The Foreign Service Journal, December 2011
D E C E M B E R 2 0 1 1 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 35 KGB ruse to shield their infamous moles at CIA headquarters, Aldrich Ames, and at the FBI, Robert Hanssen.) The embassy itself was housed in a rundown former Soviet apartment building in the center of Moscow — something that only enhanced its aura as an outpost on hostile territory. For sev- eral years major repairs had been de- layed because we hoped to move into a new building under construction nearby. By 1987, however, construction had ground to a halt. The KGB, we discovered, using Soviet workers we had hired, had ingeniously bugged the building in a way that negated our usual countermeasures. As a debate raged in Washington on how to proceed (and whom to blame) — and as delegation after delegation from Washington came to investigate—we began some serious renovation work on our current premises. That turned the embassy into a construction site, with all the attendant dangers. A serious fire broke out in 1988, forcing a total evacuation of the building. (We noted the alacrity with which Soviet “firefighters” arrived on the scene, eager to rush in to help douse the flames, particularly on the upper floors and roof that housed some of our most sensitive equipment.) The embassy would not move into the new building until 12 years later, in 2000. The unremitting surveillance and harsh physical envi- ronment alone would have made Moscow the hardship post it was. But the Soviet authorities tried to make it even harder, to stretch our resources and test our resolve. In 1986, several months before I arrived, in the midst of a diplomatic war with Washington, they had withdrawn the entire Foreign Service National staff from the embassy and capped the number of accredited diplomats we could have there. In response, the embassy community pulled together in a show of spirited defiance. Everyone from the ambassador on down took turns at performing custodial services to keep the embassy functioning until Washington could recruit its first tranche of “PAEers” (contractors hired by Pacific Ar- chitects and Engineers, primarily energetic young Ameri- can post-graduate students) to take over those duties. Even then, FS personnel continued to perform duties outside the normal job descriptions of their colleagues serving elsewhere in the world. We drove ourselves to official appointments, delivered packages and cleaned our of- fices. These circumstances nurtured a hardy, dedicated community on the front lines in the battle against Soviet communism. We were not only the eyes and ears, but the analytical mind, of Washington on the ground. Ironi- cally, the withdrawal of our FSN staff turned out to be a blessing. It pushed us out into Soviet society, where we gained a keener sense of the strains and stresses — and hopes — that arose as Soviet leader Mikhail Gor- bachev tried to reform his country so that it could remain a major power into the 21st century. Most important, we knew that Washington took our re- porting and views seriously. With the Internet, cell phones and the universal 24-hour news cycle still some years away, we could report on events as quickly as any news organi- zation and with greater analytical depth. The Western press corps was first-rate during this period, and we rou- tinely exchanged information with them, as we tried to un- derstand the often-obscure politics behind fast-moving events. The Challenge of Political Reporting Even then, political reporting presented its own special challenges. Strong networks of contacts are critical, and building them was problematical when I arrived in 1987. Although Gorbachev’s reforms were loosening political controls, Soviet society remained fairly closed to foreign- ers, especially American diplomats. We dealt with a narrow range of contacts: dissidents (their ranks swollen by political prisoners returning from labor camps as a result of Gorbachev’s reforms); some Russian government officials (largely from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs); institutchiki (scholars at institutes con- nected with the Soviet Academy of Sciences, who gener- ally worked on international affairs); East European and Chinese diplomats (who, as fellow communists, we be- lieved had better insights into Soviet Communist Party de- velopments than we did); some writers and other artists, and a few party and state newspaper and journal editors (officially approved, we presumed, for contacts with for- eigners). We supplemented those contacts by getting out into so- ciety as much as possible. We attended public lectures F OCUS Everyone from the ambassador on down took turns at performing custodial services to keep the embassy functioning.
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