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The Premier’s Friend

June 2024
3min read

Cautiously our driver worked the cab between trucks unloading yellow barriers on the street outside the downtown Royal, considered in 1972 to be Copenhagen’s finest hotel. A polite soldier stopped us to apologize for the inconvenience, although he volunteered no explanation for the barricades.

In that early evening the lobby was crammed with people. Suddenly, out of nowhere, came an assistant manager who pounced on our luggage and deftly ran interference for my wife and me to an empty, back elevator.

Inside our ninth-floor room he handed over the key, and, graciously refusing a tip, told us that someone would be along shortly to answer questions. I assured him we had a few.

With surprising ease I reached Potters, a friend at the U.S. Embassy, who had made our reservations. “So far,” I told him in the Russian we both spoke and enjoyed using on one another, “your influence has been incredible.”

“Thanks be to God, and also to the Kremlin,” he chanted in Church Slavonic. A sharp Kremlinologist who liked to create Russian crossword puzzles, he sat behind a desk overlooking a splendid nine-hole Danish golf course offering an unobstructed view of the Soviet Embassy only about a six iron further.

“Your room,” he went on, “is beneath an entire top floor reserved for Alexey Nikolayevich.” He meant Kosygin, the Soviet premier.

“He’s here?”

“Expected about midnight, they say, to avoid those unhappy demonstrators.” Refugees from the U.S.S.R. and other communist venues, he said, were having trouble understanding why the new sovereign, Margrethe II, needed to invite Kosygin for a state visit so early in her reign.

“Have you had dinner?” Potters asked.

“On the plane.”

“Good. Stay put, Clem, and we’ll do business in the morning and maybe nine brisk holes in the afternoon.” I was in Copenhagen to buy Danish furniture at diplomatic prices for our embassy in Budapest.

By dawn the barricades seemed ample for heading off any rash charges at the hotel doors. A fabulous breakfast arrived at our room at seven. Wilma, my wife, was pouring coffee when there came a polite knock. In my pajamas I eyed the neatly attired, softspoken Dane—a Captain Ewald, he said—who apologized for intruding as he handed over the morning paper featuring Kosygin’s likeness just beneath the front-page fold.

“We are obviously not dressed to travel,” I complained.

“No, no,” he said. “You and Mrs. Scerback may stay undisturbed. As a matter of fact, you are the only guests remaining on this floor.”

“And the Soviets are above us?”

He nodded. “Thirty of them. But you may come and go as you please.” “They know we are here?”

He smiled. “To be sure.” Suddenly switching to Russian, he said, “Your telephone is, of course, secure, Mr. Scerback.” Handing over my shined shoes, he added, “We have our own lines to several embassies—including yours.”

“Almost like overkill.”

“Not at all, sir. Do not expect our friends upstairs to believe a Russian-speaking American diplomat is in Copenhagen only to buy furniture.”

“But he is,” I said.

“Simple things are difficult for them,” he admitted.

Ewald’s Russian pronunciation— proiznoshenye —was impeccable, I later remarked to my wife. Many of us may speak Russian well, though relatively few sound Russian. “If he were indeed a Dane,” Wilma mused.

Like Potters, I, too, found Russian culture fascinating as I probed the language. Wilma told me it even showed in my attire, and this morning I must have laid it all on: dark suit, white shirt, red tie, black dress boots, and one of those squarish knee-length top-coats from Munich that made the wearer look like a black refrigerator.

The hat, a furashka , was the final touch, causing her to sigh, “You really look like one of them.”

Leaving her in the shower, I rode down to the lobby for a quick look: almost deserted except for obvious local-police types posted around the corners. Muted crowd sounds filtered in from outside through the revolving doors where I positioned myself. It was coming on nine o’clock with no Ewald in sight, but I had the feeling that something was about to break.

With a bang it did. All five elevator doors surged open, simultaneously discharging a company-front phalanx of Soviet brass heading in my direction. In the middle was Premier Kosygin.

One alert bodyguard immediately zeroed in on me as they neared. Then Kosygin also caught my eye, an expression of recognition lighting his face. At that moment I recalled the many times all over the world that I had been mistaken for someone else. My gut reaction was to speak colloquially, using the familiar form of address: “Good morning, Alexey Niklayevich.”

Visibly pleased, moving closer, he extended his hand, mumbling something about not having seen me in a long while.

That was enough for the bodyguard. Throwing me a murderous look, he sharply jabbed his elbow into Kosygin’s side, virtually pushing the startled, and utterly confused, premier toward the exit. Clearly audible was his fierce admonition to the premier:

On nye nash! On nye nash! ” (He’s not ours!)

Both Potters and Captain Ewald, the latter having enjoyed the incident immensely from behind a newspaper, agreed to score it as a linguistic holein-one.

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