Love in the Time of Cold War

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I'll cherish that love till I die. It was one of the odder subplots of the late cold-war era: in April 1986, a New Yorker named Joseph Mauri became a Moscow media celebrity as the main character in The Man From Fifth Avenue, a 90-minute Soviet television documentary about poverty in New York. Homeless and jobless, Mauri was the embodiment of American capitalism's indifference to the poor; in August 1986 the KGB hauled him on a month-long, all-expenses-paid propaganda tour of Soviet cities, where he collected petition signatures "to protect ordinary Americans evicted from their homes." Thousands of Russians sent Mauri money, and he was received at the Kremlin by President Andrei Gromyko, whose legendary inscrutability cracked at the sight of this implausible guest in his worn-out checked shirt.

In the U.S., enterprising reporters (including TIME's) uncovered another side to the story: Mauri's longtime job in the mailroom at the New York Times, and the fact that he hadn't slept rough for a single night. He came home to a turncoat's welcome, and before long both he and the Soviet Union were history. It's only now, at the age of 72, that Mauri has chosen to explain publicly why he so eagerly let himself be used as a tool of Soviet propaganda. It wasn't venality or hatred for his country. It was his need to rekindle a long-lost love. "I regret nothing," he says, on the phone from his Manhattan studio apartment. "I gave everything for the love of my life. I'll cherish that love till I die."

Back in 1964, Mauri, then 32, with a brief marriage behind him, visited the Black Sea resort of Sochi as a tourist. There he fell in love with Anna Golubkova. She was a 24-year-old English teacher with blue eyes and blond hair; he was an avid bodybuilder, a dancer in Mae West's traveling show, an extra in movies like Cleopatra. But their forbidden affair was ended abruptly by the KGB, which threw Mauri out of the country; it did so again when he returned later that year to try and marry Golubkova. The Soviet Embassy ignored his pleas for a visa and his letters to Golubkova went unanswered. In New York, Mauri let things slide. "My life became suspended for over 20 years," he says now. In the fall of 1985 a rent hike led to Mauri's eviction from his Upper West Side apartment and street protests that caught the eye of Iona Andronov, a crafty Soviet correspondent "in search of a likely story to stick it to the Yankees," as Andronov puts it today.
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Mauri was a prize catch. "He was well-spoken, well-read, intelligent, though naive, and held a college degree." says Andronov, whose story in the prestigious Literaturnaya Gazeta weekly prompted the kgb to commission a documentary film around Mauri. "I knew they were using me," says Mauri now. "But I was using them, too." Nothing else really mattered to him, and in the tumultuous summer of 1986, when Mauri's tour of the U.S.S.R. reached Leningrad, he took Andronov outside — away from the KGB microphones — and told him his true motives. Stunned, Andronov helped Mauri find Anna Golubkova — who was now married and renamed Albina Tikhomirova. The reunion was a letdown. Mauri saw a stout woman whose marriage hadn't worked out and who was now living with a boyfriend. Tikhomirova saw Mauri as her ticket out of poverty and urged him to accept the Soviets' offer of defection in return for a private apartment, a car and a fat wad of cash. The first thing she told him was, "You must have bucks. Let's go to a hard-currency store."

By now Andronov had developed a genuine affection for Mauri. "My human feelings took over my professional cynicism," he says, recalling his advice to Mauri: not to defect or renounce his American citizenship. Mauri went home — and started saving up for his annual trips to visit Tikhomirova.

In October 1999, she died of cancer. Mauri's annual October visit to his beloved's grave in Moscow became the high point of his life. Andronov and his wife, Valentina, with whom Mauri would stay, became his only family. Then last year, Valentina died. Now, it's just Mauri and Andronov — two tired old men who have lost everything except an unlikely bond forged in the cold war.