October 4, 2017 – Moscow and Me

As I was rummaging though some old documents I came across part of a Christmas letter I had written in 1997.  I thought I would share some of the letter since the experiences listed could have happened to anyone of the 3 authors of this blog. So without further adieu:

Its amazing what can happen to you in Moscow.  Since arriving I have 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 have interpreted, acted as a tour guide, driver, transportation coordinator, control room supervisor, security coordinator, airport expediter, and bag boy.  Every trip has brought its own challenges and rewards. The opportunity for an OSIA interpreter to see the most powerful people in our government with their hair down is almost unheard-of outside of Moscow, and the memorable moments I’ve had during such visits are countless.

Another non-treaty-related experience I’ve had here 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 physically loaded these documents into a U.S. C141 Inspection aircraft.  Our counterparts at the Russian Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (RNRRC) were invaluable in this endeavor.  It has been said that our relationship with the RNRRC is the best US-Russian intergovernmental relationship going.  The delivery of these documents bore this out.

As  the Embassy mission changed from within, so did the Embassy change from without. Literally from my front door, I have watched the demolition and the reconstruction of the new embassy building, otherwise known as the NOB (New Office Building).  I write about this because after the well-publicized “bug” fiasco during the construction of the new embassy building, we still occupy the old U.S. Embassy building, or, as it is known locally, the EOB (Existing Office Building).  A smaller compound was erected to house the hundreds of construction workers brought in from the U.S. to preclude a repeat of the first building’s bungling, and controls on construction materials are tight, ensuring that they are not embedded with undesirables at their source.  In the end, the new Embassy Chancellery may be the most expensive federal office building (cost per square foot) in history. Note:  By current estimates, we will move into the NOB in September 1999 (we actually moved into the new embassy in April 2000).

Often, changes to Embassy life are brought on by international politics.  Case in point: parking wars between the U.S. and Russia.  You may not realize that the big “R” word (“reciprocity”) doesn’t apply strictly to inspection and escort missions. Every event in the United States involving Russia or any of the countries of the Newly Independent States has direct repercussions here and affects 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; in the spirit of reciprocity, the Russian government restricted the parking around the U.S. Embassy last year.  This all took place in the weeks after the New York Police allegedly beat a Belorussian diplomat and towed the sedan of the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations. It was also during this period that two U.S. vehicles “spontaneously combusted” while parked at the Embassy.   These two so-called accidents were attributed to faulty wiring.  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.

Change doesn’t stop at the Embassy, however; in preparation for the 850th anniversary of Moscow’s founding, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov launched a massive campaign to overhaul and beautify Russia’s capital.  Measures taken to improve the city’s appearance included the passing of an “ugly car” law, which allowed for the immediate impounding of vehicles deemed unsightly, a ban on “clamshell” garages in high-visibility areas, and strict regulations on the construction of kiosks and cafes, which had been springing up like mushrooms on every street corner.   Moscow’s Beltway, the MKAD, is also getting some sprucing up in the way of widening and repaving.  Sadly, for Moscow’s drivers, this will soon include toll roads on major thoroughfares, such as the road to Sheremetyevo Airport.

Mayor Luzhkov also took on the daunting task of re-instilling Russian national pride through the refurbishment of pre-Revolution buildings and, curiously, through the establishment of a chain Russian fast food restaurant, Russkoye Bystro.  At one point, Mayor Luzhkov claimed that Russkoye Bystro would put McDonald’s out of business; while Russkoye Bystros are now fairly widespread, McDonald’s has multiplied from two restaurants in 1994 to over 13 today.

By and large, Russia has a cash-driven economy.  It’s true that many stores and hotels accept credit cards, and “Avtobank” signs marking ATMs are more and more common, but the US dollar is still the currency of choice.  So enmeshed in the Russian economy is the US dollar that when the US Treasury introduced the new $100 bill, it also mounted a program to educate Russians on the differences between the old and new bills, how to spot counterfeits, and why Russian banks shouldn’t charge customers to exchange old bills for new ones.  So while the Russian ruble is the only officially authorized form of currency, every ruble spent is backed by a US dollar stashed in some Russian bank’s vault.

While on the topic of money, another upheaval in the Russian economy was the devaluation of the Russian ruble, dropping the last three zeroes and turning 10,000 rubles into 10 rubles, 50,000 rubles into 50 rubles, etc.  To us foreigners, this just meant we could now divide by, for example, 6 instead of 6,000. To Russians, this meant that all price tags now needed to be written both in old and new rubles, and at shopping areas where dollars are accepted (although this is technically illegal), vendors now have to provide additional explanation on prices (“18 dollars or rubles?” “Dollars.”).  Most people still speak in thousands of rubles, and change from large bills is a bewildering mix of 5,000-ruble notes and 5-ruble coins.

All this said, I get ready for another two winters in Russia and another two years of experiences.  I leave you with a quote from the Marquis de Custine from his Russian 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.”

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