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by Peter Bridges

Putin’s recent expulsion of hundreds of our colleagues serving at our embassy and consulates in Russia reminded me of my own service in Moscow in the 1960s. You may call this ancient history, though it doesn’t seem so ancient to me. Stalin had been in his grave for a decade, and dear Nikita Khrushchev was now in charge. Under Stalin, two and a half million people had been prisoners in the deadly Gulag camps. Thousands of poor haggard people had been released, and some of the system’s more notable deceased victims were even “posthumously rehabilitated.” The Gulag had officially been closed down in 1960—but an estimated three-quarters of a million inhabitants of the USSR were still in the horrid camps. And nothing had been done to lessen the role of the KGB, at least so far as we could see.

Indeed it seemed to us in the embassy that orders must have been sent out to the Soviet goons and cops to be ever more vigilant in guarding the rodina, the homeland, against us crafty imperialist agents. Certainly, too, the average Soviet citizen still lived in dread of the secret police. Even if the cops had eased up a little for now, tomorrow could well bring a return of terror. The Soviet Constitution of 1936, which said it “guaranteed inviolability of the person,” had always been a sham.

Of course the KGB was not supposed to touch foreign diplomats, given our diplomatic immunity. Still they did so, on occasion. Two of our military attachés visited Odessa and woke up in their hotel room late in the morning, realizing that they had been gassed and their belongings had been ransacked. Sometime after I left Moscow we opened a consulate general in what was then Leningrad. Early one morning our consul general went out on his usual run, and was joined by two hefty fellow runners who jogged alongside him for a bit and then knocked him into a wall, fracturing his shoulder. The consul general was Jewish. This was the KGB’s delicate way of warning us to stop looking into the plight of Soviet Jews.

Such things didn’t happen often, thank heaven. But even if we were not often gassed or knocked into walls, and didn’t have to kowtow to the regime the way that Russians did, the pressures on us from living in this police state were considerable. It was true that the Soviet state was not altogether efficient. The economy, in particular, was terribly inefficient, and eventually the structure would begin to crack. Meanwhile, however, in keeping order—their kind of order, the kind the Tsars had invented but the KGB had improved on—the Soviets were quite efficient. Saying a little too much could still win a citizen eight or ten years in Siberian exile or a labor camp. In Stalin’s time it would have been worse, a 25-year sentence with a good chance of death during that period.

So we lived in the midst of this cruel system and were outraged but could do little about it, although if one was young one might at least engage in some wishful thinking. One day in Moscow my five-year-old son drew a picture of our embassy with American jet fighters flying over it.

Each of the two entrances to our embassy on Chaikovsky Street was flanked day and night by two burly uniformed militsionery or “militiamen.” They were called militia because the Soviet state said it had abolished police as an instrument of capitalist repression. In fact the burly types were neither police nor any sort of militia, but KGB agents in militia uniforms. They were there to prevent anyone from entering our premises whom they could not identify either as a member of the embassy or as someone who had a documented reason to visit the embassy.

Sometimes I would come back to the embassy on a day of cold rain or snow, and find the two militsionery taking shelter under our gateway. I would take pleasure then (not much, but a little pleasure) in warning them off our property and out into the elements.

We could rarely do more than that. True, there was the case of the security technician whom the Germans brought in from Bonn to look for listening devices in their embassy. He found some, and traced them to a wire that led to a neighboring building. He decided maliciously to send a strong electric current out this wire, and it must literally have burned the ears of the KGB listeners.

The following Sunday, before returning to Bonn, the technician went with several of his German colleagues to visit the only functioning Orthodox monastery, north of Moscow at Zagorsk. They were standing in a crowded church listening to the noble liturgy when he felt a liquid running down his trouser leg. It seemed someone had carelessly spilled a bottle onto him. The next day the man fell sick, and they took him to see the only Western physician in Moscow, the U.S. military doctor on our embassy staff. Our man examined him and, although he had never seen such a case, correctly diagnosed it as poisoning by liquified mustard gas. The man needed to be evacuated to the West immediately; but for over a day the Intourist agency, which handled ticketing for all airlines flying to and from Moscow, insisted that there were no seats available on westbound flights. Eventually he got to Frankfurt. Whether he survived I never knew.

As I look back now I can laugh—a little—at what our Moscow experience did to us. My first year in the embassy I was the assistant general services officer, a long title that covered a dull job. Under the tutelage of the senior GSO, an experienced admin type, I supervised the embassy motor pool and Soviet janitorial staff and ordered forms and supplies. I did my best to keep in operation the Soviet-made elevators that liked to break down late on a Friday afternoon. I hoped that after a year the ambassador would agree to make me a political officer, a more interesting and surely no less challenging job, trying to decipher and report to Washington what was going on in this super-closed society.

Once, for a moment, I thought I had achieved a minor success in my job. I got the UPDK to agree they would provide us 50 Christmas trees. The UPDK was the Administration for Services to the Diplomatic Corps. It claimed to help the foreign embassies in Moscow, and it did provide us good theater tickets, vodka, and caviar at low prices; but it was really part of the KGB, and what it mainly did was spy on us. All Soviet employees, including maids and babysitters, had to be hired through the UPDK. Not all of these were professional intelligence officers, but they all had to report on us. Our mousy maid, Liliya, always flinched if I came near her purse, which she usually left atop the refrigerator. My guess was that she kept a small camera in it, just in case she came on an interesting letter when we were out.

But I had almost charitable feelings toward the UPDK when they said they could provide us Christmas trees. One frosty Saturday morning in December, our Russian yard foreman, Ivan Mikhailovich, and I drove the embassy’s panel truck to some anonymous courtyard on Hertzen Street. And there were the trees! Not tall ones, to be sure, but big enough. We loaded them into the truck, and a half hour later a member of every embassy family was grabbing a little tree to take home.

On Monday morning I began to get phone calls from my colleagues. My fuming colleagues. The trees had been cut long ago and had been long frozen. When they were carried into warm living rooms they knew immediately what to do: shed all their needles. The American families were, to put it mildly, disappointed. There were no other Christmas trees for sale in Moscow, and it would do no good to return these trees to the KGB, which is to say UPDK.

At this point I learned that the most important function of the assistant general services officer was to serve as scapegoat. My colleagues had been storing up a lot of grievances, a lot of hatred, over what they experienced in that grim capital, but there was no way they could take it out on the KGB. So they took it out on me, that Monday morning. I accepted their complaints for a while. Finally, though, when one of my colleagues said I had ruined his family’s Christmas, I replied not very politely that if a tree meant all that much, he obviously knew neither spiritual joy nor family love—and, as far as religion was concerned, he could go to Hell. He did not speak to me for some time, but finally had to call me because his toilet was leaking. I suppose I must have sent someone to fix it. Or did I?

I am not denying that life in Moscow had an effect on me as well as on others. I did not stop loving my wife, and I think that she and I were no less affectionate with our three children than we had been. When spring came, she began to talk of finding an inexpensive place in Bavaria where we could spend our summer vacation. What I was thinking, though, was that the four of them could go to the Alps but it would be without me.

I wanted to get away from everything—from the Soviet system and the Russian nation and the American embassy and my own family. I had it all planned out. We were not flush but I could afford it. My family would go to Bavaria but I was going to take the train from Moscow to Copenhagen, a long journey but cheap enough in second class. Then I was going to take, for very little money in third class, the weekly ship from Copenhagen to Reykjavik, and then I was going to walk into the middle of Iceland, all by myself. In the end, my wife and children and I together took a succession of trains to Garmisch and spent three pleasant weeks hiking mountain trails. But that had not been my initial plan.

As I looked about me in Moscow that spring, I could see that the Soviet scene affected Americans in differing ways. One colleague developed a bad facial tic. Another visibly turned alcoholic, although I think he had been leaning that way for some time. Most of us, in fact, probably drank more than we had before coming to Moscow, and Stolichnaya vodka could be bought for only a dozen dollars a case through UPDK, which kindly wanted to make sure we had plenty of it.

On the other hand, a few Americans seemed at least outwardly to be relatively unaffected by the pressures of life in the KGB’s kingdom. My first job in the Foreign Service had been as a junior officer on the State Department’s Soviet desk. My colleague, and soon fast friend, Virginia James had worked there for years, and she had accumulated several cabinets of classified files that should have been retired to the archives. I was glad they had not; on an occasional slow afternoon I would browse in the cabinets, and I usually found interesting stuff—like the case of an officer I will call James X, who had served in Moscow some years earlier. It seemed that the Soviet goons had paid him particular attention, but for a time he seemed unbothered by it.

James, who did not like people to call him Jim, was a middle-ranking political officer. He was our Asia hand; he had served earlier at Seoul and Hong Kong. His main job was to report to Washington on Soviet relations with Asia, and in particular on Moscow’s already vexed relationship with Beijing. The job of a political officer in Moscow, as I was discovering—I had now gotten my transfer from general services to the political section—was a little like trying to analyze events on the far side of a windowless wall. But it had to be done, and James was assiduous (as were the rest of us) in pursuing information. The CIA was of course engaged in its own inquiries into Soviet-Chinese relations, using clandestine means, but I don’t think they came up with many more answers than James X did.

James spent a lot of time exchanging views with officers of friendly Asian embassies in Moscow, not to include the Chinese with whom we still had no relations. He would also go down to Lenin Library once or twice a week, to read newspapers published in cities like Khabarovsk that were on or near the Chinese border. We were not permitted to subscribe to newspapers published in the Soviet Far East, but curiously we could get access to them in the Library and occasionally, just occasionally, James could learn something from them that Pravda and Izvestiya had forgotten to report. I remember, too, that he went frequently to Moscow State University, and to one or two institutes concerned with Asian matters, to hear lecturers and scholars defending their dissertations. He managed one trip to Siberia, but that produced little on China.

After several months it appeared the KGB was taking a special interest in James. He went to lunch one day at the Aragvi restaurant with the first secretary of the Indian embassy, and he reported afterward that when he came out of the restaurant he had been approached by a pretty Russian girl, who began by asking directions to the Arbat and was soon propositioning him. James was a bachelor but not, it seemed, a prude. In any case he resisted the girl’s approach; she was obviously working for the KGB.

Soon, he found, the goons were following him closely, if indeed they hadn’t been doing so earlier. The KGB presumably had no limits on hiring, and certainly had more than enough people to shadow all the Americans in town. There were not so many of us, anyway; our embassy staff then numbered about three dozen Americans, plus spouses and children. That was pretty much the whole American colony. There were still no American resident businessmen in Moscow, other than the Pan American Airways representative.

The Soviet goons were good at their work. When I was in Moscow I was not always aware of being tailed. James was, though. I read in the file that he reported they were dogging his footsteps every time he went out; not right on his heels, but if he looked back the tail was always there, just down the sidewalk. Sometimes he saw several of them. At the Bolshoi Theater he would find himself sitting next to a Russian who seemed to take a particular interest in him, and who would follow him to the foyer at intermission. When he made a phone call, he could usually hear a curious noise on the line. Eventually it became clear that he was quite worried by it all. Well, such was life in Moscow.

It may have been a month after the pretty girl had accosted him at the Aragvi that James went one day to see our security officer, whom I will call Dick Jones. He told Jones that things were taking a new turn. They were using a new surveillance technique on him, especially at his apartment building, and he found it particularly troubling. The walls had ears, he continued (and that was literally true in Moscow), so he didn’t want to talk about it in the embassy, but if Dick could come by his place that evening after supper James could show him what he meant.

James lived in an apartment complex on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, about a mile beyond the embassy, a complex that was inhabited partly by foreign diplomats and partly by Russian families. Dick Jones reported later that he had strolled out there at around eight o’clock. It was an evening in late May, and still full daylight in Moscow when he rang James’s bell. James’s apartment was one floor above street level. It had a living-dining room, kitchen, and bedroom all in a line, each with a window or two looking into the building’s large inner courtyard.

James let Jones in, pressed his finger to his lips for silence, and led him to an open window overlooking the courtyard. Jones looked at him and could see he was very nervous. Then Jones looked out. In the grubby yard two kids were playing on a seesaw. Three or four others were kicking a soccer ball around. There was a middle-sized dog, a kind of dirty terrier, sitting near the children on the seesaw. The dog looked up at the two men who appeared in the window.

“You see?” said James, who was obviously upset.

“See what?” said Dick.

“‘The dog, you damned fool, the dog. Every time I look out, he’s there. Every time I come home, he’s on the street. He followed me all the way to the embassy this morning. The bastards didn’t think I’d notice, but I have; I have. What can we do about it?”

Well, we sent James home. We never learned what effect that had on the dog’s career.

This article previously appeared in Eclectica Magazine (January/February 2018). Reprinted with permission.


Peter Bridges retired from the Foreign Service in 1986 after serving on four continents, ending as ambassador to Somalia. Earlier he had been a junior officer on the State Department Soviet desk (“Old Times on the Soviet Desk,” American Diplomacy January 2016,, and a political officer in Moscow.


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