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. 

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