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All Purpose Duty: 1986

by Allan Mustard

Today Embassy Moscow and its three consulates and affiliated outposts are served by over 1,000 highly skilled, often bilingual, and very dedicated foreign national employees. Today, the Embassy is connected to Washington with several dedicated telephone lines that ring in Washington, multiple high-speed internet connections, and DHL. Complaints about life at Embassy Moscow today are of the variety, "Snow removal woke me up this morning," "High-speed internet service in the city is so expensive," and "The commissary is out of Texas toast."

Life used to be ever so much more interesting. And it was only 20 years ago this fall.

On October 22, 1986, the Soviet government declared five additional American diplomats persona non grata, on top of five expelled the week prior. The Foreign Ministry also unilaterally withdrew all 183 foreign national employees from Moscow and Leningrad, plus another 77 personal maids, teachers, and other private staff. Overnight, we became the only U.S. diplomatic mission in a foreign country with no foreign service national employees, known as "FSNs."

Relations were already deeply strained. The Reykjavik summit had been a disaster. On August 23, the FBI arrested Soviet U.N. employee Gennadiy Zakharov for espionage; the Soviets retaliated by arresting U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff on similar charges. During Daniloff’s detention, on September 18, the U.S. expelled 25 Soviet diplomats accused of espionage. The Soviets retaliated with expulsion of five U.S. diplomats October 19. The U.S. Government responded by expelling five Soviet diplomats in direct retaliation, plus fifty alleged KGB and GRU officers from Washington and San Francisco, ostensibly to bring Soviet staffing to the same level (251) as U.S. levels in Moscow (225) and Leningrad (26). The U.S. also ordered the Soviet government to cut its U.N. mission staff from 270 to 165. These moves were intended to balance the books, but were done with the knowledge that the Soviets did not employ American nationals in their missions and an expectation that the story wasn’t over quite yet. The Soviets responded by PNGing five more American diplomats, pulling our FSNs, and limiting the number of embassy guests and TDYers.

One of the Embassy officers expelled was Mike Matera, the human rights officer. Kathy Kavalec remembers "the great PNG party at the near dacha where we waited for the newscaster to announce the expulsions, and cheered when they read out the names, probably spurred on by the beer and indignation." When Mike Matera was named, he carried out some cake to put on top of the KGB surveillance car stationed outside the dacha.

The First Days

Among the FSNs lost was the Ambassador’s chauffeur. Margo Squire recalls the first day without FSNs:

"…I had to work a press event at Spaso with Amb. [Arthur] Hartman. Because I was running late, I drove my car over, and after the event, the ambassador asked me for a ride back to the embassy. Serge Schmemann of The New York Times walked out as Hartman was folding himself into my tiny Toyota Starlite and took a photo, which he gave to AP. The next day The Washington Post and NYTimes carried this photo of the two of us, labeling me his temporary driver. My 15 minutes of fame."

Ambassador Hartman, DCM Dick Combs, and Administrative Counselor David Beall decreed that all embassy staff would henceforth engage in All Purpose Duty, each in turn, in alphabetical order, to perform the housekeeping tasks that previously had been done by FSNs. Only the Ambassador and DCM were exempted. Margo Squire recalls the first group, made up mostly of people whose last names began with B, christening themselves the "Killer B’s" and going to work. She adds,

"I’ll never forget [PAO and FE-CM] Ray Benson bursting into our weekly P&C staff meeting that afternoon and boasting about how well he had washed cars. David Beall, I think had to move a sofa up 13 floors in a building without an elevator."

Kathy Kavalec recalls,

"[W]e had Elie Wiesel when the whole thing began, and … the expulsions and loss of Soviet staff were announced while I was squiring him around town. At the Embassy reception for him Mrs. Hartman and the marines served popcorn since there was no house staff. I also remember serving as both the control officer and driver to a Codel that came during that period. It was rather stressful to drive a large van full of garrulous congressmen to the synagogue without getting lost while also having to contend with their myriad of questions...

"And I remember going out to the airport on the bus to meet a delegation of Codel wives, including Mrs. Teresa Heinz (now Kerry), who thoughtfully brought us a cooler full of fresh produce, only to find the Embassy had decided, in all its wisdom, not to provide a van to pick them up, I guess to make the point that it was no longer business as usual... (I always felt bad about that.) The ladies graciously agreed to ride the city bus with me to their hotel..."

Another question was whether the Marine Ball, scheduled for November, could take place at Spaso House without FSN support. The Marines provided their own music, several of us Embassy officers volunteered to take turns tending bar, and other volunteers helped with meal service. We made it happen, but not without a few misadventures.

Things were no better in Leningrad. Then-DPO Jim Schumaker remembers,

"The next thing we had to do was to invite our FSN’s back to the Consulate for one last time to get their final paycheck. It was a very sad occasion. Many of our FSN’s had been with the Consulate practically since its inception in July, 1972, and they were clearly surprised by their government’s action and feeling a bit lost. We knew, of course, that there were quite a few informers among our FSN crew, and that UpIP, the KGB-supervised agency that provided our employees, even held regular debriefs on Thursdays. But many of these employees were our friends as well, and quite a few had divided loyalties. For some, their old lives were over.

"Sergey, one of the Consulate’s drivers, was a case in point. He and I had been through a lot of adventures together, including extracting Ambassador Vernon Walters from a burning Rafik while on the way to Piskarevskoye Cemetery, among other things. He was loyal and devoted, and clearly distraught at leaving and I felt particularly sorry for him, even as, with a leaden face, I doled out the last rubles he would ever receive from the Consulate. It was a dejected bunch of FSN’s that left our offices that day."

The Routine

Running an embassy or consulate without FSNs was a lot of hard work, particularly in the Soviet Union’s "deficit economy", where basic necessities like food plus hygiene, medical, and office supplies all had to be imported. The U.S. press focused on the poor, poor American diplomats who, boo-hoo, suddenly had to clean their own homes and offices. That wasn’t the half of it. All travel arrangements now had to be made by language-qualified officers, and the rule of thumb was that it took one day of preparation before and one day of paperwork after travel for each day on the road.

Only Volvo had a garage in Moscow. All other foreign cars had depended on our Soviet mechanics to keep them running. All high-priority messages to Soviet officials and all requests for hotel accommodations for visitors had to be hand-delivered, a time-consuming affair, and one that required functioning autos. All cars also had to be washed daily, for under Soviet law, driving a dirty car in the city was against the law – and this in a city famous for its mud.

We chipped ice from sidewalks and hauled snow. We humped furniture. Finnish contractors were building an ice barrier (to protect pedestrians from the massive icicles that formed on the back of the chancery each spring), and one afternoon a semi-trailer loaded with 30 tons of sheet steel and I-beams arrived from Finland. We unloaded it in 30-below weather. Since these tasks were not in our job descriptions, the Embassy could not, by regulation, provide protective clothing, so we mail-ordered at our own expense coveralls and heavy gloves. I still have my J.C. Penney thermal jumpsuit.

Embassy spouses pitched in. Several reported to A/GSO Rich Jaworski the first Monday and refused to leave until assigned jobs for which they never received compensation. GSO dispatch was operated by Pauline Clark, Econ Officer Howard Clark’s wife, and the consular section was augmented by a mix of spouses and nannies plus Zachary Lent and Jean McKenzie, two Russian language instructors who suddenly had no pupils with time to attend class.

The Embassy and Consulate imported food, supplies, and equipment each week, all of which had to be cleared through Soviet Customs (no less time-consuming than today). Howard Clark spent all day at Butovo clearing one shipment, and wrote a telegram about his experience that was read by Secretary of State Shultz. Mike Einik recalls this work as "[a] cross between Monty Python and Dante." Earl Irving adds,

"Thanks to the Foreign Service, I learned to drive a truck and, literally, move refrigerators. I recall images of other colleagues and me captured for posterity by ABC News as we hauled sacks of mail in and out of the mail room. One time we drove to the station where the once-a-week Helsinki train with provisions arrived. We went to the customs depot to liberate the shipment from Stockmann’s, which some kids at the mission actually thought was the capital of Finland."

We also brought in monthly air shipments of fruits and vegetables on Pan Am, and had to send people to Sheremetyevo in sufficient number both to clear and to guard them from being stolen. EST Counselor John Zimmerman had to learn to drive a 5-ton truck for those runs, and nearly skidded into an airplane one night. A/GSO Matt Koch learned to handle fork-lifts.

On Wednesdays, we received our weekly food shipments by train from Helsinki, including a metric ton of milk (since Soviet milk had to be boiled to be made safe for drinking). These imports generated some resentment on the part of border inspectors. Political Officer Steve Young recalled one "vegetable run:"

"The fussy babushka in charge let the luscious strawberries and exotic artichokes pass without a murmur, but was incensed that we were importing Idaho potatoes (coals to Newcastle?). The very real possibility she would nix the entire shipment loomed. I had to think fast. Sidling up to the lady, I lowered my voice and said in my most persuasive Russian, ‘Yes, I know it's a sin, and madame, I want you to know I love Russian potatoes and eat them all the time. But some of our American staff are fussy and homesick, so this is for them!"

On December 19, according to a cable sent January 5, 1987, APDers

"unloaded 80,000 pounds of commissary dry goods, 15,000 pounds of lumber and 7,000 pounds of mail. All of it got warehoused and/or delivered on the same day…We also had a snowstorm on Saturday/Sunday. It has been dealt with as well, and by the same people."

Even routine repair work was complicated. Science Officer Larry Goodrich was on APD when a truckload of concrete arrived.

"On one of the coldest mornings of the winter, the Embassy had to take delivery of a load of concrete to repair some steps at the back of the building. So we APDers reported to the parking area as a typical Soviet flat-bed dump truck with no gate at the back showed up and simply dumped its load on the ground before us. We spent the next 20 minutes or so frantically shoveling the concrete into the step forms before it set, or froze, or both."

At least Moscow had the luxury of rotating APD. Leningrad was a different story, as Jim Schumaker relates:

"Early on, it became clear to us in Leningrad that we did not have the personnel to run a rotating roster. All of us would have to be on APD all the time. Fortunately, we had a fair number of enthusiastic volunteers. John Floyd, our Seabee, was able to keep the Consulate’s systems running while doing basic maintenance tasks in his spare time. John also volunteered for some of the more dangerous work, which included roping himself to an iron railing and lowering himself down the roof to clean off icicles and snow. Bea Burns volunteered to be the telephone operator. The husband of our Consular Officer, who himself was a retired FSO and had been Consul General in Sydney, volunteered to be the Consulate Driver and also make customs runs. And so on, down the line. Everybody volunteered for something, and everything was covered by at least one person.

"I had no known skills, other than those of a Political Officer, which didn’t translate too well to the practical world of GSO. So Matt [Burns] and Jane [Floyd] gave me a pair of coveralls with the name ‘Sergey’ sewed on them, and told me to stand by for whatever duty needed extra hands."

"New Year’s Greetings From The Titanic"

The weather held through mid-December, then as Christmas drew near, the thermometer plunged. We were later told the winter of 1986/87 was the worst in 54 years, second worst in 105, and colder than the winter that defeated Napoleon’s army. Whether this was true or not, we went through several weeks of temperatures below minus-35 Celsius. At that point very few cars will start, and by mid-January only six cars in the Embassy were running (the Ambassador’s limousine and a pickup truck for jumpstarting other cars were kept garaged). My Volvo 340 hatchback was one of the six, only because I arose every two hours at night, started the engine, ran it for an hour to recharge the battery, then went back to bed for two hours before doing it all over again. Our section needed at least one car running to deliver official messages from USDA to Soviet counterparts.

Just before Christmas, Commercial Attaché Mike Mears wrote a cable detailing the U.S. Commercial Office's many travails, which noted that things couldn’t get much worse. Then January 12, a steam pipe blew in USCO, at that time housed on the ground floor of what is today Novinskiy Bul’var 15. Mears and his administrative assistant, Cheryl Dustin, were called, and arrived to discover boiling water pouring out the front doors of his office, with steam permeating everything. When the water was shut off, so was the heat, and the next morning USCO had six inches of ice on the floor, a glacier extending to the sidewalk, and condensed ice inside all office equipment. The summary paragraph of Mears’s next telegram to Commerce read, "Things did get worse."

Shortly after Christmas, the steam pipe feeding the Embassy heating system ruptured, right under an outbuilding that housed GSO’s Miscellaneous Services unit. The interior temperature of the Embassy chancery plunged to 33 below zero within a day, and heat was not restored until the spring thaw, when the pipe could be excavated and repaired. People worked indoors all winter in long underwear and down coats. This event spurred Supervisory GSO Jane Becker to send a cable to Washington titled "New Year’s Greetings from the Titanic."

Another consequence of the round of expulsions emerged about this time – a spike in vandalism, home intrusions, and automobile sabotage. The KGB had routinely engaged in harassment at the rate of about one or two incidents per week, but suddenly the frequency jumped to one or two per day. Margo Squire had her car’s exhaust pipe sawn through. My (and many others’) apartment windows were opened and left open when the temperature was 35 below zero; in some cases this caused pipes to burst. Larry Goodrich relates,

"[T]he Soviets especially liked to prey on empty Embassy apartments. One night I found Kaara Ettesvold, who lived in our building on Krutistkiy Val, banging on my door asking for help. An embassy telephone operator's ceiling fixtures were filling with water cascading in from the empty apartment above. . .We found all the windows open (it was mid-January), which had caused one of the radiators to freeze and burst. We fought our way through the spraying water and turned off the water supply to the radiator. Then we went down to the staff member's apartment, where I emptied his ceiling fixtures with a turkey baster, taking care not to electrocute myself."

Hoses were slashed on washing machines, causing apartment floods. The lug nuts on DCM Combs’s car were loosened, and the right front wheel fell off in traffic. Diesel fuel was poured into my car’s gas tank, and it jelled when the mercury dropped, plugging the fuel line. ECON’s John Stranford had all the glass smashed out of his Volvo. We later learned that the PNG'd KGB and GRU officers had been unleashed to retaliate against us. Keeping an embassy operating under these conditions was trial enough—we thought. Little did we know what was coming next!

But there was some good news. Word spread that State had awarded the "omnibus contract" in early November and contractors would come in the spring. All-Purpose Duty, at least, might soon be behind us. Christmas carol lyrics were rewritten and posted on the walls of the chancery’s two elevators: "Here We Come on APD" (to the tune of "Here We Come a Wassailing") and "God Rest Ye Merry, APDs".

The rub was the personnel ceiling. To make room for contractors, Embassy management cut direct-hire staff and juggled the numbers -- tandem couples were counted as one, and since Consular Officer Jill Byrnes needed official status to issue visas, and her husband, Political Internal Chief Shaun Byrnes, did not, Shaun was listed as a spouse on the diplomatic list. And so it went with every other tandem couple State could lure to Moscow.

The Agriculture Section lost its secretary slot to make room for PAE, so I took over that job on top of my reporting tasks. Then David Beall and A/GSO Kaara Ettesvold recalled my ability to touch-type in Russian, so I was directed to work half-time for the Administrative Section. The typing ability made me fairly popular, since I was one of a very few who could prepare travel notes necessary for Embassy employees to move around the country, on top of translating and typing packing lists in Russian for arriving and departing personnel.

The Lonetree-Bracy Scandal

That February the notorious Lonetree-Bracy scandal broke. The curious can read about it in Ron Kessler’s book, "Moscow Station", which though containing more than a few inaccuracies provides a generally adequate account of one of the Embassy's worst episodes. One consequence of the scandal was a shutdown of all secure electronic communication between Moscow and Washington. Another was confiscation of all electric typewriters (they were presumed compromised).

Now, remember, we were in a chancery with an ambient temperature well below freezing. We had no typewriters for several weeks. We drafted classified and LOU telegrams on yellow legal pads using ballpoint pens, a courier flew them to Frankfurt each day, and a secretary in Frankfurt typed them up and transmitted them. At 30 below zero, ballpoint pen ink freezes in about five minutes. We learned to keep three ballpoint pens inside our down jackets, where body heat could thaw the ink. You wrote with one pen until it froze, put it back next to your body, and continued drafting with the second pen, and so on, rotating them.

In 1986, there was only one fax machine in the Embassy, reserved for the exclusive use of FBO in constructing the new compound. International direct dialing did not exist in the USSR. There were two dedicated "Washington lines", one for FBO and one for the Embassy, and each section had to sign up days in advance to get a 15-minute block of time. The alternative was to go to the post office, order international phone calls via the Soviet phone system a day in advance, and pay $18 per minute (you had to specify the duration of the call and pay in advance, then hope the call went through when someone was at the other end to answer). E-mail didn’t exist yet.

About this time, Steve Young accompanied Charge d’Affaires Dick Combs to a meeting at the foreign ministry. Steve recalls,

"As we settled down to our tea and cookies, in kitschy Soviet china, the Russian took on his best fake sympathetic tone and said, ‘Deek, how are you making out over there?’ It suddenly dawned on me that the Soviets were convinced we were near the end of our rope, and would any day come in seeking terms to resume the old arrangement with UpDK workers. And a new understanding flashed through my mind: these were the real aristocrats, professional Soviet diplomats who would never stoop to clean toilets or lug refrigerators up narrow stairwells. They had mirror imaged-us, not for a moment grasping that Americans are always ready to roll up their sleeves and do what is necessary to get the job done."

In his citations of a series of Superior Honor Awards for the State Department personnel at post, Secretary of State Shultz, a Marine Corps veteran of World War II, referred to the conditions faced by Embassy and Consulate General personnel in the Soviet Union during this period as akin to those faced during war.

The Spring Thaw

As springtime approached, ice began to thaw and the U.S. Government responded to our needs, finally. DoD was the first, sending a half-dozen Army drivers to chauffeur the Ambassador and drive our trucks (until then, first Ambassador Hartman and later Ambassador Matlock had been driving themselves in an armored Opel sedan). The omnibus contract was let and the first PAE contractors appeared in April. Heat was restored to the chancery and new telecommunications equipment was installed.

Metaphorically, another historic thaw was taking place – the relationship between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan warmed up following the disastrous summit in Reykjavik. Congressional interest increased commensurately, so with no FSNs and only a handful of contractors, we began hosting congressional and Secretary of State delegations in alternate months, starting in Summer 1987 and culminating in the Moscow summit in May 1988. As the summit date approached, a suddenly cooperative UpDK sent workers swarming over Spaso House and the exterior of the chancery to repair, clean and paint. The summit delegation numbered over 1,000, accompanied by over 1,000 journalists, outnumbering us 8:1 – but we handled them. The highlight was a dinner at Spaso House hosted by President and Mrs. Reagan for President and Mrs. Gorbachev. Embassy officers served as interpreters, while PAE contractors served the meal. Dave Brubeck and his quartet provided the music.

The thaw had practical consequences, for though in the near term there was no chance of foreign nationals coming back to the U.S. missions, UpDK and UpIP became somewhat more cooperative. Jim Schumaker remarked,

"It turned out that Moscow’s decision to withdraw our FSN’s had been just as much a shock to our Leningrad Diplomatic Agency counterparts as it had been to us. Many who worked in the Agency, and in UpIP, did not agree with the policy – some because of the intelligence value of having Soviet employees working in our midst, but most, simply because they thought it was a stupid and punitive decision. A few people in each organization did what they could to help us, easing our administrative burdens considerably. More often than not, our requests for under the table assistance were granted immediately, and unofficially, and it really helped."

It seemed that foreign nationals would never come back to Moscow and Leningrad. They would not have, if not for an earthshaking event. Jim continues,

"[The Marine Corps guard scandals], coming during the same time period as the Moscow Embassy construction scandal, the NPPD incident, the bugged typewriters affair, and the Edward Lee Howard defection, ruled out the idea of rehiring Soviet nationals. Congress was on the warpath, and the FBI and other counterintelligence agencies were busy turning over every rock just in case some new intelligence scandal had been overlooked. The issue was closed, forever. No Soviet employees would ever be allowed to work at our Missions in Moscow and Leningrad. There was just one catch, of course: only four short years later, there would be no Soviet employees anywhere, because the Soviet Union itself had passed into history."

The All-Purpose Duty (APD) veterans were a varied group that, under enormous stress, kept this mission operating – despite overt Soviet efforts to force it to collapse. Perhaps this experience partially forged our characters. An unusually high proportion of APD veterans went on to Ambassadorships (Jane Becker, Mike Einik, Mary Ann Peters, Ross Wilson, Ed Hurwitz, Jim Schumaker, Priscilla Clapp, Eric Edelman, Steve Pifer, John Herbst, John Ordway, Steve Young). Many more served in highly responsible positions: Shaun Byrnes as envoy to Montenegro, COL Bob Berls as an adviser to the Secretary of Energy, RADM Ron Kurth as president of the Naval War College, and others as deputy assistant secretaries and office directors, too numerous to list here. One thing we have all carried with us, though, is a deep and abiding appreciation for the work of our foreign national employees, wherever we have been posted.

Allan Mustard is the only APD veteran currently posted to Embassy Moscow. He is the Minister Counselor for Agricultural Affairs. (Reprinted with permission of the author from the US Embassy Moscow TWIM newsletter.)