Moscow: A New Ambassador and the Bad Old Days
On Sept. 5, way back at the beginning of this trip, David and I received an email titled "Good Luck." It was from William Burns, the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, and he'd taken time out of his first month on the job to say he was looking forward to following our blog.
I'll admit it: this provoked some excited hooting and jumping around. At the time, we were in Vladivostok, and Hurricane Katrina was dominating the news to the extent that we wondered whether anyone could even find our little blog. So getting a note from the U.S. ambassador to Russia was cause for major excitement.
Yesterday, we got to visit with Ambassador Burns in the U.S. embassy building, as well as at the palatial ambassador's residence, Spaso House. Tall and composed, the ambassador has a quietly sincere manner and an appealing habit of looking you right in the eye. True to his word, he's been following the blog, and we spent a pleasant half-hour talking about the changes in Russia over the last 10 years.
But for me, coming back to the embassy stirred memories of even longer ago: Back in 1988, I worked as a nanny for a diplomatic family stationed in Moscow. We lived in an apartment inside the brick-walled embassy compound, and it was a truly wacky time -- as freakily paranoid as any Cold War novel would have you believe.
The Soviet Union was still intact then, and the restrictions placed on Americans working at the embassy were incredibly tight. Embassy rules stated that we couldn't meet alone with Russians under any circumstances, period. If we wanted to socialize with Russians, we had to go in pairs, then immediately file reports answering the following: Who were we with? Where did we go? What did we do? What did we talk about? I hated reporting on my Russian friends, so I always tried to fill out the forms as sketchily as possible.
Americans at the embassy were also forbidden from having romantic relationships with Russians -- and the U.S. security people were always calling us into meetings to ask if we knew anyone who was breaking the rules. I remember a meeting with one security person, who told me ominously, "If you know that [name redacted] is having a relationship with a Russian, and you don't tell us, you're going to be in as much trouble as she is." I'd heard she was. I didn't tell. The republic survived.
We were told that the embassy compound was riddled with listening devices, and that we should expect the Russians could hear every word we said -- though most suspected the Americans were listening just as closely. As for listening devices, one other experience made me realize all those stories about the Soviets bugging foreigners' hotel rooms were probably true.
One afternoon I went with a Brazilian friend named Marcus to the Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel, which was then Moscow's only "Western-style" hotel and business center. After admiring the giant rooster clock in the lobby, we wandered idly up to the second floor. Walking along the corridor, the big windows to our right were covered with heavy curtains -- but Marcus noticed a small gap, and we took a peek inside.
There was a long row of reel-to-reel tape recorders, one after the other. We hissed at each other, "Do you see that? Do you see that?!" before scurrying away, worried we'd get caught spying on the spies.
Today, Russians are once again working at the U.S. embassy. Americans can socialize and have relationships with Russians. And with any luck, those spy-vs.-spy days are behind us for good.
Next week: Americans adopting Russian children.
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