In the Summer of 1970, I had the task of leading the Commerce
Department group creating the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) and since there was no one yet in charge, I somehow served as acting head or at least as prime fire-fighter. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (recently renamed from “Bureau of Commercial Fisheries”) was one of the agencies within NOAA.
At this time, the so-called “Cold War” between the U.S. and the USSR was at hot pitch. An international crisis had arisen as a result of a confrontation between an NFMS vessel and a USSR ship off Newfoundland. The two were docked side-by-side and one of the Soviet sailors had jumped from his ship onto the American boat, asking for sanctuary. He was promptly brought below deck and when the Soviet captain demanded his return, the Americans refused. For at least a full day, there was an immediate threat of an armed battle. As a result of high level, government-to-government negotiations, the NMFS people were finally ordered to allow Soviet sailors to enter our vessel and to take the defector back to his ship. However, during his brief stay on our ship, the Russian had been interviewed by an interpreter and copies had been made of the contents of his wallet, including family pictures.
The press had been following the story with great excitement. Somehow, the sailor’s name and picture became public information. Congress and the TV commentators were demanding that we stand up to the Communists. The man had risked everything in his desire for freedom. When the outcome became public, the press went wild: not only had we rejected the freedom-seeker, we had allowed Soviet military personnel to board our ship and to take the man back by force. There were demands for a Congressional investigation.
As to emphasize the seriousness of the situation, an order was issued by the White House to the effect that no one in the employ of the Government of the United States was to have any contact with any representative of the USSR. I checked my complete list of acquaintances and came to the conclusion that I had nothing to do in order to comply.
One evening, about two weeks after the initial incident, my home phone rang.
Voice: Calling Dr. Schanes
I: This is Dr. Schanes
Voice: Dr. Schanes, This is ____________ of the National Marine Fisheries Service. We’ve just received a request from the White House for the transcripts of the testimony of two of our men aboard that ship when that Russian defected. They have interviewed all of our people here in Washington. However, these two have left on assignments. R________ is doing training at the Seattle office and Obolensky is in Moscow, as an interpreter for a trade mission. Can I release the transcripts?
I: (being too cute) Well, you see, the White House is on our side, so you should release the transcripts as quickly as possible.
Voice: Thank you sir. (Hangs up.)
About two hours later, Chris and I were at a movie theatre,. As I looked at the screen, that telephone voice came down to my brain…”Obolensky is in Moscow”.
Somehow, I knew that Obolensky was a former Russian prince and also that Prince Alexis Obolensky was a noted Backgammon authority. As a “White Russian”, he had no love for the Communists, nor they for him. More importantly, I somehow knew that it was Obolensky who had interviewed the Soviet defector and had taken and made copies of all of his papers. It was as a result of Obolensky’s quick action that all of us knew so much about the defector. A former Russian prince, the only one who could and did communicate with the defector…….in Moscow???? It had the makings of a real situation.
I jumped from my seat, ran up the aisle, found a telephone, somehow located the NMFS telephone number, dialed and reached the person who had called me.
I: This is Dr. Schanes. You will get Obolensky out of Moscow tonight.
Voice: Yes sir! (Hangs up)
I never heard anything further, but I’ve always had the feeling that I may have saved the Prince’s life, prevented an international incident- or at least have prevented the loss of a Backgammon expert.
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