Saturday, September 21, 2013

Leningrad 1985-1987 (Part Three)


Draft Chapter 11.8


Leningrad 1985-1987

(Part Three)

I Become a True Political Officer.
During my first year under Charlie Magee, I had not done much political or economic reporting, or even cultivated many contacts.  I stuck to management of the Consulate, and to more official-level reporting, although the occasional earthshaking event like Chernobyl did revive my political reporting instincts.  But on the whole, I was not known as a person who produced much grist for the analytical mills.  This was brought home to me during my first year when my girlfriend Amy Evans came to visit, and remarked critically on how seldom I left the apartment, even for such mundane chores as buying bread.  I realized that I was turning into a hermit diplomat -- very safe for me and no problem for the KGB or the RSO, but no way to operate in a city brimming with useful information hidden just under the surface. 

Under Ed's influence, I began to get out more, and to operate more like an independent reporting officer.  I began by attending numerous Znaniye lectures, bringing a small portable Sony tape recorder with me, as my Russian was not yet good enough to get everything the lecturers said right off the bat.  I started to watch Soviet TV with more frequency, and found that there were actually points of interest that could be gleaned from the news broadcasts, which were not as dead and totally scripted as might be at first supposed.  I visited local businesses, such as "Elektrosila," in an attempt to do some economic reporting, but didn't find much worth writing about (let's face it, Gorbachev's policies of "Perestroyka," "Glasnost," "Gibkost" and "Uskoreniye" were baffling and boring not just to me, but to the Soviet officials who were supposed to be implementing them). 

My political reporting did, however, pick up considerably, achieving some resonance in the Department.  I even went to the extreme of taking out a library card at the Saltykova-Shchedrina library near the Consulate, as I had heard that there were archives there that I might use.  The delicate white-haired little old ladies were delighted with their new customer, and gave me foreign library card no. 1.  One of my new friends told me that I was the first foreigner in her memory who had taken out a library card, even though I'll be the first to admit that I didn't do much with it. 

I developed an interest in Old St. Petersburg, and found a series of turn-of-the-century phone books ("Весь Петербург") in the Consulate library, and began learning the old names of the streets and the history of the city under the Tsars.  I was helped greatly in my research by a local Leningrad journalist, Vladimir Slutskiy, who on my birthday gave me a history of Leningrad's names, with all the old street and place names going back to the early days of the city.    

Adventures of an American Gypsy Cab Driver.
My best reporting effort, however, grew out of a rather simple idea, and gained a wide readership in Washington.  As a political officer, one of the central problems I had was to cultivate sources that were worthwhile, but in a way that did not expose them to the scrutiny of the KGB.  Because Americans were still viewed as the "Main Enemy," and were under more or less constant surveillance, only the bravest Russians, or the ones with nothing to lose, would volunteer information, and of course more than a few sources were actually plants.  Contacts among the political leadership were stilted at best, and not particularly productive, and, at the other end of the spectrum, man in the street interviews aimed at catching the pulse of the nation, were hard to get as well.  Ordinary people were often fascinated by Americans, but afraid of the consequences of contact with them.  In the past, Embassy officers in Moscow had sometimes gone to the ridiculous extreme of interrogating their taxi drivers to get the man in the street viewpoint.  It was poor stuff at best. 

I suddenly hit upon a new idea.  I would not interrogate taxi drivers, I would be the taxi driver.  This was actually a little easier than it sounds.  In Russia, you frequently would see people hitching a ride.  It was much more accepted practice than in the U.S., and arose from the fact that at the time, almost no one had their own private transport.  I determined to take my enormous '79 Chevy out for a spin one night and see if anyone would let me pick them up and take them to their destination.  I had several advantages going for me.  First, my lack of reporting activity during my first year under Charlie had effectively put the KGB to sleep.  No one was following me, and no one was particularly interested in my activities.  Second, with Gorbachev's new policy of glasnost, it had suddenly became almost fashionable to speak the truth for a change, and to admit that maybe the Soviet Union had some faults.  Third, most Russians were curious about American cars, big ones like mine in particular, and would love an excuse to ride in one.  The result was that it proved very easy to pick people up, and even easier to get them talking while on the way to their destination.  They had to talk, after all:  my knowledge of Leningrad's streets, particularly the concrete canyons outside the historic center, was very poor, and they had to keep up a constant stream of directions just to keep me on the right track.  Inevitably, political commentary intervened, and my American car effectively turned into the world's largest kitchen table.  For my Russian passengers, it was quite safe.  It was a one-time adventure, I would never see them again, and they were secure in the knowledge that the whole thing was a random event that they could explain away if anyone ever asked.  In the end, I gathered enough information for three man-in-the-street cables, titled "The Adventures of an American Gypsy Cab Driver" (86 Leningrad 2459, since declassified).  I'm not sure the information I reported was particularly earth-shaking, but official Washington apparently loved to read what ordinary Soviets from all walks of life were thinking.  I talked with everyone from drunk single mothers to high-ranking naval officers and everyone in between, and the portrait that emerged was of a society that was questioning its own values, curious and admiring of America's, sick of the Afghan war, skeptical of its own leaders, and anxious to move Soviet society away from Andropov's era of repression and toward something resembling the United States.  It was, fortunately, a message that Reagan's Washington wanted to hear, and so analysts and policymakers pounced on it.  I also learned that political reporting could be more worthwhile than I had ever imagined, and increasingly gave myself over to it.

Aleksandr Sheremetyev.
In getting out more, I began to attract more attention, and more contacts.  Aleksandr Sheremetyev was one of these.  I first met Aleksandr in front of my very own apartment on Millionaire's Row, and the nature of our meeting was unusual, to say the least.  Early in my tour, I had been followed to and from the Consulate by KGB operatives in a white Zhiguli, but after a few weeks, my followers had left off.  I was just too boring for them.  In the fall of 1986, I picked up another white Zhiguli tail.  I at first assumed that this was because U.S.-Soviet relations were in a tailspin, and the KGB was just putting on the pressure again.  The tail was so obvious, however, that it became evident that my pursuer had nothing to do with the KGB.  A little alarmed, I drove around the block a couple of times trying to think what to do, with the white Zhiguli virtually stuck to my rear bumper.  Finally, I saw that a parking spot had opened up directly in front of the militia post guarding my apartment, so I figured this would be as good a place as any to find out who was following me.  I got out, and Aleksandr got out of the white Zhiguli.  He walked up and introduced himself.  He said he was an inactive Orthodox priest, and that he wanted to meet Americans because he had many human rights complaints.  He had heard of me through mutual friends.  Naturally, I was a bit suspicious, but I can read people fairly well, and after our brief conversation, I sized Aleksandr up as a person who was honest, if a bit naive about the danger to which he was exposing himself.  I would normally have put Aleksandr off, but Ed Hurwitz had just arrived, and I was consciously trying to increase my political reporting activities.  I saw an opportunity, so I decided to give Aleksandr a try.

The chance I took on Aleksandr paid off big.  He proved to be a good source of information, and he put me in contact with numerous human rights activists, religious leaders and student groups of whom I had been previously unaware.  It became increasingly obvious to me that there was a lot going on at the grass roots level in Leningrad and in other areas of the Soviet Northwest that was simply not being picked up by Westerners.  Aleksandr was one of the persons who opened my eyes to this phenomenon.  Aleksandr was most useful as a scout:  he could go to closed areas and I couldn't.  Every now and again, he would get word of some significant event in a closed area, and would go there, take pictures, make recordings, and report back.  I paid him nothing in return, unless one counts a few lunches and dinners that I picked up for him.  Aleksandr was a volunteer in the truest sense, reporting to me because he thought it was the right thing to do.

One day, Aleksandr came back excitedly with a report that there had been a big environmental disaster at a place called Kirishi, where a local plant had seriously polluted the environment and poisoned scores of people.  I sent him off to see what he could see, and he came back with photographs of an unsanctioned demonstration of over 5,000 people in Kirishi's central square, an event virtually unheard of in Soviet times, along with eyewitness reports and other interesting information.  I did a series of cables based on Aleksandr's information that got a lot of resonance back in the Department.  It was a view of the Soviet Union no one had seen before.

A couple of times I may have stepped a little over the line.  For example, once I accompanied Aleksandr to an Orthodox Christmas service.  Aleksandr knew the priest, so I was sat in a place of honor and asked to speak to the congregation.  Later I found out that the Church had been located in a closed area.  Luckily, whenever I went anywhere with Aleksandr, he did the driving in his car, and we were therefore relatively inconspicuous.  The MFA never found out.

On another occasion, I attended a student protest meeting downtown.  Student leaders, SDS-style, were calling for an overthrow of the University leadership, and for general political changes in the leadership of Leningrad Oblast, in keeping with the new fashion -- Glasnost and Samokritika.  Aleksandr introduced me to his student friends as an acquaintance from Estonia.  "That will explain your non-native Russian," he later told me.  At first, I thought it a compliment that I could pass for Estonian, until, that is, I heard how horribly Estonians spoke Russian.  "Do I really speak Russian that badly, Aleksandr?"  I said.  "No," he replied, "but I needed to say something."  The reports of student ferment also were met with great interest by the U.S. analytical community. 

Aleksandr and I cooperated on a number of unusual political and human rights reports, and when I left Leningrad I told him that for his own safety he should cut down on contacts with the Consulate.  I put in a good word for him with the Consular Section, however, should he ever apply for a visa.  Years later, after I got back from Moscow, I heard that Aleksandr had in fact emigrated and was living in Cleveland.  In 2010, mutual friends told me that Alex had passed away in Buffalo from bone cancer.

Laying a Wreath at Piskarevskoye.  
Every May 9, the Leningrad authorities put on a big Victory Day memorial ceremony at Piskarevskoye Cemetery, where close to half a million victims of the siege of Leningrad were buried in mass graves.  Every important institution would be invited to lay a wreath at the “Mat’ Rodina” (Mother of the Nation) statue, which lay in the center of the cemetery at the end of a 300-yard memorial walkway.  Thousands of people would attend, and every year the Americans made one of the bigger splashes, because we always had a large wreath, which was carried by our Marines in full uniform, with the diplomats walking respectfully behind.  In previous years, of course, we had the FSN’s to help us get ready for the event, to buy the wreath, attach the appropriate ribbon, and drive us all out to the cemetery.  This year, we had no such help, and all our Marines were new, so they were unfamiliar with the ceremony as well.  In fact, none of us knew quite how to get out to Piskarevskoye.  Fortunately, the Leningrad Diplomatic Agency decided to lead all of its diplomatic charges, some of whom were even more helpless than we were, in a large convoy to Piskarevskoye.  So, with Gonzo as my driver, I got in my ’79 Chevy and proceeded to Piskarevskoye with the rest of the group.  Our Marines followed in a van.

Gonzo, who was very enterprising, had managed to attach a flagpole to the right fender of my car, so we could drive out with the American flag flying (Ed was not in country, and our other cars were out of commission).  For the first five minutes or so, all went well.  Then, the wind started blowing, and the diplomatic convoy also picked up speed.  With no warning, Gonzo’s carefully constructed flag stand gave out, and, with a strange “foop!” sound, the flag flew off the car and into the street.  Gonzo wanted to stop, but I knew that if we did, we would never find the convoy again, and even more importantly, we would never find Piskarevskoye, so I told him to speed on.  Meanwhile, the Marines, who saw the flag fly off, stopped their van and got to it just ahead of some local youths who were intent on taking it as a souvenir.  Sure enough, by the time they got back in the van, the convoy had disappeared. 

Gonzo and I drove on, and made it to the cemetery with the rest of the convoy.  We looked around in vain for the Marines, but they were nowhere to be found.  So, Gonzo and I had no choice.  We went up to our wreath, a massive 100-pound affair that had been previously delivered to the cemetery’s front gate, grabbed the wreath by its handles, and trudged off to take our place in the long line of officials paying their respects.  We were greeted at the cemetery by Leningrad Diplomatic Agency Head Mikhail Yefimov, and by the Leningrad Oblast Party First Secretary Yuriy Solovyev.  I had of course seen Yefimov many times, and we were old friends, despite the fact that he was a dyed-in-the-wool Communist hardliner.  Solovyev I had never seen before, and, as it turned out, I would never see him again.  In those days, high party officials kept as far away as they could from Americans, who were, technically at least, still the “main enemy.”  Yefimov eyed me quizzically, and asked me where the Marines were, and I told him we had lost them en route.  “Never mind,” he said.  “It will make a good impression if the head of the Consulate delivers his own wreath for a change.”

We slowly trudged down the long memorial walk, flanked on either side by Suvorovtsi and other military academy students, who formed the honor guard up and down the whole 300-yard walkway on special days such as this.  The heat was oppressive, and Gonzo and I were straining with our evergreen burden.  The honor guard was also having a little difficulty, and one or two of the young students passed out in the ranks, apparently a common occurrence when soldiers are asked to stand rigidly at attention for too long a time.  Finally, Gonzo and I made it to the Mat’ Rodina, set down our wreath, and paid our respects.  As we left Piskarevskoye, Yefimov eyed us approvingly, clasping his hands together and raising them to eye level, the traditional Russian sign for a job well done. 

Later, back at the Consulate, we found out what had happened to the Marines.  They had gotten behind another convoy and wound up at the wrong cemetery.  They made a big hit, though, when they paid their respects anyway.  So, a day that could have turned into a real disaster, turned out all right in the end.  The Marines were particularly pleased with themselves.  After all, they did save the flag. 

Larry and Sue Goodrich.
As soon as we found out that Dan Grossman was getting PNG'd, Ed and I began thinking about people we knew who might be able to replace him.  Dan's position at the Consulate was a very important one -- he acted as the chief human rights officer and our main contact with dissidents and refuseniks, and it was because he was doing his work so effectively that the Soviets had targeted him for expulsion.  After a couple of months of sending out inquiries, Larry Goodrich, a mutual friend of Ed's and mine, expressed interest.  I had known Larry from my days running Bilat on the Soviet Desk, where he worked on environmental issues in Exchanges.  He was a good officer, and we got on well.  By late 1986, Larry was midway through his tour in Moscow, but apparently was not happy there and was thinking about putting in for a transfer to Leningrad.  We supported Larry's request immediately, and by January, 1987 the wheels and gears of the State bureaucracy had clunked along sufficiently to allow his transfer. 

Larry arrived with his wife Sue in early 1987.  Both Larry and Sue were devout Christian Scientists, and read the bible most evenings.  Larry also had the alarming but also endearing habit of singing and playing his guitar at the drop of a hat -- any hat.  Larry settled into his job, and as a result of his hard work, the reporting output of our office began to rise substantially.  I only served with Larry and Sue for a few months, but we became even better friends during that time, and we have kept up our contacts over the years.  Sometime in the 1990's, Larry retired from the Foreign Service, and began working for the Christian Science Monitor.  A few years later, he took a job with the U.S. Commission for Religious Freedom on the Hill, and he is now running his own publishing business.  Whenever I am in Washington, I always pay Larry and Sue a visit. 

The Laird Commission.
In May 1987, ConGen Leningrad was visited by the Laird Commission.  In the wake of the Embassy security scandals, former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird had been asked to go out to our posts in the Soviet Union and determine what measures needed to be taken in order to improve the abysmal security environment there.  I had met Secretary Laird once or twice, but never in a business context.  Periodically, when I was working at the White House in the early 1970s, I would lunch at the Sans Souci, then Washington's prestige restaurant, just off Lafayette Park.  Henry Kissinger and Art Buchwald were frequent visitors, but the table that always caught my eye was the one occupied by Mel Laird, since he always seemed to be lunching with CBS reporter Nancy Dickerson or some other celebrity.  He was very friendly and approachable, even to lowly communicators like me. 

The Laird Commission only stayed in Leningrad for a couple of days, as Moscow was their main focus, but Laird and his colleagues grilled me extensively in the tank about my views on security.  I had initially been a little worried about the Commission, since these things often degenerated into witch hunts, but it turned out that I had nothing to worry about.  Laird and his colleagues had already read some of my political reporting from Leningrad, and were favorably disposed towards me, and I also did well during the interview.  Whatever the reason, when the Laird Commission report came out, I was one of the few people who got a shining review, being cited as the "principal force for good morale at post."  The report was subsequently buried, as such reports often are, but word of its findings nevertheless enhanced my corridor reputation. 

The Great Flood.
May was a very rainy month, uncharacteristically so for Leningrad.  On one unusually warm evening, the heavens opened and we had the equivalent of a cloudburst downtown.  I was at home fixing dinner when the call came from Matt Burns: the Consulate was flooded.  I rushed back to the office and found that the basement had about four feet of water in it.  The water was still rising, and was threatening the generator room, which was located in another part of the basement.  If the water reached the generators and ruined them, we would be without power for the foreseeable future.  We had to act, and fast.  We called UpIP, and they sent over one of their duty plumbers.  In typical Soviet fashion, he rigged up some Rube Goldberg contraption which consisted of various hoses and "natural suction," which he guaranteed would empty out the basement in a couple of weeks.  In the meantime, I noted that the water was still rising.  I put in a panicky call to Alisa Kotletsova and Viktor Pinchuk, who was UpIP's head at the time, describing the situation and asking for whatever help they could muster.  I didn't expect much, but to my surprise about an hour later, a fire truck showed up and pumped out the basement in a matter of minutes.  It was about 10pm, and the sun was setting, but the crisis was over, and several thousand dollars worth of electrical equipment was saved.  My friends in the Leningrad Administration had once again come through when it counted.  

Moving Day: A Friendly Meeting with Customs Inspectors.
My personal effects were packed out in late May, but not without a few minor complications.  In tandem with many other new restrictions in the wake of the withdrawal of our FSNs, the Soviet Government had passed a new regulation requiring that we provide Customs with an inventory of our household effects, so that it could be determined whether we were exporting any "art treasures," that should be held back for the motherland.

This was a long overdue solution to a serious problem:  quite a few diplomats had used their technically immune household effects shipments to smuggle out samovars, icons and other art treasures over the years, and I even heard of one American family that shipped over a hundred samovars in their sea freight.  Because of this, I had no problem with the rule, although there was one significant difficulty for those of us who had imported our household effects before the rule was enacted: we had no incoming inventory on file with Customs, so theoretically at least, anything could be confiscated from our outgoing shipments if it was deemed to be a of historic value (i.e., a work of art created before 1947).  I had for years been collecting Russian stock and bond certificates, mostly from St. Petersburg and Moscow municipal bond issuances before World War I, and had been hanging them on the walls of my apartment as works of art.  Of course, I had no proof that I had purchased them outside the Soviet Union (they were from the Herzog Hollander bond house in London), so I was a little worried what customs inspectors might think when they saw my inventory.

In the event, it turned out I had nothing to worry about.  My friends at the Diplomatic Agency made sure to be on hand when the customs inspectors came to look at my outgoing shipment.  They were interested in the bonds, and asked to see them, but only because they had never seen any before and wanted to know what they looked like.  Mr. Lu and Mr. Su vouched for the fact that I had brought them in with me when I arrived at post and the customs inspection proceeded without difficulty.  It's good to have friends. 

Farewell to Leningrad.
My successor, Tom Martens, arrived in June of 1987, just before my departure.  Like my predecessors before me, I left him a thick memo containing all the information he would need to start off his tour successfully.  I'm not sure, however, that the information I provided him was as relevant as it should have been.  The Consulate was returning to more normal operations as increasing numbers of PAE personnel began to arrive.  Political reporting no longer appeared to have the premium that it once did, and the first moves were being made to put increasing stress on commercial work in Leningrad, an area of our activity that, for entirely understandable reasons, had been neglected over the past decade.  That June, I bid Ed and all my Leningrad friends farewell, and flew back to Washington to start Dari language training for my next tour at Embassy Kabul.  I was happy to get back to the States, and to the easy life, but I also left with a sense of regret.  I had served during an eventful period for the Consulate, and the hardships endured were well worth the experience they brought.  I will never forgot my friends, or my time in Leningrad.
End of Draft Chapter.


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