It has been almost 17 years since we left Moscow – and since the weather today is rather gloomy – I thought I’d share a few Moscow memories. Getting to Moscow had its share of unique problems. The blizzard of ‘96 that literally shut down the federal government (and everything else in Washington) also delayed our arrival by two weeks. Most families traveling to Moscow do not have the luxury that my wife and I had. We both speak Russian, we both had been to Moscow before, and we knew the Embassy because of our temporary duty travels. What we did not bargain for was the near non-stop change within and without the Embassy and Moscow over five years.
Getting the nanny for our daughter was one of my better stories from Moscow. Not two months after our arrival, I found myself at Moscow’s Vnukovo-2 airfield supporting a visit by President Clinton. During this visit, I interpreted for the Secret Service, the White House press liaison, the White House advance party, and the Air Force One crew. I struck up a conversation with the chief of then-Prime Minister Chernomyrdin’s bodyguard and it seemed his mother needed a job (or he needed to get her out of the house because she was driving him crazy) and as it happened, we were looking for a nanny. It all worked out and Tonya was our nanny for almost 3 years. Interesting note – her husband was one of former Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev’s drivers and worked for the KGB. Both her sons did, too. We traded one of our daughter’s high chairs and some baby clothes for the younger son’s KGB great coat. I think we got the better of that deal personally.
In the two years that followed, I supported two trips by Vice President Gore, three trips by the Secretary of Defense (both Dr. Perry and Senator Cohen), and trips by the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and numerous other Congressmen, Senators, and Deputy and Assistant Secretaries of State and Defense. During these trips I interpreted, acted as a tour guide, driver, transportation coordinator, control room supervisor, security coordinator, airport expediter, and bag boy. Every trip brought its own challenges and rewards. The opportunity to see the most powerful people in our government with their hair down was among the most memorable moments I had during the tour in Moscow.
Another non-treaty-related experience I had was when the Russian FSB (the successors to the KGB) turned over a crate of documents to the US Holocaust Museum detailing Nazi atrocities in Russia during World War II. I took receipt of the documents and helped in the delivery of these documents to the United States via an inspection aircraft.
It was not always good – or fun. Often, changes to Embassy life are brought on by international politics. Case in point: parking wars between the U.S. and Russia. Every event in the United States involving Russia or any of its satellite countries brought direct repercussions in Russia and affected the lives of every Embassy employee and family member. Anyone who has been to the Russian Embassy in Washington will note the lack of parking directly around the embassy grounds, simple because the streets are narrow and won’t allow on-street parking. While this was not the case in Moscow, in the spirit of reciprocity the Russian government restricted the parking around the U.S. Embassy. One memorable reciprocity event took place after the New York Police allegedly beat a Belorussian diplomat and towed the sedan of the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations. Shortly after this, two U.S. vehicles “spontaneously combusted” while parked outside the Embassy. These two so-called accidents were attributed to faulty wiring – in almost new Volvos…right. There was even an “unofficial” operation by the Moscow police called “Operation Foreigner.” This was aimed at ensuring the Moscow Diplomatic corps’ (not just the American diplomats) compliance with Russian traffic laws. Every illegally parked Russian vehicle towed in New York, San Francisco, or Washington ensured that an American vehicle was towed in Moscow – illegally parked or not.
Our time in Moscow included: five brutal Russian winters, five scorching Russian summers without air conditioning, five years of overpriced food, and five years of memories I wouldn’t trade for anything. I leave you with a quote from the Marquis de Custine, the French Ambassador to the Russian Imperial Court from his journals, written in 1839: “When your son is discontented in France, say to him; go to Russia. It is a journey which would be beneficial to any foreigner; for whoever has really seen Russia will find himself content to live anywhere else.”