by Bob BakerVienna was snowed in when I first visited there in 1974. Twenty years later I was back in Vienna to relax and to direct the Regional Program Office’ excellent staff. Then Moscow melted and the Office had huge amounts of work to help set up new embassies in former communist countries and to produce translations in languages for the Baltics, the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe.

But back in 1974, the brown Mercedes airport taxi dropped me off at my hotel just in time for Saturday supper on my first visit to Vienna.The flight from London was easy. A windy, chilly few blocks away from my hotel, I stepped into a green- fronted, old-fashioned café. Immediately, the room disappeared behind my fogged glasses. Pocketing them, I saw twenty wooden tables, a few booths next to the windows and a glass case with beautiful pastries. It was smoky and warm. I ate a delicious sauerkraut, pureed potatoes and ham dinner. Bread and a pat of butter each came billed separately. Strong coffee with a slow cigarette washed off the tiredness of all day travel from London.

Refreshed, I stepped out into the dark to see something of the city. The gusting wind now blew whirling blankets of fat, white snowflakes. While I had eaten supper, snow had already gilded church towers and made white dashes on the window sills of looming apartment houses. It rounded up the tops of parked cars and barren tree limbs in the park across Ringstrasse. Flakes swirled in wide, falling circles around the lamps swinging on wires over the middle of the street. I pulled up my collar, trapping a couple icy flakes on my neck, pulled down my cap, tucked my glasses into a pocket and walked for an hour past the ghostly but immensely solid buildings. Almost no traffic plowed through the foot deep snow except the white-capped trams that glided swiftly in dead silence. Vienna was very beautiful in the snowstorm, a grand first visit.

Back in my hotel room, I noticed my shoes were sodden. I was first chilly, then sneezing and that night, shaking, with my first Viennese flu. Really sick next morning, I dressed, went down and asked the bellman for a delicatessen nearby. He said there was none. Turns out, Vienna does not have American delis at all. I told him I badly needed a bowl of hot chicken soup and asked where I could find it.

He directed me to a Jewish club not too far away. It was up a bare wooden stairway. At the top was a dingy room about thirty feet square. Old guys in yarmulkes grumbled over chessboards and coffee at a dozen little tables. Food came out of a window in a wooden wall where you ordered from the fat woman behind the counter. She was grumpy that I wanted chicken noodle soup. All they had was flanken and potato pancakes. I took it. It was good and filling, not the same as chicken soup, but the flanken hit the flu right in the head. However, back in my room, an hour later, I was shaking again. I called for a doctor who showed up that afternoon with some pills, told me to stay in bed and left. I was wretched, alone and thinking I would be unable to work tomorrow, Monday.

I shook for about an hour, then sure I would miss work next day, called Y, the Director of the Regional Program Office (RPO) in Vienna. He had asked me to come to Vienna. I had never met him but had worked with him via cable. He ran the Office that supplied all our Embassies in Communist Europe with speakers, exhibits, printed materials and other support. I had been sending him several American “acts” from the U.K. for a year. He wanted me to tell all our cultural officers from Communist countries what I could supply them in the way of speakers, films, exhibits. They were gathered for an annual briefing/consultation in Vienna. That was partly a way to get them out of their gray communist world into Vienna, but also had some real programming usefulness.

I called Y to say I was pretty sick and might not make it to the meeting on Monday. He drove over at once to my hotel, and bundled me into his car for the half hour drive to his house. His wife was Russian and had been a nurse. She gave me a cup of hot tea with lemon and honey and put me into a white, fresh, featherbed. The kindness helped as much as the medicine. In fact, I was able to attend the meetings beginning at noon next day.

As I gave my pitch to the twenty American cultural guys from Eastern Europe, I noticed how gray, pasty and subdued they looked, and wondered if they looked just like the people they worked among under communism. I listened as they reported on American orchestras and ballet troupes visiting their countries. It took complex work on their part to arrange that. They had none of my British freedom to barge into political parties, universities, museums, theatres, etc. with my American cultural and political programs of speakers, shows and seminars. Communist governments hemmed them in tightly.

I had more freedom than that, even in Africa, where I worked under the Marxist regime in Mali. I had managed to work around official restrictions on pro-American events, but these guys had much stricter controls to face. There was also lots of communist inertia about getting anything at all done. A standing joke in Eastern Europe was, “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”

In 1990, I became Director of RPO in Vienna. I learned how exasperating work could be in then collapsed and but formely tightly controlled countries. I stayed behind a couple days at Y’s house to work out details on American exhibits, speakers, films and video shows to send from London on tours for our Embassies in Eastern Europe.I also met his Viennese staff, toured the city and loved its music, museums, cafes, coffee houses, trams, 1,200 “palaces” left from the Austro-Hungarian Empire days, beautiful gardens, wineries, even the beautiful brown Danube. I never saw it blue.

Back in London, at the end of my four year tour of duty, I was about to be transferred to Cambodia whose capital was being mortared by rebels. To stay in London, I sent back a detailed proposal to set up a new London office to do all the work I was already doing, sending speakers, exhibits, films, videos, etc. around the world to our Embassies.

I described in detail the officer who would best fit the new job, me. The Agency bought my proposal. I established the new office to send speakers, etc. from London around the world. Then the Agency named someone else to head the new office and still wanted to send me to Cambodia. Instead, I got myself transferred to Bonn and then Berlin. Other assignments followed but I always remembered Vienna.

I never forgot Y’s beautiful office, the excellent coffee, and his experienced, hard- working staff, who did outstanding work under his direction.

Back in London, just three of us, my assistant, my secretary and I worked like fiends all day and into the evening seven days a week. We wrote all the telegrams, travel orders, requisitions, etc. needed for travel inside the U.K. and abroad for our “acts.” We laid on the receptions, publicity, reports. We found our speakers, films, videos, exhibits, performers, poets, and audiences. The three of us, I see in my records, organized 110 events in 1971.

I wanted one day to sit with my feet up on Y’s desk, sipping my coffee and calmly issuing orders. I must add that almost all my work in all my posts was self-generated. Still, I remembered Vienna and hoped it would be my last post before I retired.

In 1991, at 56, I finagled to get Vienna, my last post before retirement. However, I had no sooner put my feet up on my desk, sipped my excellent coffee and begun to edit a magazine story, before Moscow’s Evil Empire shockingly collapsed.

The Soviet Union, which had beaten Hitler’s 120 divisions in WW II , and in the Cold War had ruthlessly crushed mass uprisings in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany suddenly went soft. Nobody expected it, least of all the Kremlin itself, and certainly not any Western intelligence service. I attended an intelligence assessment gathering in Washington not long after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Representatives of our major intelligence allies were there to discover why they had not foreseen the collapse. Brits, Germans, French and others confessed their failure. Nobody knew what caused their failure, though faulty analysis of known information was the obvious culprit. That is often the problem in intelligence work.

In addition, no Western agency had a broad network of Russian sources inside the Soviet Union. Lacking that, political reporting was done mostly by Embassies with their very narrow windows into Soviet life, deliberately kept limited by the Soviet government. The CIA and others concentrated on military, technical, and top political opinions because those were very important and were what we could do somewhat via technical means. Those avoided the limits strictly enforced by the Soviet government.

By contrast, the Soviets had long-term top- level spies in the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, etc. Nonetheless, despite that, Moscow often misinterpreted their gathered intelligence.

In Vienna, an independent organization of the U.S. Information Agency, the Regional Program Office, included a printing house with four big four color presses, a 30- strong total of experts in translation, editing, design, exhibits, photography, printing, libraries, administrative and computer work. Our work was entirely to help U.S. Embassies in Communist Europe.

The collapse of Communism marked by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall meant two big things in my view. Hurrah, for the Evil Empire’s millions of oppressed people, and second, alack for me. After thirty years working against Communism, I wanted a relatively light final assignment for my personal part of the battle. I had suffered from workaholism my whole career and wanted to retire without intense work pressure.

Twenty years earlier, I had seen the RPO Director sitting at the same desk I coveted. His staff published some excellent magazines, and produced exhibits and other support for eight Central European and Russian posts. He did excellent work and still had time to enjoy Vienna. Now I was Director of the Regional Program Office.

Its flagship magazine, the monthly, America Illustrated, was directed mainly at the Soviet Union, but also appeared in Polish. It was excellent. It even won American publishing prizes. USIA in Washington, selected the best articles from American magazines and bought the rights. RPO translated and printed them in Russian and Polish. It was one of the premier ways the U.S. had to get past Soviet censorship. Under our bilateral accord, Moscow limited distribution of America Illustrated to 50,000 Russian copies. However, copies passed from hand to hand, so an estimated 50 people read each copy, until it fell apart. Moscow was allowed to circulate 50,000 copies of Soviet Life, its propaganda magazine, in the U.S. in exchange. It sold so badly that American agencies sometimes bought copies from newsstands to keep the circulation up so the Russians would not reduce the number of copies permitted to America Illustrated.

RPO also typeset a quarterly intellectual magazine, Dialogue, in Russian, Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Czechoslovakian, and Hungarian and printed four versions. RPO translated six versions and two were translated at post. Dialogue was a major piece of work for RPO and of significant influence among elites in the countries where it circulated.

RPO also made handsome photo exhibits for American Embassy public libraries in Communist countries. Our shop printed up to wall size color prints, about 8×12 feet. The mostly smaller photo exhibits hung in the American Embassy public library windows. We published the occasional art catalogue for Ambassadors whose official residences held outstanding American art, e.g., for Spaso House, the residence in Moscow. We also did routine printing (letterhead, envelopes, invitations, etc.) and computer work for all our posts. We e-mailed the daily official USIA Wireless File of U.S. news and views, and canned official feature stories, every morning to all posts. We made exhibits for many posts to mark special events.

All that worked beautifully until 1991. I had expected to sip my coffee, give directions, do some editing, officiate at staff retirements and work just 40 hour weeks until I retired in four years. Perfect! I had always worked very long hours and deserved an easy job at the end of my career.

However, Moscow’s reformist Communist General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, appeared on the Soviet scene. He perestroiked the USSR into collapse while trying to rescue its creaky administration and discredited politics.

Hard-line Kremlin men seized him at his dacha in the Crimea one weekend just a month after my first sip of that great coffee in Vienna. They muffed it. When I read that the coup had failed and Gorbachev went free, my heart sank for me, though it rose for the millions suffering under Communism. I believed that the hard line Communist failure to overthrow Gorbachev meant the end of the USSR and freedom for the Evil Empire’s people and its suppressed nationalities. That premonition came true.

I knew that would mean also, inevitably, new countries arising from the ruins of Moscow’s empire. Quite soon, new American Embassies I felt would be established in the new countries. The USSR did soon break up into 15 countries. The new governments welcomed American information efforts. So did new non-communist government in the Baltics and the Balkans.

For RPO I believed that meant we needed to translate, and to print many new languages from our little shop. Printing in local languages would demonstrate U.S. political respect for the new non- communist governments and their peoples.

Because Czechoslovakia broke into Czechs and Slovaks, we needed new typefaces for them; ditto for Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia which came out of the old Yugoslavia. Our printers, editors, translators and artists all worked to create the new language typefaces needed for printing at RPO, but we also needed new translators for many countries.

Russian had been imposed on them by Moscow, at least as a second language. Before Moscow collapsed, the Soviet government insisted we send only Russian translations to all parts of the USSR. Uzbeks and Ukrainians had to read America Illustrated in Russian, for example.

Instead of simply directing our Viennese staff to do their routine work, I found it absolutely necessary that I work intensely. seven days a week. That was just what I had hoped to escape in Vienna after a lifetime of self-imposed workaholism.

The day in August, 1991, when Gorbachev returned from his dacha to Moscow, a free man and still the General Secretary of the Communist Party, I called my staff together. I asked them to find me as soon as possible, good translators for the new countries or governments I felt would arise after the ruin of the Soviet empire. Two weeks later, none had been found though the staff checked all Austria and all their contacts beyond.

I needed new translators for Albanian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Belarusian, Estonian, Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Slovene, Tajik, Turkmen, Ukrainian, and Uzbek. We already had translators and could adapt in-house the typefaces for Slovak and Czech, Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian, when those countries emerged.

For Albanian, I had a brainstorm. I vaguely knew we had a Vienna listening post that did translations from Albanian into English for the CIA’s daily world roundup of radio and television news reports. I found the guy in Vienna who translated Albanian into English. I called him, and took him to lunch at the Embassy cafeteria. He agreed to become our Albanian translator. I gave him a copy of the U.S. Constitution and asked him to translate a couple pages. I sent his work to the Voice of America Albanian section in Washington, D.C. for checking. He got a perfect score. I hired him to translate the rest of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, our two most basic political documents. They told a lot about the U.S. and might even inspire Albanians as that country searched for political ideas for its own new constitution. Under Albania’s strict Stalinist Communist dictatorship, we had not even been permitted to have an Embassy in Albania.

With a translator on board, I asked my staff to find Albanian typefaces so we could print his translations. No luck commercially anywhere in Western Europe, but my enterprising Czech chief editor found a tiny Eastern Rite monastic order in Vienna. They had Albanian typefaces to print religious pamphlets they smuggled into Albania. We got their help and sent off to the U.S. Embassy, Tirana, the Constitution and the Declaration in Albanian. They gave them out to the new political leadership in less than a year after the fall of the dictatorship.

Most of the needed translators were still missing. I recalled that a friend was now Vice President of Radio Free Europe, the USG’s broadcasting service to Eastern Europe based in Munich. I called him and flew to see him for lunch. With his cooperation, I signed up 15 of his staff translators, all previously cleared and vetted as competent. I set them all to translate initially the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

We were still missing the Baltic state languages, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian. I made a trip in 1991 to meet professors of English in each country and added them to our stable of translators. We also obtained or made typefaces for each country and were able within a year and a half to print the Declaration and the Constitution in 18 of the 21 languages of formerly Communist Europe. We sent them to our Embassies to distribute to political leaders and universities hungry for authentic, basic political information about the United States. I hoped they also might inspire ideas for the new governments being organized throughout the region.

After the fall of Communism, we needed to meet the huge demand for information about the U.S. in countries fed almost exclusively anti-American propaganda for 70 years.

Europeans love exhibits. I thought we could make a cheap, handsome photographic exhibit based on a U.S. map we already had printed in nine languages. That map included on one side, 2,000 words of basic facts on U.S. geography, population, politics and history. I checked and the facts were 15 years old. My Deputy updated them. Our exhibits staff illustrated the facts with color photos from our 100,000 photo file. Two of the chosen photos used for the exhibit, I took during my recent holiday in the U.S. That was all our photo editor picked out of 200 I submitted to her. No favoritism for the boss there.

The exhibit cost only $500 per copy to make in our photo shop. It produced the beautiful color photos in 3′ x 2′ format. The photos were heat transferred onto sturdy Styrofoam boards seven feet high and three wide. A dozen boards, illustrated with photos and text on each side, stood up by themselves, zigzag. The individual boards were connected by flexible plastic bands. Each exhibit folded into two large cardboard packages. You simply pulled the exhibit out of the two big cardboard boxes in which we shipped it and stood it up on any flat surface.

Standing, it ran about 50 feet long and showed a total of 50 photos. They were big, and beautiful in excellent color. I had the printed text for each photo run in both English and the local language side by side. That way the exhibit served also as an English teaching tool. It was by far our most effective and cheap exhibit.

I knew posts needed very easy set up for exhibits. Headquarters had sent out for the U.S. Bicentennial a beautiful photo exhibit, but it was the very devil of complexity to set up. As our new Embassy staffs had zero exhibit technical ability, I had asked the RPO exhibits staff to come up with a plan to make it easy to set up. They did.

We produced about 70 copies of the exhibit in 31 languages and shipped them to USIS posts and U.S. Embassies. They gave them to local city halls, museums, universities, secondary schools, etc. In several countries the local school systems trucked them around for months from town to town until they were worn out. In several East European capitals, they were opened as a special show at the City Hall by the U.S. Ambassador. In some countries, all the panels were shown and read out loud on local television creating, a mini-seminar on the United States. For people hungry for accurate, true information about the U.S., the exhibits were a major and inexpensive success. Easily and cheaply shipped by air, they were the best idea I had in Vienna.

Shipping was easy for that show, but sending heavy objects was often a nightmare. Crooked border guards demanding bribes were just the icing on the cake of incompetence and confusion in the remnants of communist centrally planned economies.

Embassy Budapest, not that far from Vienna, complained bitterly that the computers we had promised them a month ago never arrived. We checked. They had been properly shipped and reached Budapest according to our meticulous shipping paper trails. No dice. Embassy Budapest said they never arrived. It was overwhelmed with work and asked us to find the badly needed computers. I sent our shipping expert. He went to the Budapest railroad shipping office where our paper trail ended. Nobody there knew which of the three Budapest rail warehouses might have the computers. He went to search each one, but found they had no working lights in their cavernous depths. Nobody would help him to search. He tried to buy a powerful flash light to search by himself. None were for sale anywhere. The economy had collapsed.We sent a computer expert with two big flashlights and extra batteries. Using them, they found the computers buried in the third warehouse, got them into a taxi, drove them to the Embassy and installed them.

In the Soviet Far East the only airline to many cities was Lufthansa. Our final copies of material to be edited by the local translator rarely arrived via the chaotic national post offices. One staffer cleverly went to the Vienna airport and gave Lufthansa pilots a bottle of Johnny Walker to carry our envelopes to the Embassy for us after he landed. The RPO staff were excellent.

Ironically, our own U.S. State Department was part of our problems. It had a warehouse in Helsinki. It received and stored new furniture for new Embassies in ex-communist Europe. It shipped the furniture in its own sealed trucks (border guards could not hold up or successfully demand bribes from diplomatically sealed trucks). We had sent a big computer shipment to Estonia via that State warehouse. It never got to Estonia. My dozen cables and telephone calls to the State Department Warehouse went unanswered. Exasperated, I took two Viennese experts (shipping and computers) with me to Helsinki. We found the missing computers behind some State Department furniture in the warehouse.

Welcome to the planned American economy. I helped lug them in their heavy diplomatically sealed canvas bags onto the ferry boat from Helsinki to Estonia. Once there, my guys installed them so the post could send email to Washington, for the dozens of problems that came up installing a new diplomatic post. The new computers also let them receive and distribute our daily U.S. government wireless file of U.S. news and official statements. Those were passed to local media.

I went with my two experts to all the Baltic capitals. They installed computers and taught the new local staff how to use computers and U.S. official administrative procedures. I wrote up with the local Public Affairs Officer, orders for American books, magazines and furniture for our new public libraries. I met with professors of English and hired one in each country to do our translations, initially for the U.S. Constitution and Declaration.

My Administrative expert trained the new local employees in how to set up and maintain records, how to order equipment, how to use the official U.S. Government accounting system, etc. My computer guy had brought lots of cables, connectors, etc. all needed and not available locally. He got the e-mail systems up and running and left behind spare parts.

Local telephones were literally almost useless back then. They often did not work. The Embassy relied on hugely expensive per minute satellite phones to talk to Vienna or Washington. The email system saved tons of money for the huge amount of administrative work that goes into creating a new post.

My experience in African posts with chaotic local government and services came in handy dealing with similar conditions in ex-Communist countries. Doing business was so hard mostly from plain incompetence and dysfunctional local government services.

Even local electric power often went out. I offered posts cheap Japanese gasoline-driven power generators. They could power a computer, and a couple light bulbs indefinitely to keep the office running in emergencies. The exhaust could easily be run outside so the generator could stay inside and unfrozen without the exhaust choking our staff. We had to buy everything from trucks to batteries for the posts, but it all helped.The RPO staff did a great job dealing with the problems that came with a sea change in their target communist countries. And, while it was tiring, the results were truly gratifying and left me with warm memories of my final tour in Vienna snows.End.

 

Author Bob Baker: 5 years intelligence analyst (USIA IRS); passed FSO exam; A-100 class; French language training; first post: Kampala, Uganda; next: Bamako, Mali; a year as a producer trainee, WETA; posted to London, Bonn, Berlin, Sydney, Los Angeles (Foreign Media Center), Vienna Regional Programs Office; retired in 1992; currently writing memoirs in LA.

 

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