[SoundStage!]Hi-Fi in Paradigm
Back Issue Article

May 2002

Spy System

At the end of May, I will be attending a home-entertainment show in New York City. Thinking about the Big Apple reminds me of my early days as a stereo buff, for it was in Manhattan that the hi-fi bug first bit.

The period between 1982-85 was a Golden Age for New York audiophiles. The circle was small enough that a purchase of a new amplifier in Brooklyn affected a buying decision in the Bronx. Everyone knew everyone, and a newcomer to the hobby quickly became initiated into a tight circle of enthusiasts.

In my case, I was blessed with a cadre of experienced mentors. The list of hi-fi fellow travelers included Jack English, who became a famous audio reviewer, Ernie Viotty of Octave Research, and Larry Smith, founder of Perfectionist Audio Components. These men taught me lessons that continue to inform my reactions to reproduced music in the home. To all of them, I owe a debt of thanks for pointing my hi-fi journey in the right direction.

Apart from this group, there was an obscure hobbyist from the 1980s who not only influenced my audio tastes but also enlightened me about the dangers of hi-fi lust. The gray eminence was my upstairs neighbor, Ivan Ilych, a Soviet diplomat attached to the UN Mission. This recollection is intended as a cautionary tale about the dangers of audio addiction.

I first met Ivan Ilych when he magically appeared on my doorstep soon after I installed my very first hi-fi system. In an olive-drab sweater, military-style trousers, white socks and sandals, Ivan resembled an off-duty commando. He was in his late 30s, clean-cut, lean and fit with a practiced, friendly smile. He presented himself as a stereo owner from the 11th floor and that was good enough for me. Without further inquiry, I accepted him into my life.

Ivan had a way of smiling while criticizing that eased the pain of his message. The first time he heard my system, one that I had assembled from reading reports and judiciously selecting from the used equipment bin at Harvey Radio, he looked at me and laughed. "You cannot be serious," he said.

Surely, my Pioneer/Carver/DCM system didn’t sound as good as I’d hoped, but I would have appreciated less direct criticism. Indirection wasn’t Ivan’s style, at least not on the surface. He eased the sting by adding, "I help you sell this stuff and we start over."

During the course of time, Ivan preached a philosophy that I readily adopted: good hi-fi components cost money and the pleasure they gave justified the expenditure. With the Russian’s encouragement over the next three years, I was able to spend 40 times my original investment of $2500 before finally giving up the quest and walking away.

Before then, however, Ivan, his beautiful wife, Alexandra, and I shared some memorable times together. In the beginning, our relationship was strictly based upon audio. Those were the fun days of comparison and competition. Ivan’s apartment, with its huge skylight and roomy balcony, cost more to rent than mine. He said his diplomatic housing allowance took into consideration New York City rents. Otherwise, he and Alexandra lived like Spartans. Most notably, they walked everywhere. In all the time I knew them, they never took a taxi. As a result of daily exercise, they looked elegant no matter the season.

One area where Ivan did splurge, with Alexandra’s apparent blessing, was his hi-fi system. Many weeks passed before he invited me up to his place to experience it. I was flabbergasted. In the far end of the living room were electrostatic loudspeakers that were two feet wide, seven feet high and only four inches thick. His amplifier was a monstrous Mark Levinson ML3 and his turntable a Linn Sondek from Scotland. He volunteered that the value of his system exceeded $10,000! How did it sound? Fantastic! I was smitten once and for all time.

Within a six-month period, I changed my entire stereo system at least three times. In my defense, I was a single man earning more money than I knew how to spend.

There was no pain or guilt attached to my purchases. Yet, while events were proceeding at a wasteful pace on the seventh floor, up on 11, Ivan was acting just as crazy. He went from solid-state to tubes, from electrostatic loudspeakers to a four-tower Infinity system, from a Linn to a professional broadcast turntable suspended inside a spring-filled box. No matter how much money I threw at my stereo system, Ivan’s always cost more and sounded better.

One day I asked Ivan about his work. He said his office was in the United Nations building and that he was an information analyst. I asked him what an information analyst did, exactly. With a straight face, he replied, "I compile a mass of data and then summarize it for my superiors." Ohhhkay. I was too polite to ask how much he was paid.

Eventually, I learned that Ivan was a major in the Soviet air force, that he had been living in the US for over seven years and that he had a daughter in the USSR from whom he and his wife were estranged. "She married someone we didn’t like. We warned her," he said. He showed me a photo of Ksenia. Except for dark hair, she was a twin of her mother, a Slavic version of Julie Christie. With wistful pride, Ivan admitted that Ksenia was very curvaceous. "Too bad she chose to stay in Moscow," he said. "She could have met capitalist like you," he said. Break my heart.

Winning Ivan’s friendship was one thing. Winning his confidence was another.

For months he watched my mounting frustration with transistor amplifiers. Finally, as if dropping a barrier, he suggested I buy a tube amp through him. "Why would I do that," I asked.

"I have diplomatic exemption," he said.

"You mean I can save on sales tax?" I asked, figuring eight percent was better than nothing.

"No, means you buy from Russian who exports to Soviet Union," he replied. "You get 40% discount." Wow. So, that’s how he did it.

Not quite. Even at a 40% discount, Ivan was spending thousands of dollars yearly on new equipment. And his wife never complained?

One night, the Ilyches invited me upstairs for dinner. The food was borscht and dumplings and several other savory miracles that Alexandra prepared from fresh ingredients. I didn’t know Soviets could cook so well. As usual, the subject of hi-fi dominated the conversation. I asked Alexandra how she liked the Infinity Beta system with the big new Conrad-Johnson amplifier. "The tone is so beautiful," she said. "Sometimes it makes me sad."

"Sad?" I asked.

"Yes, we are so lucky," she replied. "While people in the Soviet Union are so poor."

I looked around at the sparsely but stylishly furnished apartment, the trendy clothes they were wearing, the incredible hi-fi system playing for us, and I realized she was right. Pretty damn lucky.

Then, Ivan broke the news. "Andropov, our new Prime Minister, is hard-liner looking for dissidents. We are being recalled to Moscow," he said.

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"It means we have been in United States too long. We have to be rehabilitated."

"How long will rehabilitation take?"

Ivan gave a sardonic laugh. "Forever," he said. "We won’t be coming back."

I was stunned. The Communist Threat had been a vague menace for me. Suddenly, it had reached right into my apartment building aiming at targets that were friends of mine.

"Is there anything you can do?" I asked.

"Nothing," he replied.

After that evening, our get-togethers were framed in quiet desperation. We began to make plans to sell Ivan’s hi-fi equipment. We figured it was worth about $15,000 at liquidation prices. Ivan was stoical about it. His demeanor never betrayed the stress he had to be under.

Then, one day while moving equipment around my living quarters, Ivan stopped and made a matter-of-fact admission. "I won’t be seeing you for awhile," he said. "I have to go away."

"Where to?"

"I don’t know. The FBI hasn’t told me."

"The FBI!"

"Yes, I am defecting to the US."

Suddenly, a few loose blocks fell into place. "Are you a spy?"

"Yes."

"For whose side?"

"Guess."

"Then why do you have to go away?"

"For my protection. As soon as the Soviets find out I am defector, a limousine will come to the building. Two strong men will enter with a roll of carpet and later they will leave with me rolled up inside it. I will be dead."

"Come on," I said. "This isn’t Russia. It’s the United States of America."

"The KGB kills Russians here all the time," he said. "You don’t hear about it because there’s no one to complain."

"What about Alexandra? Isn’t she going with you?"

"You see, she can’t defect. Her father is general in KGB. He would be disgraced if she defected."

I knew that Ivan loved his wife intensely, yet his face was totally blank at the thought of living without her. He must have made a very good spy.

True to his word, Ivan ducked out of sight for a few weeks. His defection went unnoticed in the press. Alexandra Ilych kept a very low profile. I never saw her in the lobby or the elevator.

A month later, Ivan resumed living upstairs with his wife and his stereo equipment.

I asked him whether Alexandra was staying with him after all. "Yes, she defected the easy way," he said. "She waited until Andropov was dead and then she told her father she was staying here." A miracle had happened. The new Prime Minister, a former spy-catcher in the Soviet Union, had died before he was able to kill off people like Ivan -- and Alexandra, for she was guilty by association.

A long time afterwards, we were having drinks at the Top of the Sixes, celebrating our good health, when I started to tease Ivan about being a spy. "I should have known you led a double-life. There was no way you could have afforded all that hi-fi equipment on your UN salary."

"I didn’t do it for the money," he said.

"No, you did it for the stereo system."

"We had to spend cash on something that didn’t draw attention to us."

"So you bought thousands of dollars worth of hi-fi? That’s the best excuse I've ever heard." I looked at Alexandra, impeccably dressed in slacks, a scarf and a hunting jacket. "Wouldn’t you have rather bought clothes or home furnishings?"

"We have clothes, we have nice house," she said, her high cheekbones betraying a slight flush. "And we have music."

The light bulb finally went on in my head. "Aha. So, you were both in on it. Well, if you had been killed by the KGB, your love of hi-fi would have been to blame."

"You could be right," said Ivan. "But here we are. Isn’t capitalism great?"

Soon after, I moved from New York and Ivan and Alexandra re-located, as well. Within a very short time, we lost track of each other. From then until now, I have never met a couple whose love of hi-fi went so deep or took on such life-threatening proportions. Who says audio addiction isn’t dangerous? It can turn innocent spies into counterspies.

...Jim Saxon
jim@soundstage.com

 

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