Any interpreter (or spy!) will tell you that it is quite difficult to pretend convincingly that you don't understand a foreign language when you are unexpectedly spoken to in that language. A card popped up in my In Tray one day inviting me, by name and appointment, to attend a cocktail party being held to mark the end of the Soviet Air Force's spell in command of the Berlin Air Safety Centre (BASC). I pleaded that it would look impolite if I didn't accept the invitation to attend this function to which all the Commanders and Second in Commands from all the disparate units based in both West and East Berlin had been invited. HQ RAF Germany's reluctance to allow me to go suggested that none of my predecessors had been invited to previous functions at BASC but eventually I was given permission to attend, but with two provisos: I was not to let on that I could speak Russian and I was to be accompanied at all times by a Russian-speaking RAF air traffic controller serving at BASC.
Above: There was a four-language sign similar to this at every Berlin authorised crossing point
All British, French and American guests were individually hosted at the Cocktail Party by a Soviet officer. Nothing sinister in that, just common politeness. Because it was a social occasion, everyone wore lounge suits rather than uniform. My host was a chap called Yuri who spoke excellent English in the so-called 'North Atlantic' accent (a mixture of British and American English) that was taught in Soviet language academies of the time. I have no idea what Yuri's job was and protocol required that no-one asked that question of anyone else. However, my RAF host whispered to me that he had never seen Yuri at BASC before. We drew our own conclusions!
It was actually a rather pleasant occasion with duty free booze flowing like water and everyone jabbering away as they tend to do at cocktail parties. Folk were trying to score points off each other but without talking about their jobs or families and without divulging any national secrets. During the two-hour long party, Yuri stuck close to my side and introduced me to quite a few Russians by name but without mentioning their jobs or military ranks - or mine. Either Yuri or my RAF host politely, but largely unnecessarily, translated everything into English for me - and translated into Russian everything I said in English.
The standard opening gambit seemed to be whether we had ever been to each other’s country. No-one I asked had ever been to the UK and, of course, I had never been to Russia but we usually agreed that it would be nice to have the opportunity “when the situation improves.” I remember having a very brief conversation with someone who asked my opinion on the merits of James Galway, the leading flautist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and Herbert von Karajan its permanent conductor at that time. I replied that I was a great fan of all three, which was true, but I could not resist pointing out that Galway had left the Berlin Phil five years earlier to pursue a new career as a soloist (thereby establishing my credentials). In return, I asked his opinion of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15th and last symphony – but Yuri terminated that exchange without translating my question. Yuri, presumably, didn’t know whether Shostakovich was still persona non-grata in the Kremlin. Neither did I – which was why I had asked the question.
I did wonder, though, why the subject of classical music should have been brought up. Had someone briefed Yuri that one of my early ambitions had been to become a professional musician? Was he showing off to me or was he following orders? In fact we had always been told throughout my time in the RAF V Force from 1960 to 1976 that the Soviets kept a personal file on all RAF aircrew and assiduously collected and filed whatever personal data they could obtain about RAF V Force aircrew by monitoring national and local newspapers and magazines and any other unclassified sources they came across. (How much easier it must be for our potential enemies in these days of Twitter, Facebook and personal websites!)
The BASC cocktail party was quite fun really - certainly more fun than the average cocktail party, in spite of the total lack of ladies. I remember thinking, "So, no honey traps tonight then."
As the evening drew towards its conclusion, all the guests started to line up with their Soviet hosts to bid a formal farewell to the departing Soviet Commander. I heard the American guest in front of me say, haltingly, "Good night Comrade General" in a tortured Russian accent. The American should have been briefed that the Russian word for 'comrade', tovarishch, should only be used between citizens of the Soviet Union and never by foreigners. The General, ignored the minor gaff and politely smiled.
Then it was my turn. I suddenly realised that I had become separated from my RAF host but Yuri was still at my elbow doing his duty. He stepped forward and announced me, in Russian, as "Major Cunnane from number 26 Signals Unit at RAF Gatow". So much for my cover! Trying to give the impression that I didn't understand Russian, I shook hands with the General while I mimicked the American who had been in front of me by saying, "Good night Comrade General" in a deliberately poor Russian accent. The general, with what seemed to me to be a sympathetic smile, responded in perfect English - and using my correct rank: "Come now, Squadron Leader Cunnane, we all know you speak excellent Russian. I am very pleased you were able to get permission to come to my farewell party."
Any further comment by me, in English or Russian, seemed superfluous. Yuri led me to the exit where he smiled and said in Russian as we shook hands, "Better luck next time, Tony!"
My RAF host was waiting anxiously for me at the exit and had overheard Yuri's final remark. "What did Yuri mean by that?" he asked.
"I don't know!" I lied, shrugging my shoulders.