The Most Dangerous Game
Fred Kovaleski and Yuri Rastvorov were secret agents, sworn enemies on opposite sides of the Cold War. When they finally came face to face, a mutual love of tennis spawned the beginning of a beautiful friendship
I first met Martin Simons in the fall of 1973. I was 12, and on the drive from our Manhattan apartment to his woodsy home in Potomac, my father told me a secret. A state secret.
Our host had been a Soviet spy who defected to the United States in 1954, and Simons was not his real name.
The two men first crossed paths that year in a CIA safe house in Maryland. My father, a CIA officer, had watched over the KGB agent, one of the biggest prizes of the Cold War, while debriefers plumbed him day after day for intelligence.
When I asked my father Simons's true name, he gently replied, "It doesn't matter."
Three decades later, I would learn that Simons was born Yuri Rastvorov. The revelation came in his Washington Post obituary. He died in Potomac in 2004 at the age of 82, five days shy of the 50th anniversary of his defection.
I reflected on that weekend more than 30 years past that my parents and I spent with him, his moneyed American wife and their two daughters. He was a hearty Slav with a round face and greenish-blue eyes, and he greeted my father with a huge hug. As the two men caught up, Simons bustled around the house in an apron, preparing savory meals for his three guests and family. "Sergei!" he called me in his booming, heavily accented, baritone. He struck me as a Russian cartoon character, a hulking but docile bear.
Like Simons, my father, Fred Kovaleski, was a former spy. He worked for the CIA in the 1950s, handling defectors and sleuthing in the Middle East under the cover of the international tennis star he really was. In fact, Simons and my father were initially paired by the agency for two shared attributes: They were spies who loved tennis.
For reasons that will become clear, my father probably meant more to Simons than Simons meant to him. But my father felt deeply the significance, and the irony, of their link. They had been mirror images in
opposing worlds on different sides of the planet, but both wound up members of the same Bethesda tennis club. They were both heroes for what they did for the United States during a precarious time when the balance of power seemed to hinge on a pin. But Simons, born behind the Iron Curtain, was a defector, or a traitor, depending on one's view. My father, the product of a free society, loyally served the country of his birth, deferring a college scholarship to volunteer as a paratrooper in World War II before moving to the front lines of the Cold War by joining the CIA in its infancy.
Those distinctions would dictate the course of their lives.
During World War II, my father helped liberate one of the largest internment camps in the Philippines. Around the same time, Simons was dispatched to herd ethnic minorities out of the Caucuses. Simons abandoned a wife and young daughter in Moscow to bolt the Soviet system and the KGB. My father walked away from the CIA when his superiors told him to pick between the agency and marrying my mother, Manya.