Those who have an interest in the beginnings and modalities of a diplomatic career likely will find this article informative. With the permission of the interviewee and the publishers of “English,” based in Moscow, American Diplomacy offers below extended interview transcript excerpts on one man’s attraction to a career in the U. S. Foreign Service and his special fascination with Russia.The son of a Foreign Service officer, John Brown ended his twenty-two-year Service career by resigning his commission in 2003 on the outset of the Iraq War. Since then he has been associated with Georgetown Univ. and the Univ. of Southern California. He has provided commentaries on occasion to this journal.—Ed.
An interview for readers of “English” with John Brown, former U.S. Cultural Attache to the Russian Federation 1998-2001, who resigned from the State Department in March 2003 to protest the Bush administration’s war plans against Iraq. (John Brown has also been a periodic contributor to “English” over the years.) John was interviewed by “English’s” Stephen Lapeyrouse.
SL: John, you were in the diplomatic service for 22 years. How did \you choose this profession, and what were some of the postings you had before you came to Moscow? Did you enjoy the work, and why?
Diplomacy ran in the family. My father, whom I admired greatly, served as a diplomat in Western Europe and Mexico from the early 1950s to the late 1960s. He was a poet and writer who never saw the Foreign Service as a bureaucratic endeavor or career move. Indeed, in one of his hundreds of articles he compared his work as cultural attache to making love – not exactly the kind of statement you’ll find in a State Department press release! Needless to say, few diplomats think that love has anything to do with foreign relations, despite some of the implications of the term “foreign relations.” So, my father was not a “typical” State Department official.
Aside from being genetically disposed to follow my father’s footsteps, there was another reason why I joined the Foreign Service. I needed a job. After getting my Ph.D. in Russian History from Princeton in 1977, I realized that employment opportunities for aspiring scholars were very limited. Moreover, I always found American academic life somewhat restrictive, with its emphasis on the production of specialized research that could be “sold” to the rest of academe as a way to get tenure. Indeed, I remember one of my dissertation advisers asking me, “Brown, when are you going to get a job?” I tried to answer as humorously as possible by saying that “I never wanted to work anyway.”
Well, more seriously, I did find work in areas that interested me: for several years I was employed as a teacher, archivist, and editor. I was involved in two interesting research projects: the compilation of a catalogue describing materials pertaining to Russia and the U.S.S.R. in American archives and manuscript repositories; and the publication of a book of documentary materials, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815, which appeared in both Russian- and English-language editions.
In 1980, I passed the Foreign Service exam and joined the Foreign Service a year later. My first posting was in London. I always say that I was sent to such a cushy assignment by computer error: John Brown is a common American name and perhaps (I thought) “they chose the wrong John Brown.” In any case, I was in London for two years, as a junior officer trainee. I found London a great place to be, but I must confess that I didn’t feel I was being used in a way that did justice to the taxpayers paying my salary.
This leads me to the third reason for joining the Foreign Service: I wanted to serve in Russia. The country’s culture had interested me since my high school days, and the language was a constant intellectual challenge. (Americans say, a propos of learning Russian, that the first twenty years are the easiest.) Before being assigned to Russia, I served in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, and Serbia. By the time I arrived in Russia in 1998 as cultural attache, I spoke a kind of pan-Slavic that was, I regret to admit, perhaps comprehensible only to myself. While in Moscow, cab drivers used to tell me on repeated occasions, with smiles on their faces: “You know, you don’t speak Russian badly for a Czech (or Pole, or Serb…)”.
I greatly enjoyed my work in Moscow, although it did take time to adjust to the city. I had spent a year in Leningrad as a student in 1973-74 under an IREX/Fulbright Fellowship to complete my dissertation research on 18th century Russian history, and had developed some of the prejudices of the inhabitants of the “Venice of the North” toward the “bol’shaya derevnya” to the southeast. But after six months in Moscow I felt I really got into the swing of things – meeting fascinating people in academe and the arts, and going to cultural events throughout the city several times a week.
Like New York (no two cities are more alike), Moscow is a town that never sleeps, full of energy; sometimes magnificent, sometimes – let’s admit it – not so magnificent (I did not, for example, always enjoy being hit with elbows while riding the crowded Moscow subway); but always challenging intellectually and emotionally. Working with Russian partners, my colleagues and I at the embassy organized several cultural events that I hope were important: an Andy Warhol exhibit; a festival of classic American films; a two-day concert commemorating the fifth anniversary of the death of the VOA jazz great Willis Conover; American ballet presentations. And I always enjoyed meeting with your English Language Evenings (www.ELEMoscow.net) to talk about American culture (among other subjects).
I always felt, however, that I was not doing enough to expand U. S.-Russian cultural relations. This was due in part to the very limited funding and support that the State Department provides for the display of American culture abroad. I was embarrassed when Russian friends told me that, in contrast to the French, Germans, British, and Japanese, the U. S. did little in the field of culture. I would try to “explain” this as best as I could by saying that the U. S. didn’t have a ministry of culture, but that argument didn’t get me very far with the Moscow intelligentsia.
Travel was an essential part of my job in Russia, and I visited cities outside the capital as often as I could — Nizhniy Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Samara, Saratov, Tomsk, Ufa, Volgograd, Yaroslavl, among others (regrettably, I never made it to the Pacific, to Vladivostok). I found meeting with local audiences exhilarating. I’d talk on various topics – “Re-Inventing Oneself in America,” “The Work Ethic in the United States” – but my main aim was to engage in intellectual exchanges with my Russian interlocutors.
Another important part of my job was managing (perhaps too strong a word) educational exchange programs funded by the U.S. government, and making sure these programs were coordinated with our Russian colleagues and with the NGOs [non-government organizations] implementing them. Thousands of persons have taken part in these programs, and I hope that they will continue, although funding for them is becoming harder and harder to obtain from Congress. America has become “Middle-East focused” and – allow me to be candid – Russia does not stir the same interest in the U.S. as during the “bad old days” of communism. What an irony: Perhaps we should have remained enemies so that our educational exchange programs could continue!
So then John, I must ask you how many years ago now, did you first become interested in Russia? What year was that? And was it with its literature? What authors?
And you came to Leningrad in 1973-74; what do you especially recall from that experience?
I think I was not untypical among my “baby boomer” generation (persons born after World War II, between 1945 and 1964) in being interested in Russia. Aren’t you, Steve, part of that, shall I call it distinguished [smiles], group? The USSR (most Americans did not distinguish between Russia and the Soviet Union) seemed like a fascinating place. Fascinating because of its peculiar alphabet and language; its unique history and culture; and its extraordinary scientific and sports achievements. Russia, let’s face it, also inspired fear: its nuclear weapons and huge army seemed quite threatening. I’m sure few people my age don’t remember the military parades on Red Square, with their eerie (to Westerners) massive displays of missiles and tanks. They were not exactly reassuring, but did create an interest – slightly morbid, I must say – in the kind of society that created them.
Russia, in other words, appeared to be a completely different world, and as such led curious young people like myself to try to find out more about it (the beauty of Russian women, such a contrast to the stern, unsmiling faces of its Soviet generals, was an added stimulus). I began to read 19th century Russian literature in my teens, and had caught the Russian “bug” after finishing Crime and Punishment. (If I had to choose, however… the writer I would most prefer to read over and over again is Turgenev. Blame it on the five years I spent in France as a child.) As I mentioned, I went on to specialize in Russian History, writing my dissertation on the eighteenth-century provincial Russian nobleman, Andrei Timofeevich Bolotov (1738-1833).
At the risk of boring you by talking about my research topic, let me say that the main question of my thesis was the following: Did Bolotov’s familiarity with Western culture, which he learned about during his military service in the Baltics and through his extensive reading, lead him to feel uprooted or alienated from Russian reality (specifically, his own country estate)? Did, in other words, Bolotov’s acquired Western culture cause him to be uninterested in Russian agriculture? My conclusion, after reading Bolotov’s numerous published and unpublished works, was that the fact that he was “Westernized” didn’t mean that he didn’t care about his Russian land around him. Indeed, Bolotov was Russia’s first agronomist, and wrote voluminously about the Russian rural economy. To be sure, Bolotov was a dvorianin (but not of very high rank) who was a proud member of his class, and his remarks on the Russian peasantry show his prejudices against those who actually worked the land. He also considered himself a state servant rather than a member of an independent, “free” landed gentry in the British sense. But still Bolotov wanted to improve, as best he could, his modest pomest’e – as is also indicated by his infatuation with gardening, especially pomology. Some of his writing contains fascinating passages on his efforts to introduce potatoes on his estate – to the initial opposition of his serfs.
When I was back in Russia as a diplomat, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Bolotov museum/estate near Tula. In a way, it was like going home, for I spent nearly five years researching and writing about Bolotov and his works. He had become a kind of “dyadya” in my life. At last I saw where he had actually lived! And much has been written about Bolotov in recent years by scholars.
I did most of my archival research for my dissertation in Leningrad in 1973-74, where I lived at the obshchezhitie Shevchenko for over a year. My roommate, who was from Volodga, and I had a deal: He would cook his great mushroom soup and I’d buy whiskey at the hard currency store. It was a very workable and enjoyable arrangement. I made good friends during my student year in Leningrad, although of course contacts with foreigners were quite restricted then. In a way I was living in a bubble and never got to see the “real” Soviet Union. Today’s Russia, while less “exotic” than the USSR, is a far better place to get to really know people.
But you wanted to know more about my other postings before coming to Moscow in 1998. I was in Prague in 1983-1985, and had a very close relationship with the Jazz Section, a group of young people that found music a form of escape, if not liberation, from the repressive Czechoslovak regime of that time. In 1986-1990, I served in Krakow, Poland, a very exciting time indeed, when Solidarity achieved many of its aspirations, and I got to know a large number of talented persons in that college town (its Jagiellonian University is among the oldest in Europe) with whom I could exchange views on important matters, including the role of the United States in Eastern Europe. After a brief posting in Washington and some time in Tallinn, I was in charge of the press and cultural section in Kiev (1993-1995), where I helped establish the first (and regrettably last) “America House” in the former Soviet Union. From 1995 to 1998, I was posted in Belgrade, where my main role was to handle press matters “on the ground” during the U.S. efforts to end the conflict in the Balkans. And then, to my enormous satisfaction, I was off to Moscow…
So yes, you can characterize me as a dangerous, twenty-plus-year agent of American cultural imperialism [smiles]. But let me cite my father when he was asked what he “did” as a cultural attache. My father replied as follows: “As little mischief as possible.” That is the example I followed in my career in the Foreign Service.
Fine. Quite interesting. East vs West in 18th century Russia in the person of Bolotov. I can imagine your excitement at finally visiting his estate! . .ƒ.
. . . Well, then finally… did you ever regret your decision to resign?
You know the Edith Piaf song, “Je ne regrette rien” [I regret nothing]. Since leaving the foreign service I have been writing, editing, teaching, lecturing and compiling my “Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review” (PDPBR), which summarizes articles on current issues in U.S. foreign policy, international broadcasting and media, propaganda, cultural diplomacy, educational exchanges, anti-Americanism, and the reception of American popular culture abroad. If your readers would like to be on the free PDPBR listserv, they can send me an e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Some items in the PDPBR also pertain to Russia, as the Russian government is showing an increasing interest in public diplomacy, which is an effort by governments to inform, engage, and influence public opinion in other countries.
We certainly hope you will visit us in Moscow in coming years.
Russia continues to be an important part of my life and I do hope to return there as often as possible. Did I ever tell you my favorite Russian expression? “Pozhar idet po planu.” In many ways that is the story of my life.
Republished by permission.