Dozor (Russian: Дозор, Watch) is a Russian code breaking/geolocation game played at night in an urban environment.
One wintery night in West Berlin, my breath in front of me was like a puff of smoke as it hit the cold, icy air. It was in December, 1987. I was waiting to meet my contact, who I will call Alex, on Friedrichstraße, a shopping district in West Berlin. I was to wait in front of a previously designated spot in front of a cathedral. Alex, in his early forties, and I met at Checkpoint Bravo more than a year earlier.
In August of 1986, I was approached by Alex at Checkpoint Bravo while attempting to travel to the west. After numerous attempts to encourage a future meeting in East Berlin, I finally took down the information he gave me with the intention of reporting the encounter to the U.S. Intelligence community, which I did the following day.
After a long, drawn out session with American intelligence officers to provide all the facts, they offered me a proposal, asking if I would go ahead with the meeting in East Berlin then report back everything that the Russian had in mind. At first, I felt unsure about the idea but went along with their suggestion, feeling that if nothing else, it was my patriotic duty. I met with the Russian on the prearranged day and on several more occasions thereafter. These series of meeting lasted several months, until the time I left the Army for college in March of 1987.
Nine months later while attending college with the support of another U.S. agency, I was sent back to Berlin, alone, to continue these monitored meetings. The moment had arrived; I left my hotel, and walked through the blistering cold arriving at the designated entrance. I was standing alone while throngs of people milled about the sidewalks, stopping now and then at the wooden shacks along the Kurfürstendamm to purchase Christmas items or to sip the warm tingling Gluvine.
Glancing at my watch, I noticed being a bit early. I headed down the walkway looking for a stand selling Gluvine, finding one not far away. I purchased the hot liquid and after a few sips felt five degrees warmer. When finished, I headed back towards the church. On my way back, I spotted Alex in the street, standing behind one of the vendor stands. He stood 5ft 8 and was stocky, but not what I would consider obese. His hair, covered by a military style Ushanka hat, was thick and black, styled-cut nicely. His eyes were dark as he squinted, but his genial smile kept him from looking too sinister. Alex was looking in the direction where I was supposed to be standing and seemed to be a bit fidgety. I approached him slowly and without trying to startle him in any way; I touched him gently on his shoulder and said, “Hello my friend.”
Alex flinched nonetheless but in a composed manner simply stated, “Follow me and do not stop.” We walked briskly through the crowds to the Friedrichstraße station, a western transfer point between several S-Bahn lines located in East Berlin territory. Although western passengers could walk from one platform to another without ever leaving the station or needing to show papers, I was not permitted to be anywhere near there when I was assigned to the Berlin Brigade as an enlisted medic from 1984 through March of 1987. TAt this moment, I first realized that I would be going into “no-man’s land” on my own. Until then, I was under the impression that my meetings would be in the friendly territory of West Berlin.
Alex did not speak to me until we were on the east side, then he gave me a friendly welcome, asking me how I’ve been and how my wife, Trena, was doing. They met briefly in October of 1986 during a pre-arranged dinner along with Alex’s wife. No business was discussed while on the train and when we came to one of the stops, he said, “This is where we get off, just stay close to me and don’t say anything.” Feeling a little anxious, I gladly obliged.
We walked onto an icy, snowy platform with many people still milling about and headed straight towards the station. I followed him quickly down the concrete steps and was confronted by several Russian guards. Perhaps sensing my nervousness, Alex quickly spoke to them in a commanding, yet pleasant voice; they said something back, sounding much like a greeting or acknowledgment. They were all smiling, a couple laughing nervously.
I continued to follow Alex outside to an awaiting car, which appeared to be a new mid-engine, Lada Samara, which at the time was only sold in Russia or to agencies for use as a pursuit vehicle. Most likely, it was turbocharged with a 16-valve 300 hp engine. Bleak darkness was my first impression of this section of East Berlin outside the station. I had been traveling—without much sleep—for about thirty hours from Florida to London to Berlin.
A man sporting glasses and the same type of hat that Alex was wearing waited with the car engine running. He appeared to be a slight bit younger than Alex but was taller at 6ft 1. We quickly entered the car and sped off into the night. I had no idea where I was exactly. We turned onto streets that were narrow, surrounded on both sides by looming sentinel walls of brown and gray stone dilapidated buildings. The driver took the most obscure back roads possible to reach our destination…unknown. I did not see the familiar bustling, modern buildings surrounding Alexanderplatz anywhere. The portion of East Berlin that I was being rushed through was dark and dreary where cars and electricity seem like a pretense. The night seemed darker than before; the absence of light giving away to a massive black hole.
Far from the steel structures of Potsdamer Platz, I was in the tumultuous, distinct neighborhood consisting of abandoned buildings, derelict streets, piles of rubble and buildings reminiscent of World War II. None of the street corners contained the characteristic Ampelmannchen on the pedestrian traffic lights. There was a dark-toned clammy atmosphere to these chilly dark streets.
Combined with the drive in darkness, there was an increasing dense fog creeping in like a damp blanket. Intermittent street lamps cast dim lights between street crossings onto the wet streets. The tires rolled over cobblestones as we continued to pass narrow dank alleys and gothic stone buildings. The streets were eerily quiet. The sky was pitch black, releasing sleet mixed with snow, and I tried not to shiver, even while traveling in a comfortably heated car. The rhythmic beating of windshield wipers drummed in my ears.
Our ride had been totally void of human contact until the monotony was suddenly changed by the appearance of headlights shining closer and closer behind us. This new sign of life immediately captured the undivided attention of both the driver and Alex. Not appearing to be too rattled, the two men conversed in Russian and the driver took rapid and evasive driving techniques through the slippery, narrow streets. Startled, I asked if everything was okay. My friend assured me that it would be fine, very soon. I tried not to appear too alarmed.
He was right. After a few quick maneuvers, we lost sight of the vehicle, an expected outcome when matching a Lada Samara against an East German Trabant, built with Duroplast, a durable form of plastic containing resin strengthened by recycled wool or cotton. These cars were fueled by lifting the hood and filling a six gallon gas tank which then had to be mixed with two-stroke oil.
We finally arrived to our destination and emerged from the darkness back into civilization. A series of low-rise apartments surrounded us; it seemed that we were near the Karl Marx Allee area, but I was uncertain. A rusty iron fence surrounded the small park beside the apartment complex where the play area was deserted, broken, and covered partially with snow. The sky was still dark and overcast.
When I got out of the car, I immediately felt the cool, brisk, wintery winds pounding at my face. Snow flurries spun and danced around us as if led by a spirit. Before me stood a ten-story building, fronted with glass doors. Alex introduced me to Sergi, the driver. The three of us scurried up the steps to the glass-door entrance. As I battled my way towards the entrance, my cheeks and ears were slowly turning red and beginning to feel a little numb. Once inside, we took an old elevator to the ninth floor. The elevator bell rang as it stopped; the doors slowly opened.
We walked straight to a door which Sergi unlocked and opened with a creak. Darkness filled the room until Sergi flipped on the light switch, which revealed a modest décor that impressed, but did not surprise me. I glanced out the front window as we passed a small corridor towards the living room. Outside, the trees bent in submission to the howling wind.
The ceilings were plain and the rooms contained what I pictured to be a normal amount of windows and doors by American standards. The walls were not cracked but seemed freshly painted and clean. There were no broken light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, but instead the complex was brightly lit with modern lamps and lampshades. I wondered if there was anybody else hiding somewhere in the apartment.
Alex asked me kindly to have a seat in one of the comfortable sofas and offered me some refreshments. I asked for something to drink and he had Sergi bring me a coke. We continued small talk until Sergi brought my drink and then sat down. We began discussing the nature of our business. With a closer look of Sergi, I noticed that he had light brown, thin wispy hair. It was clear who would be leading the discussions. My friend, Alex, no doubt was in charge of the mission.
I secretly wondered if I had fallen into a trap and was completely cut off from my world; isolated. The setting was awkward for me but I tried my best to remain cool, attentive, and interested. Alex was jovial and light-hearted from the time we met at the Ku’damm, just as I remembered him to be. I did not feel threatened, fearful or uneasy but I did feel a bit apprehensive, cautious, and watchful.
(To be continued)