Interpreter on the X

6 minute read

Fyodor Markov-Smith had to take his fingers off the keyboard. He watched, stunned, as his hands shook. He could not make them stop. But then he never imagined doing what he was doing right now.

He stood up and paced his studio apartment in Rosslyn. It was not yet fully dark, and his curtains were open. His building was L-shaped, and that new girl in the other half of the L was looking at him again. He thought of her as Thirty Degree Girl, since that was the angle to her window. When she caught him looking, she always turned away and whisked her curtain closed. This time she kept staring as he circled. Her presence in her window did not even register; he just kept circling, biting the inside of his cheek.


At age 31, Fyodor Markov-Smith was on the fast track at the State Department. Born in eastern Ukraine, it what the world came to know as “The Donbass,” he was a fluent Russian speaker. Years before the trouble started, his widowed father had taken twelve-year-old Fyodor and his baby sister to live near Pittsburgh. By high school graduation, Fyodor spoke flawless English, Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian. He left Pittsburgh for Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, interned at State as a Russian translator, and graduated with highest honors. He turned down graduate study at Harvard to apply for a career position at State as an interpreter.

Fyodor’s status as a naturalized American prolonged the intensive security screening required for the job, forcing him to add “Barista” to his list of languages. Eventually, his loyalty and extraordinary skills were recognized. He became a rising star in State’s Office of Language Services, quickly and deftly handling four trips as SecState’s ‘terp.

Naturally, he kept close track of the new President’s interest in things Russian. Just before the upcoming Helsinki summit in July 2018, his OLS “rabbi,” who was to interpret for POTUS, suffered acute appendicitis. That left Fyodor’s boss as a last-minute substitute. But then the boss’s wife had a stroke, and it fell to Fyodor to take the assignment. Abruptly, Fyodor was whisked from Foggy Bottom to his apartment and then rocketed to Andrews. He never noticed Thirty Degree Girl at her window, phone to ear.

By the time Air Force One made Russian airspace, Fyodor had sweated through one of the three white shirts he’d chucked into his suitcase. The magnitude of his sudden assignment, meeting and working at the side of POTUS in a historical setting, was almost overwhelming. Almost. Because suddenly, while peeking into the press section of Air Force One, Fyodor relaxed and smiled. Those press people would have to be asking, but Fyodor would be there and know.

At the assigned hour, Fyodor was presented to the President, who glanced his way then took a last-second call with his back turned. The two leaders stood for a photo op, with Fyodor in the background trying not to look like a stalker. Then the press were hustled out, and the two presidents and their interpreters got to work.

Fyodor was nervous at first. He looked quizzically at his counterpart, an equally young but stern Russian to whom he had not been introduced. She avoided eye contact and conspicuously put her pen down on her pad, then stared at him until he did the same. Then both men began by getting cheek-to-jowl for a few minutes of intense whispered conversation with only Putin’s interpreter providing the link. Fyodor sensed he was not invited to this phase of the meeting.

After a few minutes of whispering, the two men sat back and began a formal dialogue. Actually, it was a monologue, with Putin speaking while POTUS listened and nodded without comment to Fyodor’s translation. The topics were the unfairness of NATO expansion, the abuse of Russian nationals in the Baltic states, the reasonableness of the Iranian regime, the reality of and necessity for Assad’s continued reign, the perfidy of Hilary’s personal attack on Russian democracy (vigorous nodding), and the possibility of greatly increased Russian investment in US real estate (vigorous smiling). At first, Fyodor felt a growing unease at this monologue, which quickly morphed into disillusionment and then disgust.

When the scheduled end of the meeting neared, POTUS asked how they should handle the press. Putin suggested that they report discussing “issues of mutual concern, especially the threat of nuclear weapons, terrorism, and the danger of unconstrained immigration.” POTUS nodded, stood, and headed for the press room. On the way out, POTUS snapped his fingers at Fyodor, held out his hand, and waited a beat until Fyodor realized he was to hand over his notes, which disappeared into a presidential pocket.

Back in the present, seven months later, Fyodor was frantic. After the trip, which should have been the high point of his career, he was shaken and unable to concentrate. He took sick days (“flu”), used vacation time, and sat silent in staff meetings.

He read the press, watched cable news, and realized he was “on the X.” He had two unreturned phone messages from a State Department lawyer. The HPSCI wanted his identity, notes, and memories. So did every Washington beat reporter. Subpoenas were coming. His brilliant career now had the half-life of a fruit fly.

Fyodor returned to his keyboard, closed his eyes, took a deep breath. Then he watched his shaking finger press the key that would download the encrypted tip line to the New York Times.

Across the way, Thirty Degree Girl, remotely monitoring the display on Fyodor’s computer, reached for her phone and dialed a number that would bypass the White House switchboard.

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