Sunday, August 21, 2016

Notable Poisonings in the Soviet Union and Russia 1921-2008

Andrew Kramer wrote an interesting article in the New York Times today detailing the rise of suspected state-sponsored poisonings of opponents of the Kremlin.  Kramer's survey goes back to 1978, which seems pretty far, but there is actually much more before that.  Just in case people might be interested, here is a  chronology I constructed that discusses notable poisonings from 1921 until 2008.  The list is grim but instructive about how Soviet, and now Russian, methods have scarcely changed.  Of course, many more regime opponents have been executed over the years by other means, but poisoning remains one of the vilest and most terror-inspiring techniques.
The first Soviet government poison laboratory is established.  Its activities are expanded significantly during the Stalin era.
White Army General Alexander Kutepov is drugged and kidnapped in Paris.  He dies in transit due to an overdose of the drug used to subdue him.
Soviet writer Maksim Gorkiy and his son are allegedly poisoned on orders of NKVD head Genrikh Yagoda.
Future NKVD boss Nikolay Yezhov, aka “the poisoned dwarf” is allegedly the object of a poisoning plot by his predecessor, Genrikh Yagoda.
White Army General Yevgeniy Miller is drugged and kidnapped in Paris.  He is later executed in the Soviet Union.
Abram Slutskiy, head the Foreign Intelligence Service of the NKVD, is poisoned with cyanide put in his tea.
Laboratory No. 1, headed by Grigoriy Mayranovskiy, provides poisons for use by Pavel Sudoplatov’s NKVD Administration for Special Tasks.  Mayranovskiy’s laboratory is later accused of experimenting on live human subjects in order to determine the most effective poisons to use in dealing with enemies of the state. 
Ukrainian Catholic Archbishop Theodore Romzha is poisoned by the MGB with a dose of curare.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin is allegedly poisoned by MGB Chief Lavrentiy Beria.  The more accepted explanation, however, is that Stalin died of natural causes.
Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito is allegedly the object of an MGB poisoning plot, which was reportedly called off shortly after the death of Stalin.
Following his defection to the United States in 1953, former KGB Assassin Nikolay Khokhlov is poisoned, probably on KGB orders.  He recovers in a West German hospital.  The exact poison was never determined, but was narrowed to two suspects: Thallium and Polonium.
Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera is assassinated in Munich by KGB agent Bogdan Stashinskiy.  Stashinskiy shot Bandera while passing him on the steps, using a cyanide gas gun concealed in a rolled up newspaper.  Initially, it was thought that Bandera had died of a heart attack.
During their investigation of Colonel Oleg Penkovskiy for espionage, KGB agents reportedly plant poisoned wax on the seat of Penkovskiy's office chair.  As a result, Penkovskiy was hospitalized, giving the KGB the opportunity to plant bugs and cameras in his office and apartment and thereafter to obtain incriminating evidence.  Penkovskiy, one of the most effective spies ever recruited by the West, was the first to reveal that the so-called "missile gap," a dominant theme of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign, did not actually exist.
According to former KGB official Oleg Kalugin, five KGB agents successfully poison dissident novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with a near-fatal dose of ricin.  The five agents followed Solzhenitsyn into a grocery store in the city of Novocherkassk and stuck him with a needle to administer the poison.
Georgian dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia reportedly survives two KGB attempts to poison him.
Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov is fatally poisoned by ricin while walking in London.  The ricin was delivered by means of an umbrella that was jabbed into him from behind.
Just prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December, the KGB reportedly attempts to poison the food of rebellious Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin, whom KGB chief Yuriy Andropov erroneously believes is a CIA agent.  The attempt fails, although Amin’s son does suffer poisoning symptoms.  Two weeks later, the KGB resorted to more direct measures: special KGB Alpha troops and GRU Spetsnaz landed in Kabul in advance of the Soviet invasion and took Amin’s palace by force, killing him and his guards. 
There are allegations, never substantiated, that elements of the defunct KGB successfully poisoned to death former Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdiya.  The more accepted version is that Gamsakhurdiya committed suicide, although his wife says he was murdered. 
March 2002
Prominent Chechen commander Omar Khattab is poisoned in an FSB operation.  Khattab was handed a letter by a trusted associate who had been turned by the FSB.  The letter, which was doctored with an unspecified neurotoxin, killed Khattab in five minutes.
July 3, 2003
Apartment bombing investigator and Yabloko Duma Deputy Yuriy Shchekochikhin dies suddenly, reportedly of an "acute allergic reaction."  Relatives and political allies believe, however, that he was poisoned.  Observers speculated at the time that Shchekochikhin may have been murdered in order to prevent him from uncovering the true story of the FSB's involvement in the 1999 apartment bombings, which took 243 lives and were blamed on Chechen terrorists.  The Russian authorities refused to cooperate with relatives in an investigation of Shchekochikhin's death.  Speculation that Shchekochikhin may have been poisoned was lent greater credence by the fact that only three months earlier another apartment bombing investigator, "Liberal Russia" Duma Deputy Sergey Yushenkov, was shot to death.  Just to muddy the waters further, in September 2003, stories surfaced in London that an SVR agent had attempted to poison exiled Oligarch Boris Berezovskiy, a prominent proponent of the FSB-apartment bombing theory. 
October 2003
On October 26, during the Nord Ost crisis, Russian authorities pump "incapacitating gas" into a Moscow theater in an effort to free over 800 hostages held by Chechen terrorists.  The gas, Tri-Methyl Fentanyl, was intended to knock out everyone quickly, but, through dreadful miscalculation, was pumped into the theater in sufficient strength to have fatal effects.  129 hostages died (most from the gas, although reportedly a few hostages were shot by mistake by the Special Forces that stormed the theater).
January 2004
Russian Presidential candidate and Berezovskiy ally Ivan Rybkin mysteriously disappears from Moscow in late January.  Five days later, he resurfaces in Kyiv.  Later, after returning to Moscow and then London for drug tests, Rybkin claimed he was lured to Kyiv on the false promise of peace talks with Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.  Instead, according to Rybkin, he was drugged and compromising videos were taken of him.  As of now, no proof has surfaced to substantiate Rybkin's claims.  Putin spin-doctor Gleb Pavlovskiy theorized that Rybkin was just seeking an excuse to withdraw from the Presidential contest, and that he dreamed up the kidnap story to cover himself.  Others are not so sure, but the following month Rybkin did indeed withdraw from the race.
April 21, 2004
Chechen Guerilla Commander Lecha Islamov is poisoned to death in prison.  Islamov had met on several occasions with FSB officials, who tried unsuccessfully to turn him.  A month later, jail officials summoned him to another meeting, at which he was offered tea and a snack.  Shortly after this meeting, Islamov suffered symptoms consistent with Thallium poisoning and died.
September 2004
Anna Politkovskaya, one of Russia's premier investigative journalists, is allegedly poisoned while traveling to Beslan to cover the hostage crisis.  According to Politkovskaya, she got on a plane, drank some tea and promptly passed out.  Politkovskaya believed that she was sidelined on orders from the FSB, but could offer no proof.  Two years later, on October 7, 2006 Politkovskaya was shot to death in her apartment elevator.  Two Chechens have been arrested and are on trial for her murder.  Politkovskaya, known for her criticism of the policies of President Putin, was murdered on his birthday.
September 5, 2004
Ukrainian opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko falls ill shortly after having dinner with SBU head Ihor Smeshko.  In December, Austrian doctors confirm that Yushchenko was poisoned with a near-fatal dose of dioxin.  Ukrainian authorities claim that they know who was behind the poisoning, and subsequent reports have implicated former SBU Deputy Chairman Volodymyr Satsiuk.  Satsiuk and others have fled to Russia, which has refused to extradite them on the grounds that they are Russian citizens.
September 24, 2004
Roman Tsepov, a shady businessman and associate of Vladimir Putin during his days as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, dies of poisoning.  The type of poison was not identified, but it was radioactive and the symptoms were the same as those suffered two years later by Litvinenko.  Tsepov, who had a number of connections with the St. Petersburg underworld, had been the target of numerous assassination attempts over the years.
November 23, 2006
Berezovskiy associate and former KGB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko dies of Polonium poisoning in London.  Former KGB agent and current Duma Deputy Andrey Lugovoy is suspected in the murder.  Russia has refused extradition on the grounds that he is a Russian citizen.
March, 2007
American citizens Marina Kovalevsky and her daughter Yanna return to Los Angeles after suffering Thallium poisoning in Moscow.  Initially listed as being in fair condition, they are treated at Cedars Sinai Hospital and released.  It is unknown whether they were deliberate targets of poisoning, or just unlucky.
October, 2008
Russian human rights lawyer Karina Moskalenko falls ill in Strasbourg, complaining of symptoms that include nausea, headaches and vomiting.  A few days later, Moskalenko’s husband finds ten mercury pellets in her car and notifies the French police.  According to Le Figaro, the police have concluded that the poisoning was accidental, the result of a broken thermometer that was left in the car by its previous owner.  Moskalenko spends much of her time before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg representing Chechen human rights victims, had also represented Aleksandr Litvinenko.  Before she fell ill, Moskalenko was due to attend the trial of the Chechens accused of murdering Anna Politkovskaya, in her capacity as lawyer for the Politkovskaya family.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Today is the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl, the worst nuclear plant disaster in history.  I was stationed in Leningrad at the time, while my future wife, Tanya, was living in Kiev. The disaster had profound effects on both of us, though in different ways.  Here is an excerpt on Chernobyl from my draft chapter on Leningrad 1985-1987.

During my first year in Leningrad, the official visits came thick and fast, and the Consulate’s resources were often stretched to the limit.  I began to wonder whether they would ever end.  I got my answer in April of 1986, the day after Chernobyl blew up.  It had been a deceptively quiet weekend.  Our Consul General, Charlie Magee, was on leave and I was in charge, but nothing much was going on, and I was looking forward to a slow few days.  The weekend had passed by pleasantly, until noon on Sunday, April 27, when I got a disquieting call from my opposite number at the Swedish Consulate.  “Jim,” he said, “have you heard about any kind of radiation accident in Russia?”  It seemed that on Sunday morning radiation alarms had gone off at Swedish nuclear power facilities.  A quick check revealed that there had been no nuclear accident in Sweden, and immediately suspicion began to focus on the Soviet Union

I hurried to the Consulate and called a quick meeting with Ned Alford, our Administrative Officer, and a couple of communicators who were in the office that afternoon.  We dragged out the Department of Energy Atlas of the Soviet Union and located all the nearby nuclear plants.  The closest was the Leningrad AES, a large nuclear facility at Sosnoviy Bor, a militarily-closed area.  The bad news was that Leningrad was downwind of the plant.  The good news was, if there had been a serious nuclear accident there, we would have probably already found out about it.  There was another small facility at nearby Gatchina, but as it was an experimental reactor we doubted that it could cause the kind of radiation leak that had been detected in Sweden.  We cast further afield, and found another large nuclear facility at Ignalina, in Lithuania

I called back to the Swedes and said we hadn’t heard anything, but if there had been a nuclear accident, the most likely candidate would be Ignalina.  I then called Dick Combs, who was DCM in Moscow, and asked him what was going on.  Dick said he had heard nothing about a possible nuclear accident, but we both agreed to call the Operations Center in the Department and alert them to the problem.  In the meantime, I started talking to contacts.  All had picked up rumors, but no one knew anything for sure. 

Shortly thereafter, I got a NIACT from the Operations Center asking me to check on the status of the Leningrad Nuclear Power station.  This was easier said than done, since in those days asking about nuclear reactors was frowned on, to put it mildly.  I couldn’t drive out there, since the area was closed for military reasons, so I did the next best thing and started calling around.  Calls to the Leningrad City and Party authorities got the cold shoulder, so I decided to call the Leningrad AES directly.  I got a friendly Oblast operator on the line, who, after a little cajoling, dialed around, and eventually got the duty shift supervisor at the plant.  He calmly came on the phone and said, “No, everything is fine.  We just shut down reactor number three, but that was for normal maintenance.”  He sounded so sincere, I believed him, and fired off a NIACT to the Department reporting that all seemed OK at the Leningrad facility.  So the location of the nuclear accident was still a big mystery.

This was where matters rested until the following Monday, when a short announcement was made on the 9pm Vremya news program, acknowledging that there had been an accident at Chernobyl.  I immediately rechecked the DoE map.  Chernobyl was over a thousand miles south of Sweden, so far away that I had not even considered it as a possibility.  Now it was clear that the accident must have been enormous.  In point of fact, the accident, which occurred at 1:23 am on Saturday, April 26, 1986, had released many times more radiation than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs put together.  Cesium-137, Iodine-131 and Strontium-90 had irradiated thousands of square miles around the reactor.  Even areas as far away as Scandinavia were experiencing pockets of radioactivity 100 times background, and I later learned that the Gatchina reactor near Leningrad had registered radiation levels at 37 times background in the days following the accident.

Tourists were beginning to panic.  There were about 800 Americans in our Consular District, and our Consular Section began making arrangements to evacuate them all on charter flights.  Trains were arriving from Ukraine and Belarus full of children who had been evacuated from the irradiated areas.  Word went out to the local markets not to accept any produce “from the South.”  Rumors were flying, but Leningrad’s population seemed to be taking the situation calmly.

The EPA sent out teams to evaluate the situation in Leningrad and Moscow, arriving only a few days after the accident.  In our case, they passed out Iodine tablets (too late for the current accident, but useful in case the Leningrad AES ever blew up).  They also provided us with Geiger counters, MicroRem meters and personal dosimeters.  Over the next few weeks, I would regularly stick one of the micrometers out the window, seeing what it would register.  Generally, the levels were high (about ten times normal background radiation), but not dangerous (about 2000 times background was necessary to pose an immediate health threat).  The Department began shipping in supplies so we didn’t have to rely on local markets, and I found myself eating out of cans for the next couple of months.  Still, the situation was under control, and things gradually settled down to normal in Leningrad.  The city had been spared the worst, and in the end, we had even decided against drawing down our own personnel.

For us, the crisis had passed.  The same could not be said, of course, for the citizens of Belarus and Ukraine.  My future wife Tanya, who was just a young child at the time, was living in Teremki, one of Kiev’s suburbs, when Chernobyl exploded.  Her mother had just obtained an apartment and was afraid that she would lose it if she and the children were evacuated, so they all stayed.  The authorities told the local citizenry nothing, and there was tremendous ignorance about the radiation threat.  Many citizens of Kiev marched as usual in the May Day parade, increasing their exposure.  Nonetheless, there were rumors running through Kiev as early as the morning after the accident, and Tanya remembers that the streets were uncharacteristically deserted the weekend Chernobyl blew up, although she didn’t know why.  She also remembers other parents remonstrating with her mother, asking why her children hadn’t been evacuated to Crimea.  Tanya and her twin brother Timur were particularly vulnerable as children.  Tanya recalls that for months, she had severe nosebleeds.  Her thyroid gland would swell and she would suffer bouts of nausea and weakness, sometimes passing out.  She and Timur did not sleep well for years, and were afflicted by migraine headaches.  Tanya’s mother would go to the river Dnepr to draw water for the children, since it was common wisdom that radiation was only transmitted through the air and not the water (it was also common wisdom that vodka would ward off radiation effects, the more the better).  Tanya says that nearly everyone who stayed in Kiev during this time suffered similar symptoms, with children faring the worst.  The authorities were of little or no help. People never quite trusted the local Communist authorities again, and I can't say that I blame them.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Rusty Hughes 1945-2016

Morris "Rusty" Hughes, a longtime Foreign Service colleague and friend, passed away on January 9, 2016 after a long and courageous battle with cancer.  A Vietnam veteran, he will be buried in Arlington Cemetery.  Here are some of my recollections of Rusty, focusing on a trip we took to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, while we worked at Embassy Moscow in the late 1970's.  Naturally, we had a great time.

Buying Books in Dushanbe, January 1978.
As Ambassador’s Aide, I rarely got to take trips around the country, being tied to the Embassy when the Ambassador was in town, and tied to Spaso House when he wasn’t.  Every now and again, though, I did manage to get out.  One of my first trips was with Morris “Rusty” Hughes, a colleague in the Political Section and a good friend.  Rusty, a Vietnam veteran, had lost a part of his foot when he stepped on an anti-personnel mine.  He was one of the more practical members of Political, and could be depended on to know the operational aspects of the job as well as how to do political reporting.  As Post Publications Officer, or PPO, Rusty went on frequent book-buying trips to the far reaches of the Soviet Union.  Accordingly, in early January, 1978, he went on a PPO trip to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, and invited me to come along.  For once, Ambassador Toon gave the OK.
Dushanbe, 1978

Rusty and I arrived in Dushanbe on an aged Tu-154, and settled into the Hotel Tajikistan, which was a typical Intourist hotel for Central Asia: new, with the basic amenities, but nothing fancy such as decent food.  It was snowing in Dushanbe, but it rarely got very cold there even in the wintertime, so we were quite comfortable walking around town.  The first day, we hit every major bookstore in town, under the watchful eye of our numerous surveillants.  We also kept an eye out for anything that might be of interest to our Defense Attaché colleagues, and took a few pictures of structures that looked like they might have been underground bunkers.  In those days, there was quite a craze to find out if the Soviets were still busy preparing for World War III, so we looked for such signs wherever we went.

In addition to collecting publications, one of our primary activities involved distributing USIA’s “Америка” magazine.  “Америка” was much sought after, as it was one of the few ways the average Soviet could see an uncontrolled view of life in the United States.  Normally, we would take at least 50 copies of “Америка” with us, and would usually distribute them all in no time flat.  They were always in great demand. 

Rusty at the Rohat Tea Garden
The next day we decided to be a little adventurous, and forsook our hotel for lunch at the Rohat (Pleasure) outdoor restaurant.  We sat at picnic tables outside, with the snow all around us, and ordered soup and green tea.  The soup arrived with a layer of frozen fat on top -- a sort of Tajik version of Onion soup, but, of course, completely unpalatable.  The green tea was somewhat better, for at least it arrived hot and stayed that way for a little while. 

We were about halfway through our meal when another diner sat down at our table.  He was an ethnic German, who had been resettled with his family from European Russia as part of Stalin's internal exile of “undependable” nationalities during the Second World War.  He and his family had remained in Dushanbe after the war, and, like many German POWs, helped with reconstruction projects until the late 1950s.  He was older, and retired now, and looked as if he might have been of draft age during the war.  I wondered whether he was really a Volga German, or just a prisoner who never went back to Germany after the war, for whatever reason.  In any case, his plight was truly unenviable.  We treated him to a bowl of our execrable soup, which he lapped up, and I gave him a pack of Juicy Fruit gum, which he accepted with a resigned expression (gypsies were selling Spearmint gum at the local market for a ruble a stick).  We talked for a while longer and then we said our goodbyes.  I never saw him again. 

The next day, Rusty and I made the long return trip to Moscow.  We were supposed to take a direct flight, but in the event, we were diverted to Aktyubinsk, a city in Northern Kazakhstan's “virgin lands.”  While we waited for the Moscow weather to clear, we had the run of the dilapidated airport, which looked more like a reinforced concrete hanger than an air terminal, and after several hours of waiting, were eventually escorted back to our plane.  Everyone had to go through the metal detector to get on board, but the guards made a point of allowing us to bypass security, thus emphasizing to everyone else boarding the plane that we were foreign diplomats, and therefore people to be avoided.  We arrived at Domodedovo airport without further incident.  I was glad to be back in Moscow

I never travelled with Rusty again, but I did keep up contacts with him after we left Moscow.  Rusty subsequently went on to a very successful career in the Foreign Service.  He wound up in the 1990s as Ambassador to Burundi.  His final tour of duty was as Consul General in St. Petersburg 2002-2005.  He would frequently come down to Moscow for consultations when I was Political Counselor there, and we would often have fun reminiscing about the good old days, when we drank green tea in Dushanbe, and passed out our cherished magazines. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Baker Meets with Shevardnadze in Irkutsk and Moscow, August 1-3, 1990 (excerpt from Chapter 11.11, Moscow 1989-1991)

Baker-Shevardnadze in Irkutsk, August 1-2, 1990.
Starting with the Wyoming Ministerial in September, 1989, Secretary Baker and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze increasingly took the opportunity to meet in unusual places outside of Moscow and Washington, DC, in a manner designed to show the host country in its best light.  For that reason, it was no surprise when we learned that the August 1990 meeting of the two leaders would take place in Irkutsk.  Secretary Baker was apparently enthused about the locale, because it gave him an excuse to take a side trip to Mongolia, where he planned to get in some hunting.  There was some grumbling about the object of his hunting trip, an Argali sheep with curled horns several feet in length.  It was not thought to be a proper activity for a Secretary of State, particularly since the animal in question was an endangered species, but plans went ahead for the trip anyway.

John Beyrle did the advance for S/S-S, and a team of Embassy officers that included me, Ed Salazar and Tatyana Gfoeller-Volkoff journeyed out to Irkutsk a week early to make all the
necessary preparations.  We were escorted by a large contingent of Soviet advance personnel,
including Sergey Davydov from MFA Protocol and Andrey Rogov from the USA Desk.  Sergey, in contrast to most of the people I had encountered in Protocol was very action-oriented, and easy to work with.  Whenever we encountered a roadblock in our preparations, he would simply pick up the phone, dial one of his many contacts, and inevitably start the conversation with the words: “С кем имею честь?”  (To whom do I have the honor of speaking?).  He didn’t have to twist too many arms.  The Irkutsk authorities did everything they could to ensure a successful visit, knowing full well that a Baker-Shevardnadze meeting would put their Siberian province on the map.

Andrey Rogov was not as action-oriented as Davydov, but he was very easy to deal with and laid back.  He had a nearly perfect command of English, and it was clearly his ambition to be posted to Washington.  He eventually achieved his objective, and, after a few years at the Russian Embassy in the early 1990s, reportedly resigned from the Diplomatic Service to take up a career as a Washington lobbyist, of all things. 

Knowing that Baker was an avid fisherman, the Soviets laid on a restful afternoon at the “Fisherman’s Hut,” a luxurious VIP log lodge located just up the Angara river from the lake. 
Andrey and I were deputized to go down to the lodge to make sure all was in readiness.  It was, so we spent most of the day sitting around and swapping stories.  That evening, with all preparations complete, the American and Soviet advance teams spent the evening at Irkutsk’s “Chinese” restaurant, sampling its dubious cuisine.

As the time for the visit approached, Baker’s lieutenants began filtering in.  We put most of them up in the Intourist Hotel, which was our base of operations, and in general, the early arrivals caused no problems, with one exception.  EA Assistant Secretary Richard Solomon had flown in from Beijing and somehow lost his passport en route.  He wound up phoning us from the transit lounge at Irkutsk airport, informing us that the Soviet border guards would not let him into the country.  I went out to the airport, and after a short conversation with the local head of the pogranichniki, was able to get him waived through passport and customs, on the understanding that he would be leaving on Baker’s plane.  Solomon was duly impressed, but I was a little surprised at how unconcerned he was that he might be stranded in the transit lounge during the visit.  Later, John Beyrle filled me in on Solomon.  He was a very nice guy, and very knowledgeable in his field, but notoriously disorganized, a fact that did not endear him to Secretary Baker.  On one occasion, when he was travelling with the Secretary, Solomon and an aide got off at a fuel stop in Fiji to do a little shopping.  No one noticed that they were gone until the plane was taxiing down the runway in preparation for takeoff.  Just then, the pilot reported that he saw Solomon and his aide running furiously across the tarmac in an attempt to catch up with the plane.  The pilot asked Baker what to do.  “Take off,” was Baker’s laconic reply.

The Baker-Shevardnadze meetings went off without significant problems, with both Ministers enjoying themselves at the Fisherman’s Hut, and engaging in rather desultory talks on Afghanistan, arms control and timing for the next Summit meeting.  On Thursday, Secretary Baker departed for Mongolia and his sheep-hunting expedition, and John Beyrle and I and the rest of the Advance Team packed up and flew back to Moscow.  John stayed over at my place and we were planning to take the day off on Friday.

Those plans were dashed, however, when the phone rang at 7am and we were told that Baker was hurrying back from Mongolia for a meeting with Shevardnadze in Moscow, a trip described in breathless detail in the first chapter of Baker's memoirs, "The Politics of Diplomacy."   Just as the Irkutsk meeting was breaking up, Saddam Hussein had invaded and occupied Kuwait, sparking a global crisis.  Iraq had been one subject of the Irkutsk talks, but honestly no one in the diplomatic world had expected that Saddam would be stupid enough to attack his neighbor, particularly when Baker and Shevardnadze were already meeting and discussing the Iraq situation. 

The first order of business was to ensure that Secretary Baker’s plane was cleared into Moscow, and DAO immediately began working with its counterparts on that issue.  Meanwhile, John and I drove out to Vnukovo II with all the members of the Advance Team that we could find to set up the VIP airport for a meeting and press conference later that day.  John paid particular attention to a seemingly trivial element, the arrangement of furniture in the meeting room.  John knew from past experience that Baker liked it one way and one way only.

Baker’s plane arrived and his staff began streaming down the stairs to set up for a press conference in the Main Hall.  It turned out that there had nearly been a disaster of sorts on the trip back from Mongolia.  The Secretary’s plane had stopped in Irkutsk to refuel and had blown a tire on landing.  There were apparently no suitable jacks available, so the plane sat on the tarmac for hours while airport officials frantically worked on a temporary solution.  I’m not sure how the problem was solved, although it was most likely a classic Russian improvisation of some sort.

As staffers milled around the Main Hall, Pat Kennedy, who at the time headed S/S-EX, could be seen calmly connecting all the audio equipment together as John and I escorted the Secretary and his party up to the meeting room.  By the time they had completed their talks upstairs, everything was ready for their press conference in the Main Hall, with the Moscow press corps hurriedly assembled behind rope barriers.  Baker and Shevardnadze made a joint statement on Iraq, declaring an arms embargo, but not specifying what future steps might be taken.  As a participant in the event, I was hurrying around too fast getting things set up to pay too much attention to what they said, but it was clear that a fundamental change had occurred in U.S.-Soviet relations.  We had suddenly changed from cautious adversaries into allies, at least with regard to the Middle East.  Unfortunately, only four months later, Shevardnadze resigned in protest over Gorbachev’s attempts to compromise with the demands of Soviet hardliners over Lithuania and other internal security issues.  He was replaced by Aleksandr Bessmertnykh, a friend of the U.S., but no ally.  The golden period of U.S.-Soviet foreign relations was over almost as quickly as it had begun.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Storming the Russian White House, October 4, 1993 (ISCA 1992-1994)

ADST recently published Wayne Merry's account of the storming of the Russian White House on October 4, 1993.  Here is an account of my view of the crisis from Washington, or at least, from the Russia Desk and the Operations Center, which I hope will be useful to readers.

On September 21, 1993, the deteriorating political situation in Moscow turned into a full-blown constitutional crisis when President Yeltsin issued Decree No. 1400, suspending the Congress of People's Deputies and ordering elections for a new Parliament for December 11-12.  The same day, Parliament declared Yeltsin was no longer President, and that Vice President Rutskoi, holed up in the Russian White House with rebellious hardline parliamentarians, was.  Strobe Talbott, who was running S/NIS at the time, tasked us to do a memo reviewing the situation and, if possible, to predict what might happen next.  One of my Junior Officers, Mark Pekala, drafted the memo, which, as usual, was a very professionally done job, but because he had to clear it with everyone else in the building, it was too cautious, and avoided the obvious question of whether the situation was going to deteriorate into violence.  I toughened up the memo and sent it up to Strobe without clearing it around again, predicting that the situation would turn violent within a few days.  This caused a lot of heartburn among those who found out that their cautious views were not taken, but as September wore on, we began to look like prophets as the situation steadily worsened.

On October 2, anti-Yeltsin demonstrations turned violent, and on the evening of October 3, the Ostankino TV complex was attacked by anti-Yeltsin forces.  That evening, we set up a crisis management cell in the Operations Center, which I headed, in order to keep the Department leadership informed on the latest events, and to get ready to evacuate our Embassy personnel if the situation warranted it (we eventually decided that the best thing to do in the circumstances would be to hunker down, as the situation on the streets was too chaotic to allow a successful evacuation).  At about 10pm, I called Strobe at home to update him on the situation.  After the Ostankino battle, Special Forces, apparently under Yeltsin's control, were reportedly moving to seal off the Russian White House, and speculation was rife that October 4 would either see the end of the parliamentary revolt or the end of Yeltsin.  Strobe asked me straight out, "Jim, do you think Yeltsin is going to attack the White House?"  I said it was impossible to say, but that if Yeltsin was going to attack, it would probably be at local dawn, which was 11:38pm Washington time.  Strobe took the hint, and decided to come in right then.  He and his deputies had just gotten set up in the Operations Center when we heard that, true to my somewhat timid prediction, pro-Yeltsin forces had attacked the Russian White House at dawn.  We all sat transfixed watching the CNN broadcast of the siege, including the tanks on the Kutuzovskiy Most blasting away at the upper floors of the White House.

We maintained contact with the Embassy throughout the night -- the decision to hunker down had turned out to be the right one.  For the next few days, there was considerable disorder on the streets, and Embassy personnel on the compound stayed in the Gymnasium on the NEC, which was below ground and afforded the most protection.  One marine was seriously wounded by a sniper, but that was the extent of our casualties.  A particularly dangerous moment came when a sniper was identified in the bell tower of the church on Bolshoy Devyatinskiy Pereulok, which faced the South Gate of the NEC.  Eventually, the sniper was neutralized. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Spike Dubs (excerpt from Moscow 1977-1979)

Spike Dubs.
In early 1978, the situation in Afghanistan was becoming increasingly unstable.  Mohammed Daoud was overthrown in a Communist coup that April and the country gradually moved to the center of U.S. attention.  By late 1978, the Department was scouring the rolls for single Junior Officer volunteers to go to Afghanistan, and I had even been approached by State Personnel to go out to Kabul as a Political Officer after completing my tour in Moscow.  I turned down the offer flat, thinking to myself that Afghanistan was about the last place I would ever want to go. 

Ambassador Toon was also paying close attention to the events in Afghanistan, and as Ambassador's Aide, I was constantly scanning the wire services for the latest news.  So it was that on Valentine's Day, 1979, I was in the middle of preparations for the traditional Spaso House Valentine's Day reception for the Embassy staff when I got word from Press and Culture that some important news about Afghanistan had just come over the AP ticker.  I went down to the press room and discovered that our Ambassador in Kabul, Adolf "Spike" Dubs, had been kidnapped by Afghan militants.  As I stood there reading that news item, another one came over the ticker reporting that Dubs had just been killed in the course of a rescue attempt.  Without thinking, I ripped the story off the ticker and ran up to give the news to Ambassador Toon.  Toon looked at the wire stories, and, for the first time ever, I noted that he was in a considerable emotional state.  His face turned a bright red, as it did when he was agitated, and he could not speak.  Finally, he thanked me for getting him the news, and I left to continue reception preparations at Spaso House.

Only later did I learn that Ambassador and Mrs. Toon had served with Spike Dubs in Moscow, and that they had been the best of friends for many years, and that Spike himself had been Chargé in Moscow a few years before.  I felt terrible about having sprung the news on Toon with so little preparation, but there was nothing to be done.  That evening, as guests gathered for the Valentine's Day reception, Ambassador and Mrs. Toon did not appear.  Finally, I got word from the Ambassador to tell everyone that he and Betty would not be coming down for the reception.  They were just too broken up about Spike Dubs' death.  DCM Mark Garrison and his wife Betty filled in for them, and the reception continued on until late in the evening, with only a very few of the guests aware of why the Toons had not joined the reception.  It was a very sad night.  I told myself I would never go to Afghanistan -- it was just too unsafe and too unpredictable.  How little I knew.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Harry Gilmore and the Yugoslav Desk (1974)

Harry Gilmore passed away on April 23 (his Washington Post obituary is here.  As Yugoslav Desk Officer back in 1974, he was my very first boss in the Foreign Service, when I was marking time between language training and going out to my first assignment in Belgrade.  He was a great guy, with a wonderful sense of humor and an infinite reserve of common sense.  We bumped into each other periodically during the remainder of our careers in the Foreign Service, but I never worked directly for him again.  I'm sorry I didn't. Here is an excerpt from my draft memoirs on my time on the Yugoslav Desk in 1974. 

After spending Christmas vacation at home in San Clemente, I returned to Washington to work for few weeks on the Yugoslav Desk, which at the time was part of the Office of Eastern European Affairs.  Harry Gilmore was the Yugoslav Desk Officer, and as I had no known skills, he put me to work as one might an intern, organizing filing cabinets, doing Xeroxing, and other tasks of a pretty menial nature.  In the process, I also got to read a good bit of the cable traffic coming from Belgrade and to brief myself in on my future job as half-Political Officer, half-Ambassador's Aide.  Harry was a very genial soul, and very easy to work with.  He eventually rose to the senior ranks, and was our first Ambassador to Armenia from 1993 until 1995.

I also did a couple of minor human rights projects with Judyt Mandel, who at the time was a Junior Officer working in the office.  Judyt had a natural interest in human rights, having been born in 1948 in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp (her parents had been inmates of the original concentration camp), and she threw herself into her work.  She proved to be an invaluable colleague, if on occasion a trifle disorganized.  I served several tours with her, including one rather memorable one in Moscow from 1989 until 1991. 

Finally, I took the opportunity to meet and talk with Dick and Sharon Miles, who were back from Belgrade.  Dick, who had workedwith Vernon Jordan in his pre-Foreign Service life, was extremely impressive.  He and Sharon seemed to know everyone and everything about Yugoslavia.  In later years, we would become fast friends, serving together in Washington and in Moscow, and keeping in touch through our entire careers. 

While my time on the Yugoslav Desk was generally very pleasant, not all my encounters with Department staff were friendly.  One day, Harry gave me a last minute task to copy an entire briefing book for John Baker, our EUR DAS, and so I hurried down the corridor and got to the copier just before a few of the more senior secretaries walked in, and I proceeded to monopolize the copier for the next fifteen minutes or so.  In those days, there were usually only one or two copiers on each corridor of the Department, and they did not have the automatic collating and sorting functions we take for granted now.  Because of this, the local secretarial corps got rather possessive about their Xerox machines, and weren't happy with the appearance of interlopers, particularly Junior Officers like myself.  As time went on, and I continued copying away, the secretaries got pretty ticked and began talking among themselves.  Eventually, one senior secretary disdainfully asked who I was and what I was doing.  I explained it was a last minute project for the DAS.  “Well, that's PPP,” she commented -- shorthand for “Pretty Poor Planning.”  Suitably chastened, I hurriedly completed my project and dashed down the hall.

A couple of days into my tenure, Harry decided that I needed an office of my own, and as none appeared to be available, I suggested that I clean up one of the deserted corridor offices that, while it had a desk, was also stuffed full of papers that nobody else seemed to want.  Harry agreed, and so I got to work cleaning the place up.  After a day or so, the office looked pretty good.  Its most significant distinguishing feature was a six-foot tall map of Albania, so Harry dubbed me the “Albanian Desk Officer.”  This was quite a good joke, as we had not had relations with Albania since the beginning of the Cold War.  Little did any of us know, of course, that after the fall of the Soviet Union we would have an Embassy of several hundred people in Tirana, and that the country would serve as one of our principal military support bases for the air war in Kosovo in March 1999, a war in which I was to play a significant part as head of the Kosovo Implementation Office.  Time has a way of changing everything.

As part of my honorary Albanian Desk Officer duties, I occasionally had to scramble down to the language unit to get an Albanian document translated.  It was my first encounter with the State Department's linguist corps, and it was a memorable one.  I found that there was no one in Language Services who knew Albanian, but that there was one interpreter who was willing to give it a try.  The interpreter, a career civil service employee whose name I never learned, was very old; his hair was white, his glasses coke-bottle thick, and his skin the color of translucent parchment.  He had the air of someone who had spent his entire career indoors, sitting at his desk.  Nonetheless, he had a twinkle in his eye as he warmed to his new challenge.  “I know all the languages around Albania,” he said proudly, “just not Albanian.”  Slowly, like he was working on an Acrostic, he pieced together the translation from snippets of this and that until finally, after about fifteen minutes, it was complete.  I was impressed.  In later years, I came to realize just how lucky the State Department was to have such talented people working for it.  I came to know quite a few Russian interpreters during my career, including Dmitriy Zarechnyak, Bill Hopkins, Kyrill Borissow and Peter Afanasenko.  They all had phenomenal interpreting abilities, putting my years of study in the shade.  I don't know what we would have done without them.

One of the last events of my brief tenure on the Yugoslav Desk taught me a good bit about what it meant to be a personnel manager.  One of the Desk's Civil Service secretaries had just gone into the Foreign Service, and was about to go on her first secretarial assignment overseas.  John Baker, who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary in EUR at the time, came down to say a few words at her farewell office party.  I remember thinking, “I wonder if I'll ever be able to speak that well?”  The chief thing I took away from my experience on the desk was that they were a close-knit community, people who really cared for each other.