Book review: ‘n Poskaart uit Moskou


Kobus de Villiers is a retired aeronautical engineer. Born and educated in South Africa, he currently lives in Canada, where he occupies his time by writing books that are loosely based on his adventures as an aeronautical engineer during an interesting period of South African history, in the time before South Africa became a democracy.

De Villiers has just had his latest book, ‘n Poskaart uit Moskou (A Postcard from Moscow), published by Malherbe Uitgewers. Other popular books by Kobus de Villiers include: Uiters Geheim en ander anekdotes; Top Secret and other anecdotes (a memoir); Once upon a time I lived in Africa; and Vlug 237: Ben Gurion na Waterkloof. He travelled the world, working on various projects, intended to enable South Africa to become self sufficient in aviation matters. He had many strange experiences and rollicking adventures along the way, which are documented with his usual wry humour.

The main theme of his latest book chronicles the lengthy period he spent in Moscow and St Petersburg (also known as Leningrad) in Russia during 1990, working on a top secret and very important aviation feasibility study, to investigate the possibility of adapting Russian Mig-29 jet engines for installation in South African Mirage fighter jets, in order to sidestep the international sanctions that were then in place against South Africa.

De Villiers describes the extreme cold and bleakness of the Russian winter and the conditions under which he and his team were forced to live incognito in order to work on the project. This meant that they and their Russian hosts went to great lengths to keep their activities secret from the authorities – no easy task in a closed society such as the Russia of that time. They would be accommodated in Leonid Brezhnev’s dacha, on the outskirts of Moscow.

The intriguing subtheme is the story of a mysterious and very beautiful woman, Gila, who appears from time to time in the narrative. She and De Villiers (who suspected that she was a Mossad agent) had been romantically involved in the past, but their relationship had fizzled out after each meeting. He met up with Gila from time to time in Leningrad and realised that he still had feelings for her. However, due to the secret nature of his project and her own possible hidden agenda, they could not meet openly.

The fascinating logistical arrangements that were employed in order for De Villiers to travel from South Africa to Moscow without arousing international suspicion were ingenious and very funny. He would fly from South Africa to London, meet his contact, place his South African passport and return flight ticket in a London bank deposit box where he would find British pounds, a dry cleaning ticket, another passport, instructions and a return ticket for London/Vienna/London flights issued in another name. After collecting his “dry cleaning” (a full set of clothes suitable for a foreign businessman in Europe) he then travelled to Vienna, en route to Moscow. Every time he returned to South Africa, the complicated process was reversed.

The two teams started work. The Russian and South African teams did not understand or speak each other’s languages, so communication via a translator was difficult, particularly when highly technical matters regarding the engines were being discussed. But eventually trust, rapport and mutual respect was established. It was agreed that the proposed conversion would be possible and the two teams set to work to produce the technical drawings required to convert the engine so that the staff in South Africa could begin production of the necessary parts and the Russian workers in Leningrad could begin to assemble the engine.

At first, life in the dacha was difficult for the South Africans. They were far from home with very limited contact with their loved ones or the outside world, working long hours in secret during a bleak and very cold Russian winter. But, as time went on, camaraderie developed between the two teams. The Russian KGB guards often played volleyball in the dacha’s driveway. Soon a match between the Russian guards and the South African team was organised. De Villiers was invited to play for the Russian team, which won! The afternoon ended with a braai, hosted by the South Africans which involved much singing, many vodka toasts and photos of the winners. The next time De Villiers was in Pretoria for a report back on the project, he was in trouble, and had to explain why he had been fraternising with the enemy, as a photograph of him, draped in the Russian flag with his Russian teammates had found its way to Pretoria!

One day the KGB guards reported that an uprising had started in Russia. Radio and television broadcasts were suddenly no longer on air and a state of emergency was declared. All KGB members were recalled for what was essentially a coup de etat. There was concern regarding the safety of the dacha staff and the translator Alonya. The teams were told to urgently pack up their equipment and drawings and that it was imperative that the South Africans leave Russia immediately, as it was expected that soon the airports would be  closed. The South African team together with all the equipment and drawings hurriedly left the dacha in old trucks. They were instructed to stay out of sight and to remain absolutely silent whenever the trucks stopped. The equipment and drawings were hidden at a poultry farm, behind sacks of chicken feed in the feed barn. The team was then rushed to the airport and left Russia en route to Vienna, where they were ordered to keep a low profile and await further instructions. They were suddenly instructed to travel home via Switzerland immediately, as persons who had left Russia during the state of emergency were being investigated. Eventually, after the uprising was over, they could return to Russia and the project continued.

De Villiers relates that on occasion the team was required to vacate the dacha for a few days as an important meeting would be held there. They were accommodated in various guesthouses, each with a KGB “minder”. It was also a traditional Russian holiday period. De Villiers managed to persuade his minder that he would be happy to be alone in the guesthouse while the minder made the most of the available feminine company, which resulted in a secret assignation with the beautiful, mysterious Gila for a romantic few days in a remote cottage in the snow. Although he was almost caught out, it was worth it!

This book is an exciting read and will appeal to adventurers and also to members of the past and present armed forces of many countries. The adventures and travails of South Africa’s top secret project in Russia are recounted with the dry humour that is so typical of the author. A very enjoyable read.

A Postcard from Moscow

By Kobus de Villiers

Published by Malherbe Uitgewers

Language: Afrikaans

ISBN 978-1-77632-735-5

First edition 2022

Review by LH MacDonald