Thursday, July 28, 2011

Leningrad, May 1972

Excerpt from Draft Chapter 10.3
White House Communications Agency 1971-1973

The trip to Leningrad was my first and only overseas trip during my assignment to WHCA. It was given as a reward for good work in the Communications Center, as well as for my work on trips to Key Biscayne and San Clemente. My presence on the trip was not, however, without controversy. Some of the lifer sergeants thought I should not go because of the sensitivity of my work, and one lifer even instructed me “don't let them know you know Russian.” This, of course, was patently ridiculous, but it shows the mindset of the time. Our commander, Major Pakula, didn't think it would be a problem, however, and I was green-lighted for the trip. I was to be on one of two communications teams that would set up in Leningrad in advance of the visit. Terry Turner and I were on one team and Denny Severns from 13A (Communications Maintenance) headed the other.

Prior to President Nixon's arrival in the Soviet Union, the communications center would not be up all the time, but we would have plenty to do nonetheless. The President was slated to visit Piskarevskoye Cemetery, where almost 500,000 victims of the siege of Leningrad were buried. He was also scheduled for a tour of the Hermitage Museum and an official lunch at City Hall. A Guest House was reserved for him on Kamenniy Ostrov, just in case he needed it. Communications preparations for the visit were elaborate, with brand new transatlantic lines put into service to ensure perfect telephone and telegraph links in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. The President was scheduled to visit May 22-30, with a quick trip to Leningrad on May 27, and another stop in Kiev on May 30 on the way to Tehran. The centerpiece of the visit was to be the signing of the SALT Treaty in Moscow on May 26.

WHCA and the Secret Service sent a huge team to Leningrad to prepare for the President's visit, comprising one C-141 for about 90 advance personnel, and another C-141 to carry the President's limousine. As usual, the 89th MAWG at Andrews took care of the flights, and we boarded our C-141 for the trip to Leningrad on May 15. It was my first trip on a C-141, and had I known better I would have brought along earplugs. Unlike commercial jetliners, the C-141, although huge, had no soundproofing, and the noise on the nine-hour flight was just about unbearable. We landed in Leningrad the next day, with the airport covered in fog. It was one of the scarier landings I have ever witnessed. Pulkovo airport, like most Soviet airports of the time, did not have sophisticated instrumentation to allow safe landings in bad weather. Our pilot had to use visual flight rules, rather than instruments, and the first landing attempt was aborted when we came in short of the runway. The second attempt was successful, and I was never happier to get off a plane.

We were met at the airport by Soviet officials. I remember vividly a certain Mr. Shinkarenko, whom I would later meet again when I was assigned to Leningrad in the 1980's. He scrutinized our yellow medical shot records, to ensure that we had all the right inoculations and no contagious diseases, and then signed our documents with a flourish and let us pass. We were met at the airport by a young Foreign Service Officer, Franz Misch, who bundled us all into trucks and buses, and then led us to our hotel, the brand new Hotel Leningrad, which had been built next to the Neva near where the Cruiser Aurora was berthed. The State Department was in the process of starting up a Consulate General in Leningrad. The Consulate would not be officially opened until July 6, but Culver Gleysteen, soon to be the first CG, and several FSO's were already on hand, and were helping with the preparations for the Nixon visit. They had set up a control room in one of the suites and showed us to our own rooms, which I recall were rather luxurious, especially by Soviet standards. My first mistake, the act of a true novice traveler, was to fry my 110 volt clothes steamer. I had never heard of 220 volt power before (no one briefed us on essential stuff like this before our departure -- we were just expected to know).

That night, we were treated to an expensive dinner at the tenth floor restaurant. I remember the waiters and other Soviets eyeing us cautiously, as if we were visitors from another planet, which I suppose we were. Gradually, however, as the night wore on, they lost their reserve, and, as Russians do, became increasingly friendly. I remember having orange caviar for the first time. I remarked to the waiter that it was the first time I had tasted caviar, and it was good. Before I knew it, he had returned with a whole bucket of the stuff. This was a pattern that repeated itself time and again. The Russians would initially be quite suspicious, and then, when they realized that we were just ordinary people like them, they would embrace us like long-lost friends. I began to like the Russians.

We set up our communications area in another hotel suite, and a very strange sight it was. Our concerns about Russian snooping forced us to set up our communications gear inside tents that we pitched in the center of the room. Whenever the teletypes were clattering, we would close the tent flaps and turn on cassette recorders that played teletype noise to drown out the sounds made by the actual teletype. The idea was to prevent the Soviets from deducing just what was being typed. I'm not sure the technique worked, but at a minimum, it made for some strange sights and sounds during our shifts. One of us always had to be in the room and awake, guarding the equipment. What with jet lag, this proved very difficult, but I made it through.

Unidentified Staffer Tours Petrodvorets
After we set up, the next couple of days were free time, and so we toured around the city as much as we could. I took a few people on the subway, and made it to the center of town and back without mishap. We all remarked on how much cleaner and more efficient the ornate Leningrad subways were than anything we had seen in the United States. We also followed the advance teams around as they made their visit preparations. I remember one particularly striking afternoon, during which the Hermitage was closed for several hours, just so four or five of us could accompany the Museum director around the exhibits. It was eerie to be walking through one of the largest museums in the world, which was generally quite crowded, hearing nothing but the echo of our own footsteps. I was extremely impressed with the artwork, although the building itself had clearly seen better days. We also toured Petrodvorets, which had just opened in time for the President's visit, after years of restoration. It was fabulously beautiful, both the palace itself and the well-groomed grounds. As it happened, President Nixon never made it to either of these stops, which was too bad.

I also went out on my own a few times. Leningrad in those days was a very different place from the St. Petersburg of today. Traffic was extremely light, and what there was of it consisted almost entirely of trucks or government vehicles. The streets were deserted as well. The only place you could really see crowds was underground, in the subway stations. Most people you did see on the street were dressed in black. There were no advertising signs anywhere, and very few stores or restaurants. I was excited to be in the USSR for the very first time, but at times a little apprehensive as well. Leningrad’s curious quiet reminded me of George Kennan’s description of revolutionary Petrograd: “a lifelessness, a furtive drabness, a sense of the sinister lurking behind a peeling façade, guarded inscrutability -- which seems to be the effect of the communist touch on any great urban area.”

Opportunities to talk with average Leningraders were rare, but I was able to do so on occasion. I remember one day I was walking by the Nakhimov Institute near the Hotel Leningrad when I spotted three kids, all dressed in black, playing in a side yard. They spotted me at the same time, and it was immediately apparent that they knew I was a foreigner. Finally, one of the kids screwed up his courage and approached me slowly. He had a large pink birthmark on one whole side of his face. He looked at me plaintively and asked “Chewing Gum?” I was mortified. I had none. I had to reply “У меня нет,” and walk on. I felt really bad about this. In later years, when I was assigned to Leningrad, I tried to make amends. I shipped six cases of chewing gum in my sea freight, and passed it out to every kid I could find. Even in 1985, chewing gum was rare in Leningrad.

Another feature of Leningrad appeared on the weekends. Every Saturday, busloads of Finns would arrive from the border, with the obvious objective of getting as drunk as possible on cheap Russian vodka. By Sunday afternoon, the streets, and the hallways of our hotel, were littered with the bodies of sleeping Finns, who had gotten stinking drunk the night before and passed out all over the place. On Sunday afternoon, flatbed trucks appeared, and the still besotted Finns were pitched up like so much cordwood onto the trucks and carted off to the border. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. Fortunately, the Finns and other drunks were cleared out well in advance of the President's arrival in Leningrad.

The weather was beautiful, the Soviets were friendly, and visit preparations were going smoothly. I should have known it was too good to be true. About five days into our trip, my communications team member, Terry Turner, suddenly developed a sharp pain in his side, and became deathly ill. Our FSO escort officer, Franz Misch, assisted us with the local medical authorities, and got the diagnosis -- kidney stones. Terry was medevaced, and I was effectively on my own for my daily twelve-hour shift for the rest of the visit.

We were lucky to have Franz Misch as our minder, not the least because he always seemed to know what to do, even in the strangest of situations. Tall, balding, with a brush mustache and a booming voice, Franz had, since 1970, been the Administrative Officer for the Leningrad Advance Party. Along with three other officers, including Bob Barry and Culver Gleysteen, he had been working furiously to set up the new Consulate General. It had been hoped that Nixon might officially open the Consulate General during his visit, but the bureaucracy dragged its feet and the President came and went before the opening could be arranged. Franz had done a previous Consular tour in Moscow, and had truly excellent Russian. I remember one time in the Leningrad Hotel control room when he sweet-talked a cantankerous Russian operator into getting him a connection to the outside world, complaining that everyone else was so slow they worked “как грибы растут” (like mushrooms grow). The operator laughed uproariously and gave him what he wanted. Franz was the first FSO with whom I had ever worked, and he impressed me as very competent and hard-working. It confirmed my own desire to go into the Foreign Service as soon as possible after my military service was over. I later met Franz once or twice in the Department shortly after I had joined the Service, but our career paths diverged and I never saw him after that. According to Bob Barry, he is now retired and living in Arlington, Virginia.

Admiralty Arch
As visit preparations moved into high gear, an additional calamity struck. Our WHCA communicators in Moscow were also doing all their communicating under a tent, and there was so much traffic that their systems overheated. The President had already arrived in Moscow, and traffic was flying back and forth like crazy in the final days before the signing of the SALT Treaty. Only one circuit was still up -- the one between Moscow and Leningrad, which was rarely used. I got the call from WHCA in Washington at around 1:30 in the morning, and soon all of Moscow's traffic was coming to me in Leningrad on one teletype, and then simultaneously being routed by me via our second teletype to Moscow, with periodic reversals when Moscow had a reply for Washington. The pink ticker tape was everywhere, as the machines typed furiously, but somehow, I kept all the message relays straight until, as dawn broke, the problems in Moscow were fixed and the crisis was over. Denny had showed up early for his shift, and found me knee-deep in tape. He remonstrated with me gently for not calling in his team earlier, even though it was the middle of the night, but I could see that he was impressed that I had been able to handle the transfer myself, despite my limited training. Apparently, the folks in Washington were happy too, as they sent in their kudos for a job well done. I had actually proven to be useful on the visit, something I was not convinced I would be when I had started out.

President Nixon arrived on May 27, but I never saw him. I was stuck in communications, relaying traffic back and forth madly during the whole visit. The one time I did get out of the hotel was to give instructions to Major Pakula's driver to take him and a few others to the City Hall lunch. So I had a busy day, but behind the scenes, along with most of my other WHCA colleagues.

After the President returned to Moscow that evening, we began preparing for departure. It took us a couple of days to break down the communications gear and get ready, but by May 30, all was ready. I said goodbye to my new State Department friends in the control room, and began working with the Soviet laborers who were loading our stuff into trucks to take everything out to the airport. We struck up quite a friendship, and the loaders were so enthusiastic about talking with me that they suggested that I come out to the airport with them. Green as I was, I thought nothing of getting in a truck with a couple of Soviets I had just met and trundling off to the airport, without first asking permission from my commanding officer. Fortunately, I at least had the good sense to tell my State Department friends in the Control Room, and they said they would tell WHCA that I had been asked to help with the loading at the airport. Technically, I guess, I was AWOL, because everyone else had been told to report to the WHCA bus at a precise time for transportation to the airport, but no one had ever given me the message. It is still a mystery to me why this happened, but I imagine that Major Pakula and the lifers must have been fit to be tied when they found out I was missing.

In any case, my little truck convoy traveled smoothly out to the airport, and I was let onto the tarmac with my Soviet pals to help load up the C-141 even though I had no passport and no real form of ID except a California driver's license. I spent the next hour interpreting for the pilots and the loadmaster, helping to explain how to stack the boxes and load things so the weight would be evenly distributed. Then I looked up and there was Major Pakula. He didn't say anything, he was just glad to see me, and especially so when the pilots explained what a help I had been. My Soviet loader friends came on board for a last enthusiastic goodbye, and swore that if I ever came back to Leningrad I should let them know -- I was the first American that they had ever met. They really liked me, and I liked them. I was hooked. I wanted to go back to Russia.

The plane ride back to the States was so uneventful that I remember none of it, except the noise again (against which I was now fortified with earplugs), and the one stop we made enroute. On our way out of the Soviet Union, we stopped in Moscow to pick up some more equipment. I looked out the window and was told we were at Vnukovo airport. It was the first time I had been to Moscow, and I never even got off the plane. We flew back to the States, landing at Andrews. I drove home, and slept for over a day. I had the rest of the week off.

End of Excerpt.

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