A Cold War Christmas Party

The Sandy Hill residence that housed the Soviet Commercial Counsellor in the 1980s and the scene of the Canadian choral debacle  Photo: Bob Irvine

By Bob Irvine

In the spring of 1986, I was in my mid-thirties and director of research at Supply and Services Canada. SSC was the government’s purchasing arm, buying everything from tanks to toilet paper. One day, my boss – also named Bob – called me to his office. Fred, a make-it-happen manager in our procurement operations, was there already. Bob introduced me to Jim and Jean-Marc, two officers from the USSR desk at External Affairs.

Jim and Jean-Marc explained that the Soviets – first to our embassy in Moscow and now in Ottawa – were showing growing frustration with Canada: “We buy your wheat every year, but you never buy anything from us in return,” they complained loudly. Australia – a fierce competitor in global grain markets – had responded quickly to similar demands by the Soviets. Now Canada was playing catch-up, but what could SSC buy from the Soviets?

Tractors! The Soviets had chided External that we had never bought a single tractor from the USSR. They sent External scads of literature about Belarus-brand tractors, which Jim and Jean-Marc passed around. The pamphlets earnestly pointed out the tractor’s economic engine and other features.

We quickly worked out a game plan. Jim and Jean-Marc would assure the Soviets that the Canadians were now very much on the case. Fred would talk to departments that used tractors. Fred would plead with Agriculture, Transport and others to include Belarus tractors – please just this once! – on their annual shopping lists. At meetings organized by External, I would explain to the Soviets why, with our fair-play procurement rules, a Belarus tractor on the front lawn of every federal building was not a sure bet.

The months passed. The line departments balked. Could they get parts fast if a Belarus tractor broke down in Fredericton? Could it clear away heavy snow from a winter storm in Cranbrook? At monthly meetings with the Soviets, my progress report on our efforts was becoming a soft-shoe routine.

Then Fred shared some great news. Transport would buy at least one Belarus tractor. It would cut the grass at an airstrip in Gravenhurst. And other departments were coming on board. We briefed the Soviets. They were ecstatic.

It was now late November. An envelope from the Soviet embassy appeared in my inbox. The Commercial Counsellor was inviting me and others on “the Canadian tractor team” to dinner. I went to Bob to tell him about my invite.

“We know already,” Bob answered. I recalled that outgoing mail from the Soviet embassy was secretly opened by the RCMP and then carefully resealed. I felt that I had passed a loyalty test from the McCarthy era.

The next day, a man in a trench coat knocked on my office door. He identified himself as an RCMP inspector. Closing the door, the Mountie began to speak in hushed tones: Don’t bring your briefcase. Every flowerpot has a hidden microphone. Watch how much you drink. If a sensitive topic comes up, start talking about the weather. Debrief him soon afterwards.

On a snowy December evening, I stepped out of a taxi and into an old home in Sandy Hill, which housed the office of the Soviet Commercial Counsellor. A line of men in dark suits greeted us as we entered a large room. A stocky man with biceps bulging through his black leather jacket held out a cocktail glass full of cigarettes with one hand and a lighter in the other. I declined.

Running the length of one side of the room was a huge buffet. Prominently displayed in the middle was a spit-roasted pig.

“Dig in or there’ll be an international incident,” Jim whispered to me.

With an open bar, people loosened up as the evening wore on. Talk turned from tractors to hockey. Jackets and ties came off. Around midnight, the Soviets opened a large room with a piano at the back. Our hosts threw down the gauntlet: they were the best singers, not the Canadians! Leading off with a rousing folk tune, they taunted us to show our stuff. We then quickly disgraced ourselves when we started mumbling the second verse of “This Land Is Your Land.”

The Soviets rushed back around the piano, drew in their collective breath, and softly sang with piano accompaniment a lullaby from the Russian steppes in three-part harmony. Perhaps fueled by too much vodka, I fought back tears. Acknowledging our sound defeat, the Canadians expressed our sincere thanks and bid our hosts adieu.

I moved on to other projects. The Berlin Wall came down. Years later, as I tucked our toddler son into bed, I would remember the lullaby. We all love our children, I thought, as I kissed my son’s cheek.

Bob Irvine is a former public servant, long-time Glebe resident and frequent contributor to the Glebe Report.

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