The Foreign Service Journal, December 2011

28 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / D E C E M B E R 2 0 1 1 far occurred in Washington, not in Moscow. As for the embassy, we got our in- formation the old-fashioned way, going out on the street, to people’s offices and into society, traveling as much as possible beyond the capital, talking and listening to people, using our eyes, ears, voices and—not least — our wits. Opening Up Before 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Soviet authorities had, for decades, attempted to isolate the American embassy in Moscow from normal contact with Soviet citizens — and with Soviet officials other than those specifically designated to deal with the embassy. Some American administrations, particularly those of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, unwisely facilitated Soviet efforts to isolate the embassy by doing most of its business through the So- viet ambassador in Washington. In his fascinating Tchaikovsky 19, A Diplomatic Life Behind the Iron Curtain , retired FSO Robert Ober de- scribes the atmosphere in the embassy in the mid-1980s and previously. If these conditions had persisted, the em- bassy’s ability to follow and interpret developments in a vast empire convulsed by change would have been crip- pled. Fortunately, developments encouraged by U.S. policy and supported by Gorbachev altered the environment in which our embassy operated. Beginning in 1987, Soviet society was gradually but rapidly opened to contacts with the outside world. Equally important, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and Secretaries of State George Shultz and James A. Baker III managed to estab- lish trusted personal relationships with Gorbachev and Foreign Ministers Eduard Shevardnadze and Alexander Bessmertnykh. Both American and Soviet leaders en- couraged their subordinates to follow suit and work out the problems brought on by the Cold War. In the late 1980s, a win-win spirit rapidly replaced the destructive “zero-sum” attitude that had burdened negotiations dur- ing most of the Cold War. In the summer of 1989, groups of Lithuanians, Esto- nians and Latvians made appointments with me to explain their plans for a restoration of the in- dependence Stalin had extinguished as World War II began. The fact that they could do so with impunity was evidence that the Soviet author- ities had eased restrictions on con- tact with foreign diplomats. Before Gorbachev’s reforms, such behavior would have been considered tanta- mount to treason and punished accordingly. When the Soviet government refused their demands for more autonomy, the newly elected Baltic leaders in- tensified the pressure for their own independence and began to support independence movements in the other non-Russian union republics. Resistance to Communist Party rule from Moscow was not dependent on Baltic in- spiration, however, but arose spontaneously, particularly in those areas in western Ukraine and Moldova seized by Stalin following the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, and in the South Caucasus. The Baltic Independence Push By 1990, Consul General Richard Miles in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then known) maintained an almost continuous presence in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, aided by Embassy Moscow and U.S. embassies in nearby Scan- dinavia. (One of the key officers in this effort, Latvian- speaking FSO Ints Silins, subsequently became U.S. ambassador to Latvia.) An advance party to open a con- sulate general was sent to Kiev (now known as Kyiv) and thus able to keep abreast of developments there and visit Moscow frequently to file reports. Embassy Moscow’s political and economic reporting officers were given assignments to follow developments in specific non-Russian republics. Opposition leaders usually knew who on the embassy staff had responsibility for their republic and would frequently alert our diplo- mats to planned demonstrations and other significant events. All reporting officers in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev spoke and understood Russian. Some were compe- tent in a second language used in the Soviet Union, such as Latvian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Uzbek or Tajik. This was an invaluable asset in developing rapport with per- sons of those nationalities even though most were fluent in Russian. In March 1990 the decision of the Lithuanian parlia- ment to declare a restoration of the country’s independ- F OCUS From 1987, Soviet society was gradually but rapidly opened to contacts with the outside world.