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PING-PONG DIPLOMACY:
AN EXCERPT

Stewart handed the Honorable Ivor Montagu a letter. It was from the Communist International, better known as the Comintern, created to spread Communist propaganda, an organization that was riddled with spies and double and triple agents.

“How soon can you leave?” asked Stewart.

“I suppose I could leave tonight,” said Montagu. Stewart suddenly “became so stern as to be almost conspiratorial.” He pointed at Montagu’s letter. “Don’t show it to anyone.” Montagu might not have known it yet, but “a letter of that kind carried in Soviet Russia the weight of a decree.”

Only months after his return to London, Montagu was speeding across European railways back to Moscow. The only thing he had forgotten to pack in his desperate rush was his rubber-coated ping-pong paddle. But what possible use could a paddle have on vital Comintern business?

Arriving in Moscow, not a penny left in his pocket, he found no one to meet him; the entourage had been waiting for Lord Swaythling’s son at the first-class carriages. Montagu spilled out of the hard seats and wandered confused around Moscow. When, finally, he showed up at the Trade Union Building, there was a “great relief” balancing their irritation that it had taken him so long to get there. Moscow was preparing for the annual celebration of their October revolution and Montagu was asked to stay. What, he asked, should I do? Wait, said the functionary, then added on Montagu’s way out of the room. “There is something else you can do. . . . I hear you play table tennis.”

Montagu spent the week battling a “series of the keenest players” in all of Russia, who, he suspected, had been brought in to impress him. He wired his new girlfriend back in England urging her to ship his paddle to Moscow at once.

His treatment in Moscow was even better than last time. He attended the parade in Red Square, sitting close to Stalin in the VIP section. At the Bolshoi Theater he watched Vyacheslav Molotov give a lengthy report from the gallery. The great man, Stalin, sat three rows in front. Obviously, Ivor Montagu was being groomed, but for what exactly? Could it really be ping-pong? Or was that just a part of what Moscow had mapped out for him?