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by Jonathan Rickert

One of the more unusual Foreign Service positions found at a few of our largest embassies, at least in the 1960s, was that of fulltime staff aide to the ambassador. At missions such as those in London, Paris, and Tokyo, the incumbent, virtually always male in those days and usually a seasoned FSO, might serve as liaison with the embassy’s Foreign Service staff, handle protocol, and, especially if the ambassador was a political appointee, advise his boss on relevant regulations, local customs and personalities. In short, the staff aide was there to do whatever the chief of mission needed or wanted him to do.

The staff aide position in Moscow, however, was unusual, if not unique, as my job description there for 1966-1968 makes clear. It states, inter alia, that “the aide is responsible both to the ambassador and the ambassador’s wife and does, of necessity, live as a member of the ambassador’s family.” I had my own kitchen-less two-room, ground floor apartment at Spaso House, the ambassador’s residence, and usually ate two meals a day, for which I paid monthly, with the ambassador and his family. Again, in the words of my job description, “the responsibilities of the staff aide are to make the life of the ambassador and his wife as smooth and free from petty problems and administrative details as possible.” Moreover, “high on the list of the aide’s duties is the management of the residence,” i.e., Spaso House. In other words, as staff aide in Moscow, I worked as much for the ambassador’s wife, not a US government employee, as for the ambassador himself.

Spaso House, 1960s: Thompson family photo

How did one become staff aide in Moscow? The much more recent bidding system for Foreign Service assignments did not exist in those days – employees annually indicated three rank-ordered, broad geographic preferences, e.g., Western Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Department took it from there. There was no formal mechanism for expressing interest in a specific job. Although as a Russian speaker I hoped to serve eventually in the Soviet Union, I was an unmarried junior officer assigned to the Department for his first tour and therefore had zero expectation of going to Moscow in the near term. (For security reasons, almost all male FSOs serving in Moscow in those days had to be married.)

As best I could tell, there were three basic qualifications for the Moscow staff aide position: the incumbent must speak Russian, be single and male, and have served at least one tour of duty abroad. The current ambassador, Foy Kohler in my case, got to choose his staff aide. He apparently did so solely on the basis of my file –  neither he nor anyone else ever interviewed me for the job, and I simply was asked if I would be interested in going. I jumped at the chance. Perhaps no other candidates with the requisite qualifications were available to choose from – who knows? The fact that I had never served abroad was finessed by sending me to London as Vice Consul for a year before my scheduled arrival in Moscow.

When I reached Moscow in the fall of 1966 as the Embassy’s most junior FSO, Ambassador Kohler was about to leave, while Ambassador Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson’s arrival was several weeks off. The Spaso House staff was sizable and heterogeneous. It included two Chinese butlers, both technically citizens of the Peoples Republic of China; an Italian major domo, chef, and maid; and 16 Soviet employees, mostly maids and gardeners/yard men. Clemente Pandin, the major domo, had general charge of the household staff under my direction, while I was to receive my marching orders from the Ambassador’s wife, Mrs. Jane Thompson.

Aside from my duties in managing the Spaso House staff, including those in the kitchen, I also was responsible for ordering, stocking, and accounting for food, beverages, and other supplies; acting as administrative control officer for official visitors to the Embassy; planning and carrying out representation functions at the direction of the Ambassador and his wife; maintaining the Ambassador’s schedules, making arrangements for his travel, and providing liaison between the Ambassador’s office and other sections of the Embassy; and serving as the Embassy’s protocol officer. A wide-ranging list of responsibilities for a very inexperienced junior officer!

One of my first tasks after arriving in Moscow was to help deal with the death of Chin, who along with Tang was one of two long-time Chinese domestic employees at Spaso House. Both were fixtures there, having begun their employment around 1940. The two are mentioned at some length in George Kennan’s Memoirs: 1950-1963, as well as in Jenny and Sherry Thompson’s biography of their father, whose three tours in Moscow included two as ambassador.

Chin was seriously ill with cancer when I arrived, and despite the ministrations of the embassy doctor and medications imported from the US, he died on November 29. We were between Ambassadors at the time, and since as staff aide I was living at Spaso House, it fell to me to make Chin’s burial arrangements, in collaboration with the Embassy’s administrative section. One problem we faced was the adamant opposition of Chin’s Russian widow to having an autopsy performed on him, as was the usual Soviet practice. That put us in an awkward position, since Chin technically was a citizen of China, a country with which the United States did not then have diplomatic relations. We therefore lacked a legal basis for making such a request of the Soviet authorities.

In response to the widow’s wishes, however, I wrote a diplomatic note to the Soviet Foreign Ministry on behalf of the embassy’s deceased employee requesting that an autopsy not be performed. For reasons unknown to me at least, the autopsy requirement was waived in Chin’s case. On November 30, the day of the burial — there was no funeral or memorial service as such – Chin’s plain wooden open coffin was placed on the back of an embassy flatbed truck and driven to the cemetery.

It was a cold, dark, and gloomy day, with light snow flurries hanging in the wind. Chargé d’affaires John Guthrie and a few others from the embassy attended, along with members of Chin’s family. As I noted at the time, “a bleak, tearful, and dreary affair” that mercifully was over quickly. Other burials were taking place nearby. “All very Russian,” I wrote, “with off-key brass, weeping women, and swirling snow.” Though I no longer recall the name of the cemetery where Chin was buried, I could not help but notice that it was conveniently, if perhaps coincidentally, located directly across the road from a major hospital. Welcome to Moscow!

The next two years were to be educational, demanding, boring at times, exhilarating, and ultimately life changing – I was to meet my future wife, an employee of the Swedish embassy, during the second half of my tour. Buying food and overseeing its procurement locally were two of my duties. Fortunato, the chef, did the local food purchasing and then provided me with lengthy handwritten lists of what he had bought and how much he had paid. We obtained many items that were unavailable locally through a US military commissary in Germany and others, including alcoholic beverages and specialty items, from export houses in Denmark and Italy. Ambassador Thompson had an arrangement with the embassy in Stockholm to send him cases of Soave, his favorite Italian table wine, from the Swedish state wine and spirits monopoly, at a cost of $.39 per bottle! He enjoyed quizzing guests as to the price of the wine he served them.

With major domo Clemente mostly successfully riding herd on the primarily Soviet household staff, my main responsibility with them was paying their salaries. My biggest headache with the Soviet staff, especially in the winter, was keeping after the gardeners/yard men (dvorniki). They tended to do as little as possible except when under direct observation. One of their main duties was to ascend to the Spaso House roof to remove snow and ice. Failure to do so could, and on at least a couple of occasions did, lead to water leakage into the upstairs bedrooms, in which case I was to blame.

Among the most enjoyable and enlightening aspects of my job was dealing with the Thompsons’ many official and private guests, a few of whom stayed at Spaso House, while others came for luncheons or dinners. The Thompsons generously included me in most of their meals for visitors and other guests. In addition to the local ambassadors, they ranged from the likes of Richard Nixon, Mr. and Mrs. Robert McNamara, Mr. and Mrs. McGeorge Bundy, Senators Allen Ellender and Vance Hartke, George Romney, and Arthur Schlessinger in the government and political sphere, to Katherine Graham, Scotty Reston, and Harrison Salisbury in the media field, to Dinah Shore, Sandy Dennis, Sol Hurok, Lillian Hellman, Fitzroy Maclean, and John Casey in what might broadly be called the world of arts and letters. Guests also included such senior US diplomats as Chip Bohlen, Foy Kohler, and Mac Toon. As it was a chilly period in US-Soviet relations, largely due to the Vietnam war, few Soviet guests of any note came to Spaso House, with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin a rare exception. Being in the presence of and interacting with so many luminaries was a heady experience for me.

Although it was not officially part of my job, Ambassador Thompson encouraged me to visit as much of the country as possible when opportunities to do so arose, which I gladly did. The embassy had a standing rule that, for security reasons, no one traveled alone within the country. Thus, I was in occasional demand as a traveling companion for those who had official business outside of Moscow, most frequently for publications procurement. As a consequence, I was able to make trips to such major cities as Leningrad and Kiev, as well as to more provincial ones such as Ufa, Kazan, Khabarovsk, Yerevan, Rostov na Donu, Tula, Vladimir, Suzdal, Kursk, Yaroslavl, Uglich, and Zavidovo. Such trips could be eye openers in underscoring the significant differences in living standards between the major urban centers and provincial outliers. I also found that, at least in some cases, the people one met away from Moscow were more curious and willing to talk with foreign diplomats, even Americans.

My two-plus years in Moscow passed by eventfully and quickly. I learned and saw much that was new to me, some of it in connection with my official staff aide duties and other parts stemming from my life away from the job. (A few of my experiences appear in articles and letters to the editor that I have written for the Foreign Service Journal and American Diplomacy quarterly.) A brief summary of some of the more interesting ones follows: several meals with Richard Nixon and the opportunity to hear him hold forth on a wide range of foreign policy topics; two days acting as “tour guide” for Mr. and Mrs. Robert McNamara in and around Moscow; hearing impresario Sol Hurok, over a meal, describe US-Soviet cultural exchanges as “we send them our Jewish violinists from Odessa and they send us their Jewish violinists from Odessa”; listening to Ambassador Thompson’s fascinating stories about life in Moscow under siege during World War II; helping to arrange for the baptism of the PanAm representative’s infant son by an Anglican priest in a village Russian Orthodox church; being on the receiving end of a presumed KGB-instigated seduction attempt in Ufa; learning the hard way from top Bolshoi ballet dancer Maris Liepa not to refer to ethnic Latvians as Russians; attending packed Orthodox Easter services at several churches at the Zagorsk monastery complex; chatting with Katherine Graham about my experience as a Washington Post delivery boy in the early 1950s; dealing with a uniformed but unarmed Soviet soldier who had made his way into Spaso House in the middle of the night; and discussing with a village Orthodox priest the surprisingly large (at least to me) number of baptisms that he claimed to have performed. And the list goes on – I haven’t even mentioned the challenges involved in courting my future wife in such a closed and difficult environment.

As I understand it, the staff aide position as I experienced it in Moscow no longer exists, and that, for a number of reasons, doubtless is a good thing. Nevertheless, filling that job when and how I did was a unique experience and one that I still, even so many years later, recall with gratitude and appreciation.End.



Jonathan B. Rickert

Retired Senior Foreign Service officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent over 35 years of his career in London, Moscow, Vienna, Port of Spain, Sofia, and Bucharest (twice), as well as in Washington.  His last two overseas assignments were as deputy chief of mission in Bulgaria and Romania.  Mr. Rickert holds a B.A. degree in history from Princeton University and an M.A. in international relations from the George Washington University.



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