendship). It had previously in another incarnation been the Stockholm which had collided and sunk the Andrea Doria. The 600 + East German delegates were occasionally let out in groups to attend various meetings. A few acceptable foreigners were even invited to visit the ship. The West Germans had agents who approached the delegates with the offer to help them defect; many did. But the East Germans also had Stasi (Secret Police) who were masquerading as Berliners. They were also trying to convince the East German delegates to defect.
It was the wrong group to defect to and there were reported incidences of one on one struggles when they realized their mistake. After 3-4 days of defections they locked the remaining delegates on the Boat. That ended their Youth Festival. Other Eastern Bloc delegations were reported to have similar problems but I did not hear of any other complete lockups.
A friend of mine,  Alexei Vergun, a second generation Russian who was studying Architecture at MIT and was singing with the Yale Russian Chorus. His wife was with him. One evening he disappeared. I was with a group of his friends and we spent a rough night wondering why he had disappeared and what had happened to him. He resurfaced eventually. I don’t remember where he had been.
Many Western organizations wanted to discredit the Youth Festival, the press called it the Communist Youth Festival. The first 6 Festivals took place in various Eastern European capitals. After Helsinki they took 7 years to organize the 9th festival where they safely organized it in Bucharest.
Somehow I managed without credentials to attend a meeting of “Young Jurists” in the Helsinki Communist Party headquarters, a beautiful building designed by Alvar Alto.There must have been about 800 delegates.
In the fall of 1956 I had transferred from Andover to a Swiss school – Le Rosey. I had worked the previous summer for a local newspaper, the Berkshire Evening Eagle as a photographer. I was 17. When the Hungarian Revolution broke out in October 1956 I decided I had to go to Budapest. I made it in, and more importantly out, with a few adventures that I have written about elsewhere.
I listened to various political speeches and decided to make my own. With the aid of some English delegates who used parliamentary procedures, I managed to get on the stage.
I started to talk about the Hungarian Revolution. There were shouts from the audience that I was a dupe of Western propaganda. “I was in Budapest after the Hungarian kids had fought for their independence” “I watched the Russian tanks roll in to Budapest” “I visited the hospitals where I saw the wounded who were much younger that the people in this room”. “I was detained by the Russian Army”. I kept repeating after almost every sentence “I WAS THERE”.
It was a short speech before I was removed from the stage. I heard later that another American I did not know had his arm broken over the back of a chair in a room off the stage by the ever present middle aged goons. The event was reported in the Press and I was told my interrupted speech appeared in NY in the Journal American newspaper. I have not yet gone looking for it.
Life was exciting. While I was not being paid a salary, all my expenses were paid including the motorcycle. I was supposed to cause trouble. I enjoyed the work.
On the last day of the Festival they had organized a march of the delegates. One of the themes involved nuclear testing. Unfortunately for the organizers the Russians resumed atomic testing the previous week. There were other things going on in the world beyond the Youth Festival.
During my two days of training in Washington I has been equipped with a Pan Am bag that had a 35 mm camera mounted inside on a bracket. If you squeezed the bag a certain way it supposedly took a picture through a grommet hole. Bond’s “Q” would have been embarrassed. I ditched the bag before I got to Finland but kept the camera. The bag could not have been explained away as a innocent piece of tourist gear. I don’t know what genius suggested it but I did not need to carry a billboard declaring my clandestine activities.
My camera worked fine. I was a tourist and tourists take pictures.
The parade began with all kinds of posters, flags and chants. A young British delegate had ignored the organizer’s message and was carrying a 3×4 foot “Ban the Bomb” poster on a stick. I managed to get a photo of the 200 lb +. 46 year old Russian Deputy Director of the Youth Festival wrenching the poster from the hands of a frail, acned 23 year old pacifist. 40 minutes after I took the picture, the guys in the apartment arranged to distribute it to Press agencies around the world. I never had a copy of the negative but one of these days I intend to see if I can find the photo.
I left Helsinki, and the Palace, and rode back to Turku to catch the ferry to Sweden. It did not rain. I sold the dealer back his motorcycle and went home.
I liked being a Secret Agent, I thought I had done a good job. But nobody ever asked me to be a Secret Agent again.