Thursday, October 13, 2011

Codel Brademas and Jackson-Vanik, Spring 1979

Yesterday, Mike McFaul testified in confirmation hearings before the Senate, with the Washington Post highlighting his call to repeal Jackson-Vanik.  In "honor' of the continued and increasingly improbable survival of Jackson-Vanik into the 21st Century, here is an excerpt from one of my Moscow chapters, from an era in which Jackson-Vanik actually served a useful purpose. 

Excerpt from Chapter 11.5
Moscow 1977-1979

Codel Brademas Spring, 1979.
In the spring of 1979, a large Congressional Delegation led by Majority Whip John Brademas (D-Indiana), visited the Soviet Union.  Their main stop was Tbilisi, the capital of the Georgian SSR, and Ambassador Toon decided to go down to meet them.  Mrs. Toon also came along, most likely because the Congressmen were all bringing their wives.  Due to Mrs. Toon's aversion to flying in Soviet aircraft, Ambassador Toon decided to take the train, a three-day journey across the Russian rust belt, Ukraine, and the Caucasus.  I was also deputized to come along and look after the Ambassador and Mrs. Toon's schedule.  We booked a couple of first class cabins, one for the Toons, and one for me and the luggage, and, fortified with some very tasty sandwiches and other treats prepared by the Toons' chef, Pietro, set off on our long trip.

No one could explain exactly why the Brademas delegation wanted to visit Tbilisi, although, as a Greek-American, Congressman Brademas might have been interested in the large expat Greek community that had lived in Georgia for generations.  In any case, ours was not to reason why, but just to get there ahead of the delegation to make sure that all was ready.  The train trip down was relatively uneventful, although we did stop on the second day in Rostov-na-Donu, where my friend Cara Worthington met the train, and the Ambassador was able to talk to a few exhibit guides from Agriculture USA, which was on its last stop. 

About midway through our trip, Pietro's snacks ran out, and we were forced to trust our fate to the dining car, which, rather ominously, seemed to be deserted most of the time.  The fare was edible, but hardly haute cuisine and Mrs. Toon was clearly displeased.  Noting with some distaste that there was nothing on her plate that could be construed as a vegetable, she asked the waiter if they had anything that could pass for a salad.  The waiter stared at her with pop-eyes, and ran back to the kitchen.  A couple of minutes later, the train came to an unscheduled stop, and I noticed the waiter and someone who was probably the cook disembarking from the next carriage and picking some wild plants that grew beside the railroad bed.  A couple of minutes later, these same plants, suitably cleaned up and otherwise disguised, appeared on Mrs. Toon's plate as "salad."  "It's a native dish called junjuli," the waiter reported.  I never told the Toons just where their salad had come from.

We arrived in Tbilisi without further incident, and made our way to the hotel, where Embassy officers, including Ray and Cindy Smith, had already set up a control room.  The Georgian authorities were working feverishly to gussy up the capital, and were working especially hard on the hotel.  Unfortunately, however, all their plans came a cropper when a drunken construction worker set off several sticks of dynamite at a nearby building site and blew out all the windows on one side of the hotel.  After 48 hours of hard labor, all the windows were miraculously replaced.  I never found out what happened to the construction worker.

The next day, the Congressional delegation arrived.  There were 18 Congressmen in the group, many with their wives.  Democratic Congressman Charles Vanik (D-Ohio) was one of the more prominent members of the Codel, and a person of particular interest to the Soviets.  Vanik had excited their ire, because, together with Scoop Jackson (D-Washington), he got Congress to pass the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974, which denied most-favored-nation treatment to the Soviets until they liberalized their emigration policy.  This had been a thorn in the side of the Soviets for years, and they were doing everything they could to persuade the U.S. to repeal the amendment.  When Vanik arrived, he was immediately surrounded at every opportunity by Soviet diplomats and other officials, who in voices honey sweet, implored him to reconsider his stand on the amendment.  Vanik, who was a crusty old codger even then, would just snap his galluses and tell the Soviets to improve their record on emigration.  Over the years, the Soviets did liberalize their emigration policies, but by then the Congress had found that Jackson-Vanik was a convenient club to beat up the Soviets, and later the Russians, and gain support from local constituencies.  Despite many promises to the contrary, Jackson-Vanik remains in effect to this day, although the President routinely waives its application.

Other Congressmen who were along for the ride, and whom I got to know during the course of the visit, were Tom Downey (D-New York) and George Miller (D-California).  Downey was the youngest member of Congress, and although he was a bit of a wise ass, he was also very smart, and seemed to have a bright future before him.  He eventually served eight terms, but was defeated in the Republican landslide in 1994.  His colleague and friend, George Miller, was another young, up-and-coming Congressman, and he proved he could be very curt with Supreme Soviet deputies when they said something particularly stupid.  He is still serving in the House, 30 years on.  Downey and Miller liked to hang out together, and they cut against the grain of the traditional Democratic House members to some extent.  They were fun to work with, and did not put on airs.

The highlight of the Codel was a motorcade to Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia.  There, we were hosted for lunch by Eduard Shevardnadze, who at the time was First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party.  I got to know Shevardnadze fairly well during my second tour in Moscow, when he was Gorbachev's Foreign Minister, but back then all anyone knew about him was that he was a real tough guy, hard on corruption, and not a person to be messed with. 

We all sat at a huge U-shaped table in one of Mtskheta's main buildings for a ceremonial lunch, with Soviet flunkies buzzing about Congressmen Vanik like so many unwelcome gnats.  The food was extremely ordinary, especially after the meals I had had at the hotel in Tbilisi, which were quite tasty.  I particularly missed the hotel's penchant for serving Stalin's favorite wine, Khvanchkara, the only Soviet wine I have ever found potable.  The meal was not a total loss, however, because in the end I did learn something interesting about Shevardnadze -- he had a unique, but strangely familiar voice, and I nearly dropped out of my chair in surprise when I first heard it during his welcoming remarks.  Shevardnadze sounded exactly like a Russian version of Marlon Brando's Godfather.  At any moment, I was expecting him to make us an offer we couldn't refuse.  Downey and Miller also noticed and shared my amusement.

Towards the end of the evening, as the 40-car motorcade prepared to return to Tbilisi, Downey and his wife decided they wanted to stay in Mtskheta to look around some more, so Cindy Smith and I exchanged vehicles with them and we went back in their car in the motorcade.  Downey's comment was, "Now, Jim, you'll see what it's like to be a Congressman."  Downey's Soviet driver wasn't fooled, however, and immediately ID'd us as not being the Congressman and his wife.  We explained the situation, and he good-naturedly drove us back into town.

The next day, the Codel left for points unknown, and my brief career as faux-Congressman came to an end.  I seem to recall that we all flew back to Moscow together, Mrs. Toon's misgivings notwithstanding.  Anyway, she had had enough Soviet train food to last a lifetime.

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