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.

Photo Gallery: Though much of Moscow has changed since 1995, crowds still mill about on Red Square, in front of the historical museum. (David Hillegas)

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.

Photo Gallery: The new U.S. Ambassador to Russia, William Burns, invited Lisa and David to the embassy for a chat. (David Hillegas)

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.

By Lisa Dickey |  November 4, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: Moscow: Rap Star MC Pavlov, Part II | Next: The American Adoption Controversy


Please email us to report offensive comments.

When I stayed in the Hotel Rossiya in 2003, I noticed that the acoustics were such that anything spoken in a bedroom louder than a whisper could easily be heard in the hallway. There were also many other suspicious doors and vents that probably had some espionage purpose.

Posted by: William | November 4, 2005 03:22 PM

Moscow is so full of colors with all these new buildings during this anomaly warm and sunny November, but in the photo gallery she managed to show it gray and dull. Even red brick buildings of Red square are gray... And what else do we have? A passageway, an escalator, a gray entrance to one of 160 metro stations and a black spot instead of rebuilt Resurrection gate. Maybe she'll just let her demons of the bad old days go and show, how Moscow has changed...

Posted by: Ivan | November 5, 2005 10:37 AM

First of all, the blog posts and photos are just sensational. Congrats on that. I was in and out of Moscow often between 1988 and 1991, and it was drab and dreary, despite the much-heralded liberalization that allowed McDonald's and Pizza Hut to open. But I went back in 2002 and was stunned. Neon, ads, color, were everywhere! At a spot on the road in from the airport, where in 1989 there were old tank traps from WWII, there was now an IKEA. Amazing.

In those days, I also stayed at the Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel -- the "Mezh," as westerners called it. The damned Rooster Clock in the lobby rang every hour all night, making sleep difficult, and the KGB wiretaps made it impossible to sustain a dial-up modem connection back to the U.S. Times have changed.

Keep up the great blogging, Lisa.

Posted by: Walt Mossberg | November 5, 2005 02:05 PM

One thing this extended blog proves is how uneven the changes of the past ten years have been. To talk about Moscow, I think the changes between 1985 and 1995 were much greater than the changes between 1995 and 2005. After 1985 the USSR disappeared, a command economy was replaced with a supply-and-demand economy, hyperflation came and went, and Russians were exposed to the West (and vice versa) through mass emigration, tourism, and imports, both physical and cultural. While all of that affected all of Russia, Muscovites seemed to embrace and be rewarded by the changes first. By 1995 their grand transformations were over, and changes became more a matter of scale, while the rest of the country seems to still be catching up.

Posted by: Mark | November 6, 2005 02:42 AM

Dear travellers, I concur with poster Ivan that you gallery of Moscow is really done in the 'best' tradition of cold war propaganda. Moscow is a beautiful city nowadays - truly one of the best of european capitals. Cultural life in Moscow is superior to what one can find in Washington, DC. The Moscow piece is truly the worst part of your blog - and while I enjoyed reading your siberian chronicles, it appears that your sense of reality has been rather slightly disturbed in the end of your trip.

Posted by: Tim | November 10, 2005 02:16 PM

Dear Ivan and Tim:

I honestly thought the gallery for Moscow was quite beautiful, and still do. We've also gotten several emails from readers echoing that view. It's not filled with sunny pictures -- but we're a blog, not a travel agency. As to Ivan's remark that "she managed to show it gray and dull": I'm not the photographer. David shoots the photos, he picks the ones he'd like to put in the gallery, and we then collaborate on choosing the 12 or so that go in.

At any rate, thank you both for your free psychoanalysis! I'll try to keep an eye on my "demons from the bad old days" and my "slightly disturbed" sense of reality in the 10 days we have left on the trip!

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | November 11, 2005 07:01 AM

Dear Mark -

I agree completely. In 1995, it seemed to me that Moscow had undergone an amazingly radical transformation; this time around, it seems less changed than other cities. In fact, it seems to have calmed down a bit from those go-go days in the mid-90s, when it had a slightly dangerous air about it, I thought. Now, it feels similar to New York in that it seems cleaner and safer than it did 10 years ago.

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | November 11, 2005 07:05 AM

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