From Russia With Love
Real-life spy speaks at annual Author’s Dinner in Seaside.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Tinseltown has espionage all wrong. The cold, detached personas of Bond and Bourne simply do not fit the profile of real-life former American spy in Russia, Michael Ramsdell. Within five minutes of our conversation, the gregarious Ramsdell begins calling me “Kell,” a nickname only immediate family can get away with– and strangely, I like it.
The death-defying antics of 007 mythology don’t manifest themselves in the real world of espionage, either. “There’s a cliché in the military,” Ramsdell says. “Hurry up and wait.” Allthough “boredom” is not a word people normally associate with spying, Ramsdell explains that being an intelligence agent is more work than it is adventure. “In the covert world you are always planning and planning. After a while, it gets boring and tedious, but it has to be. Lives are at stake.”
Ramsdell, the keynote speaker at the 14th annual Author’s Dinner, Thursday, Sept. 4, was a spy in the Soviet Union during the Cold War era from 1988 to 2002. He wrote his first book, A Train to Potevka, after his wife urged him to write about his experiences in Russia. Though the book was originally intended for his family, he self-published it and Costco picked it up.
Set in the early ’90s, A Train to Potevka takes place in a Russia that is falling apart politically and economically. Ramsdell’s mission: To take into custody four corrupt ex-communist officials who have embezzled millions of dollars from a construction fund for the new American embassy in Moscow. When his cover is blown, Ramsdell is instructed to travel in a passenger-class “peasant train” into the interior of Russia. During the voyage, Ramsdell muses on the dreariness of his surroundings: “Whenever the storm slowed enough, the snow looked like an ocean of silver sand stretching as far as the eye could see. The bleakness of the landscape– a world of numbing cold and desolation– rarely changed.”
In Ramsdell’s case, the agency did not stage a miraculous rescue. No paratroopers broke through skyscraper windows, nor did any speedboats race away into the setting sun of the French Riviera. Instead, Ramsdell found himself at a safe house void of even the most basic provisions. Facing starvation, he entreated villagers to help him, but they were too suspicious and afraid.
Ramsdell recalls those times as the “Midnight Hours” because of his intense loneliness and fear. “There were times when I truly thought I would never see my family or little boy again,” he says. His family could never know what he did for a living. At one point, his family believed he was a hotel manager for the Radisson in Moscow. “They [the CIA] polygraphed us all the time,” he says. “If it came out that you’d told someone about your mission, you’d be working at the 7-Eleven.”
At the Author’s Dinner, which will benefit Monterey County Free Libraries, Ramsdell will discuss his work in Russia as well as the importance of literacy, a topic about which he feels passionately. Having grown up in a small farming community in Bear River, Utah, Ramsdell considers himself a “late bloomer” to the literary world.
“I am just a farm boy and here I get to talk about the importance of literacy,” he says. “Successful people all have one thing in common: They all read when they were young.”
Ramsdell recently signed a movie deal to adapt his book to the big screen. Maybe Hollywood has a chance to redeem itself with a true tale of espionage after all.
Ramsdell speaks Thursday Sept. 4 at Embassy Suites Hotel, 1441 Canyon Del Rey Blvd., Seaside. 5:30pm silent auction; 7pm dinner. $125, proceeds benefit Monterey County Free Libraries.