I suppose there were times in the 1990’s when I wished I would be declared persona non grata and given 72 hours to leave Moscow. I was the Embassy Nuclear Affairs Officer and it seemed the Russian motto was ‘We’re not just going to roll over and take your money.’ We had dozens of programs to improve security at nuclear facilities all over Russia. And while there was some “nuclear tourism,” with some U.S. government officials just coming to have a look but not doing much follow up, for the most part the Energy, Defense, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and State Department officials were in town to do good work. Installing cameras, computerizing record keeping for fissile material, and giving nuclear scientists alternate projects to keep them from exporting their know how to bad guys.
While the U.S.-Russian relationship ebbs and flows, never quite reaching its potential during good times and thank God never exploding into the potential catastrophe we could unleash upon each other in bad times, certain things about Russia never change.
In retrospect, despite Russian intransigence and general bad mood over losing the Cold War those were good days and the general direction was positive. But the seeds of resentment were there. One high Ministry of Atomic Energy told an American delegation, “You destroyed us.” And looking at the near empty nuclear laboratories and nuclear cities like Arzamas-16, now Sarov, I could see he had a point. Their nuclear infrastructure was vast and alive during the Cold War and by the late 1990’s we had killed that way of life for scientists. No more special ballet performances, special food, or travel perks that had gone with being part of the nuclear elite.
While the U.S.-Russian relationship ebbs and flows, never quite reaching its potential during good times and thank God never exploding into the potential catastrophe we could unleash upon each other in bad times, certain things about Russia never change. I first went in 1975 as a student and those were good times. The Apollo-Soyuz astronauts showed us what cooperation could look like. We weren’t boycotting each others Olympics yet and detente was at least a goal. But given a chance, what Americans liked to do in Moscow was visit the circus, go ice skating in Gorky Park, tour the Kremlin, or spend time in the Embassy dacha and enjoy a taste of Russian country life.
And the truth is Russians are really interesting, engaging people. The staff I had in Vladivostok was the most talented local staff I ever encountered in the Foreign Service, with nine overseas posts. And outside of Moscow you have wild tigers in the Far East, icebreakers in the Arctic and a wealth of cultures and histories in the south. Russia is an endlessly fascinating place. And it seems it will also be an endlessly reluctant member of the international community. Never wanting to fully join the West, and never quite sure what to do with its status and weight in the East.
The 755 American diplomats packing up now rendered good service to the U.S. Reading a “scenesetter” from the Ambassador to a visiting Secretary of State is often the succinct, insightful reporting anywhere. Those reports are possible because of the hard work of Embassy political and economic officers who get out of the Embassy and learn what’s going on in the country. Being a diplomat today is as challenging as it was 100 years ago and just as relevant. Whenever the auditors talked about “rightsizing” the Embassy I also thought they should double the staff to allow us to pursue business opportunities for American companies, promote American values, and keep up with the heavy demands from Washington for information. Now, that work will have to be done with just a handful of American diplomats. And getting to the circus and the ballet will be that much harder.