Sunday, July 30, 2017

FSN's Withdrawn

The recent Russian decision to reduce personnel at our missions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok reminds me of a similar misconceived action taken by the Soviets in 1986, in a fit of pique at our expulsions of numerous Soviet spies from the United States who were operating under diplomatic cover.  The 1986 action had a number of unforeseen consequences, and, in the end, only made the US presence in the Soviet Union stronger.

Excerpt from draft Chapter 11.8

Leningrad 1985-1987

With the advent of the Reagan Administration, the practice of hiring Soviets to work in our Missions in Moscow and Leningrad came under increasing critical scrutiny.  Many prominent administration officials viewed Soviet employees as a security violation waiting to happen and cited counterintelligence concerns as a good reason to discontinue the practice, noting that the Soviets, for well-founded reasons, refused to hire Americans at their diplomatic installations in the United States.  I was exposed to the debate in searing terms while on the Soviet Desk, when I was called on to draft a lengthy report on reciprocity issues (the Huddleston Report).   

By 1985, there was general agreement that there were too many local employees working at our diplomatic establishments in the Soviet Union, but there was disagreement on just what to do about the issue, since the average cost of replacing a local employee with a cleared American was close to $250,000 dollars a year, or in total, several tens of millions of dollars annually, money the Congress didn’t want to spend.  Ambassador Hartman had agreed, somewhat half-heartedly, to begin a gradual reduction of Soviet employees, but this action was insufficient for  Reagan Administration conservatives, who were looking for an opportunity both to eject Soviet spies from the United States and to get rid of our FSN’s in the USSR once and for all.

Their chance was not long in coming.  The FBI had been watching a Soviet physicist in New York by the name of Gennadiy Zakharov.  Zakharov, who worked for the United Nations, did not have diplomatic immunity, but was clearly involved in espionage.  The FBI arrested him in a sting operation on August 23, 1986.  The KGB viewed this as a breach of protocol, and began looking around for an American without diplomatic immunity whom they could arrest and hold hostage to ensure Zakharov’s release.  Very quickly, they settled on their target, Nicholas Daniloff, the Moscow Bureau Chief for U.S. News and World Report, who was about to finish his tour and return to the United States.  Accordingly, on September 2, Daniloff was arrested in Moscow on trumped-up charges of espionage.

The KGB had tried this despicable tactic before.  In 1961, they had arrested an American professor, Frederick Barghoorn, in an attempt to gain the release of Soviet spy Igor Ivanov.  The attempt backfired, however, when Barghoorn turned out to be a personal friend of President Kennedy.  In 1978, following the arrest of Soviet UN employees Valdik Enger and Rudolf Chernyayev,  the KGB arranged the arrest of an innocent American businessman, Jay Crawford.  Strenuous efforts on the part of Ambassador Toon gained his release, but Enger and Chernyayev were also released in a trade for Soviet dissidents.

The KGB may have assumed that their hostage tactics would work again, but in fact, it just gave hardliners in the Reagan Administration the opportunity to press for a “settling of accounts” with Soviet espionage activities inside and outside the United States.  According to Jack Matlock, who was the President’s principal advisor on Soviet affairs at the time, President Reagan was determined to put an end to the outrageous Soviet practice of hostage-taking.  As far as he was concerned, the Soviets had to release Daniloff immediately or pay a heavy price.  When Gorbachev, who had been a protégé of Yuriy Andropov and an admirer of the KGB, equivocated, Reagan ordered the expulsion of 25 suspected Soviet spies from the U.S.  Daniloff was quickly released, as was Zakharov, but when the Soviets attempted to retaliate for the mass expulsion by expelling five American diplomats, Reagan lowered the boom, expelling 55 suspected Soviet spies and lowering the ceiling on Soviet diplomats from 320 to 251, a number equal to that of American diplomats in the USSR. 

The Soviets furiously looked around for a way to retaliate but found they were in a box.  If they expelled more American diplomats, they would find themselves in a downward spiral of mass expulsions, a situation that they knew would not just cripple their espionage efforts, but destroy them, as had happened in 1971, when the British expelled 105 Soviet diplomats to bring their numbers into parity with the British diplomatic presence in the Soviet Union.  Predictably, the Soviets then proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot by deciding that the best way to retaliate would be to withdraw the 200-plus local employees who worked at Embassy Moscow and Consulate General Leningrad.  The theory was that American diplomats were soft and would complain so loudly that the Reagan Administration would be forced to make some sort of accommodation.  This attitude represented a profound misunderstanding both of the toughness of American diplomats and their influence on Washington’s power elite.

Ambassador Matlock says that the Reagan Administration had anticipated this Soviet reaction.  That may be, but those of us in the field had no inkling of what was coming.  We were like a bunch ants scurrying around our little anthill, while high above us squabbling children argued whether it would more fun to set us on fire or drown us.  It didn’t matter how the argument was resolved.  Things were going to turn out badly, at least as far as we ants were concerned.

The Consequences, and our Response.

I was in Finland getting my car fixed when I got the news that our FSN’s were being withdrawn.  On the evening of October 22, 1986, I was in my room at the Hotel Lappeenranta, and had turned on the TV to catch the evening news.  To my surprise, I saw Soviet Foreign Ministry Press Spokesman Gennadiy Gerasimov.  He was in the middle of making an announcement that would change the lives of every American diplomat in the Soviet Union.  In response to massive American expulsions of Soviet personnel in New York, Washington and San Francisco, Gerasimov said, the Soviets were expelling five American diplomats, including Dan Grossman, our Pol-Econ officer in Leningrad.  Then came the kicker:  the Soviets were also withdrawing all their Foreign Service Nationals, over 200 from Embassy Moscow, and over 30 from the Consulate in Leningrad.  The next day, as I drove back across the border to Leningrad, all kinds of thoughts were running through my mind.  My first concern was, “Are the Soviets going to expel any more of our people?” (They did. One of our communicators was booted out shortly thereafter).  My second concern was, “How in the world are we going to cope without our FSN’s?”  As Deputy Principal Officer in Leningrad, it would be my responsibility, along with Administrative Officer Matt Burns and GSO Jane Floyd, to figure out the answer to that question. 

The next few days were full of frenzied activity.  Our expelled colleagues only had a few days to get out of the country, and so the rest of us helped pack them out and send them on their way.  Ed Hurwitz, our Consul General, pitched in, bad back and all, and managed to injure himself pretty badly lifting boxes that were too heavy for him.

The next thing we had to do was to invite our FSN’s back to the Consulate for one last time to get their final paycheck.  It was a very sad occasion.  Many of our FSN’s had been with the Consulate practically since its inception in July, 1973, and they were clearly surprised by their government’s action and feeling a bit lost.  We knew, of course, that there were quite a few informers among our FSN crew, and that UpIP, the KGB-supervised agency that provided our employees, even held regular debriefs on Thursdays.  But many of these employees were our friends as well, and quite a few had divided loyalties.  For some, their old lives were over.  For others, it would be just a change of assignment.  But almost all were sorry to go.  Yuriy Subbotin, one of the Consulate’s drivers, was a case in point.  He and I had been through a lot of adventures together, including extracting Ambassador Vernon Walters from a burning Rafik while on the way to Piskarevskoye Cemetery, among other things.  He was loyal and devoted, and clearly distraught at leaving and I felt particularly sorry for him, even as, with a leaden face, I doled out the last rubles he would ever receive from the Consulate.  It was a dejected bunch of FSN’s that left our offices that day.

Meanwhile, it was becoming increasingly obvious that all American job descriptions were about to change radically.  After a few days, Embassy Moscow had decided to set up an APD (all-purpose duty) system, under which officers would be placed on a duty roster and every so often would have to spend the day not at their regular jobs, but in GSO, helping to perform the various support functions that had once been done by our local employees.  Early on, it became clear to us in Leningrad that we did not have the personnel to run a rotating roster.  All of us would have to be on APD all the time.  Fortunately, we had a fair number of enthusiastic volunteers.  John Floyd, our Seabee, was able to keep the Consulate’s systems running while doing basic maintenance tasks in his spare time.  John also volunteered for some of the more dangerous work, which included roping himself to an iron railing and lowering himself down the roof to clean off icicles and snow.  Bea Burns volunteered to be the telephone operator.  Jack Friedman, a retired FSO and the husband of our Consular Officer, Joyce Marshall, and who ironically had once headed a Consulate himself in Brisbane, volunteered to be the Consulate Driver and also make customs runs.  And so on, down the line.  Everybody volunteered for something, and everything was covered by at least one person.

I had no known skills, other than those of a Political Officer, which didn’t translate too well to the practical world of GSO.  So Matt and Jane gave me a pair of coveralls with the name “Sergey” sewed on them, and told me to stand by for whatever duty needed extra hands.  In this manner, I found myself hosing down the parking lot with hot water to melt away the ice.  I shoveled snow in front of the Consulate to clear a path for our vehicles.  A couple of times, to the amusement of our Soviet guards, I got out and pushed our minivan when the cold weather stalled it out in front of the Consulate.  I loaded and unloaded household effects and merchandise from Stockmann, as well as our diplomatic pouch, and I kept the office clean.  In addition, of course, no one had any domestic help any more, and this hit spoiled bachelors like me particularly hard.  I must say, I developed a new respect for housework after struggling to wash and iron a few shirts and clean out a stove.  But soon, everything simply became the new norm.  I got used to it.  After about the second week, I actually started getting into my new role, and even sent off to Stockmann for another pair of arctic coveralls.  They were blue and heavily padded, and whenever I moved around in them, I looked like the Michelin Man.  “Sergey” somehow got stenciled on them as well.

It was the coldest winter in almost a decade, getting down to minus 38 degrees Centigrade on some days, but despite this, and unusually heavy snowfalls, the Consulate slowly settled into more normal operations.  In early 1987, our first military TDYers and PAE contractors began arriving to help share the load.  Gonzalo Quintero (“Gonzo”) was one of the first.  A former Seabee, he provided a tremendous boost to our capabilities.  After an initial shakedown period, we all slowly settled into our new way of life.  There were pressures and stresses, of course, but everyone was filled with a determination to show the Soviets that they couldn’t push us around, and that we weren’t so soft that we couldn’t do without our FSN’s, no matter how much we had liked them and depended on them before. 

So by the spring, we were well on our way to self sufficiency.  One thing, however, should be noted:  we could not have succeeded without a little help from an unlikely source: our Soviet hosts.  It turned out that Moscow’s decision to withdraw our FSN’s had been just as much a shock to our Leningrad Diplomatic Agency counterparts as it had been to us.  Many who worked in the Agency, and in UpIP, did not agree with the policy – some because of the intelligence value of having Soviet employees working in our midst, but most, simply because they thought it was a stupid and punitive decision.  A few people in each organization did what they could to help us, easing our administrative burdens considerably.  More often than not, our requests for under the table assistance were granted immediately, and unofficially, and it really helped.

In the end, the stupidity of the decision became apparent even to the Moscow authorities, but there was nothing they could do about it by that time.  It was a policy engraved in ideological stone, and not just on the Soviet side.  It would not change until the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1991. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Service Trips, 1992

Excerpt from Draft Chapter 11.12
National War College 1991-1992

Every Service, as well as State and Coast Guard, was responsible for organizing a field trip for the class.  For its field trip, State classmates organized a trip to New York City and the United Nations, as well as a stay on Governor’s Island, which at the time was a Coast Guard base and perfectly positioned for a view of the Battery.  The State trip was reasonably interesting, but of course could not compare to the Service-sponsored trips.  For the Navy trip, we went to Norfolk, Virginia for a tour of a nuclear submarine and the Aircraft Carrier John F. Kennedy.  The Kennedy was an old super carrier, and I was amazed at how run down it was and how cramped the interior of the ship seemed to be, despite its huge size.  A tour of the submarine Sunfish (SSN-649) was similarly disappointing.  Approaching the end of its service life, this nuclear attack submarine reportedly had very modern weaponry, including the Harpoon anti-ship missile, but to me the interior of the submarine looked dingy and claustrophobic, and distinctly dated in its technology.  I could never have been a submariner.  The Army’s trip, perhaps the least interesting, and which I did not participate in, was to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  The highlight of that trip was jump school, where various out of shape classmates were invited to jump off the parachute training platform, with predictable results. 

As usual, the best trip by far was the one sponsored by the Air Force.  They had access to the very best toys, as it turned out.  The Air Force trip, for which free transportation on an Air Force C-9 was provided, was billed as a tour of Nellis AFB in Nevada and Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota.  Nellis conveniently had no on-base housing, so the 50 of us who went on the trip were required to stay at the nearest city, which happened to be Las Vegas.  Similarly, Ellsworth had no on-base housing available, so we stayed at Rapid City, South Dakota, the site of Mount Rushmore.  This is not to say that the Air Force trip was solely a tourist venture: it was not, but the locations for our familiarization tours were carefully chosen so we would have no problem enjoying ourselves when off duty.

We took off from Andrews AFB and a few hours later arrived in Las Vegas to check into our downtown hotel.  Just before we all retired to our rooms, we each contributed a couple of bucks and Lorraine Takahashi placed a bet on the roulette wheel.  She bet on red, the wheel came up black, and so did the fortunes of most of us who decided to use our off-hours gambling.  Except for me, that is:  I found the video poker games exceptionally easy to beat, once I realized that you could not use the same strategies that were successful in a Poker Game with live players.  For the two days we were in Las Vegas, we spent the mornings and afternoons on official business, and the evenings going to shows or big dinners.  It was thoroughly enjoyable.

Nellis AFB was one of the most interesting places I have ever been.  The tour started with a demonstration by the Thunderbirds, who flew in low over the runway, catching us all while we weren’t looking, and giving us quite a start.  Their formation flying was incredible.  Afterwards, we toured a standing aircraft exhibit on the tarmac, including an F-117 Nighthawk, which we were told we could look at, but not touch, as human sweat had a tendency to screw up the radar absorbent material coating the aircraft. 
Nellis AFB, March 1992.  Lorraine Takahashi, James Schumaker, F-117
We also took a turn in the Nellis bar, where the hottest fighter jocks hung out (but not on the night we were there), and topped off our day with a tour of the headquarters for the Red Flag exercises, watching on radar screens a real life engagement between Blue Force, which consisted of trainees in American fighters, and Red Force, which consisted of veteran pilots flying F-16s and F-15s simulating Soviet aircraft.  Despite the higher quality of the American aircraft, the Red Force easily won the day.  Experience tells, every time.  We heard rumors that the Red Force sometimes used actual Soviet fighter aircraft, but no one on base would confirm the report.  On our last day at Nellis, we toured a sizeable collection of Soviet-era military equipment that was maintained and exhibited on the base, including most varieties of Soviet armored vehicles and several Soviet-era fighter aircraft, none of which looked flyable.

After Las Vegas, we flew on for two days at Ellsworth AFB, with one long afternoon at Mount Rushmore.  Ellsworth, in contrast to Nellis, looked a little bit aged and rundown.  It had been one of the primary sites for the Strategic Air Command, and in the past had served as a base for B-17s, then B-29s, B-36s and later B-52s.  In 1986, the B-52 wing moved out and was replaced by a B-1B Air Wing.  The base also hosted a Strategic Missile Wing, which started out in the 1960s as Titan-1s, then Minuteman-I’s and finally Minuteman-II’s.  By the time we had arrived, however, the Minuteman wings were being deactivated under the terms of the START Treaty, and so no tours of the silos were possible. 

We were able, however, to tour the B-1B Air Wing, and it was quite impressive.  As part of the tour we went to a gigantic ordnance facility where the B-1’s weapons were prepared and loaded onto the aircraft by a system of lifts, conveyor belts and other strange-looking machines.  During the last portion of the tour, a couple of B-1 pilots gave us a guided tour of their aircraft, and we were even able, briefly, to sit in the cockpit.  The planes looked beautiful from a distance, but up close they just looked menacing.  On the inside, I was struck by the fact that despite the size of the plane, we were at extremely close quarters.  The interior was jammed with gunmetal grey equipment and hundreds of flashing lights and buttons that were absolutely incomprehensible to a non-flyer like me.  It was difficult to squeeze in and out of the aircraft, even for the skinnier persons in our group, and I found myself wondering how anyone could get out of a B-1 alive if it were about to crash.  It wouldn’t be my first choice of career, but it was obvious that the Air Force guys in our group were loving every minute of the tour.

On the last day we toured Mount Rushmore.  We walked around the grounds at the base of the cliff, and had lunch at the fifties modern stone and glass cafeteria located there.  The whole atmosphere reminded me of North by Northwest.  The next morning, we all piled into our C-9 and returned to Andrews.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Notable Poisonings in the Soviet Union and Russia 1921-2018

Andrew Kramer wrote an interesting article in the New York Times in 2016 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.  Here is a  chronology of notable poisonings from 1921 until 2018.  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, 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 is never determined, but is 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 is 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 resorts to more direct measures: special KGB Alpha troops and GRU Spetsnaz land in Kabul in advance of the Soviet invasion and take Amin’s palace by force, killing him and his guards. 
There are allegations, never substantiated, that elements of the defunct KGB successfully poison to death former Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdiya.  The more accepted version is that Gamsakhurdiya committed suicide, although his wife says he was murdered. 

Russian banker Ivan K. Kivelidi dies of cadmium poisoning. Authorities say the drug had been spread on his office telephone.

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 speculate 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 refuse to cooperate with relatives in an investigation of Shchekochikhin's death. 

September 2003

Stories surface in London that an SVR agent 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, is intended to knock out everyone quickly, but, through dreadful miscalculation, is pumped into the theater in sufficient strength to have fatal effects.  129 hostages die (most from the gas, although reportedly a few hostages are shot by mistake by Special Forces).
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 were arrested  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.


Killings outside Russia are given legal sanction by the Russian Duma.

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.
May 2015, February 2017

Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza suddenly falls ill during a Moscow meeting. Taken to a local hospital, he is diagnosed with poisoning. The symptoms recur in 2017, and Kara-Murza is put into a coma to save his life.  He has since gone abroad.  Attempts to investigate the poisonings have been rebuffed by the authorities.

March 2018

Former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter are poisoned near their home in Salisbury, England., and are transported to hospital in critical condition. Dozens of others are also affected, including a policeman, who is hospitalized in serious condition.  Soon, British authorities determine that the poison used was "Novichok," a particularly dangerous nerve agent that is only manufactured in Russia.  The UK expels 23 Russian diplomats and the U.S., France and Germany stand in solidarity with the British. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson says that Putin probably ordered the attack, though there is no hard evidence to this effect.  Further responses to the poisonings are under consideration.

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.