Recollections Called Forth by the Closing of America’s St. Petersburg Consulate

U.S. consulate-general, St. Petersburg, Russia

The U.S. consulate-general in St. Petersburg became a casualty this week of the current escalation of tensions between the West and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, following the attempted assassination in England of former double agent Alexander Litvinenko and his daughter by Russia’s FSB (successor to the USSR’s notorious KGB). Putin ordered the consulate closed as part of a wave of reciprocal diplomatic expulsions by Russia and the NATO countries.

As the capital of Czarist Russia, St. Petersburg was home to the American embassy until shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. When diplomatic relations with the USSR were established in 1933, the embassy was located in Moscow. An American diplomatic presence in St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) was restored in 1972 with the opening of the U.S. consulate-general.

As a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Information Agency, I served there as the No. 2 Press & Cultural guy, 1976-78. Even in comparison with the two years I spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in village India (1968-70), these were the two most interesting years of my life. The Soviet Union was hardly a garden spot, but it was inhabited by – among others – some extraordinarily resilient people, trying to get by in a country that was not only poor (“a Third World country with nukes”) but deeply oppressive.

The building where our apartment was located. There were two apartments, one on each side of the stairway, but – to provide us with enough space to host a proper dinner party – the Soviets demolished the wall separating our living room from the living room of the neighboring apartment, walled off the enlarged living room from the neighboring apartment, and converted the rest of that apartment into an electronic listening post from which they bugged our phone and tried to listen to our conversations. The phone bugging generated tell-tale sounds on every phone call. Once, one of our KGB “neighbors” carelessly (or perhaps deliberately) left the door to the stairway landing open, which allowed me to see a table set up in the middle of a bare room. The table was full of electronic equipment with wires snaking every which way along the floor. Whenever my wife and I spoke about anything remotely sensitive, we did it in the bathroom with the bathtub faucet running full-bore to make our words unintelligible.

In addition to the previous blog posts* I’ve written about Russia, here are a few more vignettes from the time I was there:

  • Our consular district extended north to two major Arctic ports, Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. I accompanied Consul General Thompson (Tom) Buchanan on an official visit to Arkhangelsk in December 1977. Just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, it’s the closest I’ll likely ever get to the North Pole. Our Soviet hosts fed us the very same meal at each of the luncheons and dinners they put on for us. It seemed clear that the good food had been shipped up there to impress us (which it didn’t, thanks to the lack of variety being a tipoff to local scarcity), but the local officials were enjoying it too. When on a free morning the consul general and I went out on our own for a walk around the city, we popped into a butcher shop whose shelves were totally bare. When we asked if they had meat (thinking that perhaps they had some in the back for favored customers), the lady behind the counter burst out in laughter. Clearly, thanks to growing Soviet economic difficulties, meat was in defitsit (дефицит – short supply) in at least this part of the provinces.

    Our hosts tried to drink us under the table. Knowing my own limits, I took only small sips with each of the countless toasts. The consul general tried harder than I to show that Americans could hold their own among Russian vodka lovers. But he was fighting back nausea by the morning of our third and last day. At least he fared better than our deputy principal officer who, after returning from a trip to Murmansk, was suffering from alcohol poisoning for several days. He was still pale and unwell-looking upon his return to the office.

    I remember the Archangelsk locals expressing their dismay to us at the unseasonably warm weather – daytime highs around five degrees Fahrenheit (15 “degrees of frost” in Celsius). The absence by December of a truly hard freeze meant that the river (the Northern Dvina) had not yet frozen deep enough to support the weight of the trucks they customarily used for wintertime transport.

 

  • The Leningrad consular district also included an anomaly of the Cold War, the capitals of the three Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – that the Soviets had annexed in 1940. This was ugly fruit of a secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 that paved the way for Hitler’s invasion of Poland (the start of World War II) and that country’s occupation not only by Germany (the western part), but also by the USSR (the eastern part). When the Soviets soon occupied the Baltic states and declared them “republics” of the USSR, neither the U.S. nor any respectable European countries recognized the annexation. The Western powers maintained this stance right through to the collapse of the USSR in 1991, when the Balts finally regained their independence. In the intervening years, the United States continued to recognize Baltic governments-in-exile headquartered in Washington, and allowed U.S. diplomats to travel in an official capacity to only the capitals of the three republics, Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, where U.S. policy was not to meet with local officials at the vice-ministerial level or above. As it happened, on one of my visits to Vilnius, a vice-minister of the Lithuanian “republican” government buttonholed me. In the ensuing half-hour discussion, I disputed whatever it was he was trying to persuade me of and told him our country knew full well how Lithuania had been swallowed up by the USSR, Hitler’s gift to Stalin. (In accord with the State Department’s “rules of engagement” regarding such matters, I reported the conversation in writing upon my return to Leningrad.)

    In 2006, in our only major trip abroad, Sandra and I traveled to Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Estonia (now a free and independent country). While the difference between the drabness of Soviet Leningrad and bustling St. Petersburg was pronounced, it was not nearly so breathtaking as the changes in Tallinn, which had totally shed its former Soviet gloom and torpor, metamorphosing into a colorful, thriving butterfly of a city. It was a real pleasure to see these changes.

 

  • As a Russian-speaking American diplomat of Jewish background, I got to meet some pretty interesting people in Leningrad, for example several of those involved in the activities of the “refuseniks” (отказники) – Jews who had applied to emigrate but had been refused permission on one pretext or another. The refusenik community included a number of scientists and mathematicians. Some of these would meet periodically in each other’s apartments in what they called the “mathematics seminar.” Its purpose was to give its dozen or so members an opportunity to exercise their professional creativity despite having been cut off – because they’d been fired for disloyalty – from the institutions that had previously nourished it. I recall that one of the papers written by a member of this group was a statistical analysis of the refusal process as the authorities applied it in Leningrad. The paper’s author had searched for correlations of every kind, such as the best and worst times to submit an application to emigrate. His conclusion was that, statistically speaking, the refusal process was entirely random and capricious.

In future blog posts I’ll continue writing about my experiences in Leningrad. For now, however, let me just say that as poor as American – and Western – relations with the Soviet Union are at the moment, they don’t, in my view, approach the bad old days of the Cold War. The USSR was a nuclear-armed power whose ideology made it a dangerous opponent of all Western democracies, whose free societies and thriving economies represented a rebuke and a threat to the ideological underpinnings of the Soviet regime. The world is as well rid of that hostile, bloody regime as it is of the Nazi regime in Germany.

Putin’s rule in Russia represents no similar threat to the West. However, to maintain his grip on power – and that of his crony capitalist friends – he uses confrontation with the West to attract popular support. In my view, America and the West must find ways to keep Putin’s Russia from sowing further discord in our societies and to prevent it from further military adventures, like its aggression in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, that threaten the independence and territorial integrity of its neighbors, particularly the three Baltic states.

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* Some of my previous blog posts most relevant to this one:

 

2 replies
  1. Liz
    Liz says:

    Hy Howard!
    This is fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences of a place that for most of us is totally unknowable. I was born in 89 so I missed most of this stuff, it’s really great to put some context into whats happening with Russia today. Looking forward to reading and learning more!

    Reply
    • Howard Daniel
      Howard Daniel says:

      Thank you, Liz. I’m glad you found this of interest, and I greatly appreciate your making the effort to let me know. In addition to any other reading you may do to learn more, I’d encourage you to take a look at the links to previous items I’ve written about Russia/the USSR, listed at the end of this blog post.

      Reply

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