A Russo-American Diplomat: Back in the USSR

Vladimir Toumanoff, a Foreign Service officer for 25 years, had the extraordinary experience of returning as an American diplomat to the country which his parents had fled. The Toumanoffs were members of the Russian nobility who fought in the White army against the Bolsheviks. They left Russia in 1919 and eventually emigrated to the U.S.

As a Political Officer, Toumanoff returned to Russia suddenly in 1958 at the request of the State Department. In a twist of fate, this son of a Tsarist Army Colonel became a confidante of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He would later distinguish himself by drafting an appeal to the Soviets for a collaborative effort to solve “world problems of food, population and energy.”

Vladimir Toumanoff served in the Moscow Embassy from 1958-1960. He was interviewed by William D. Morgan in June 1999.  To read more about Russia, McCarthyism or Toumanoff’s investigation by McCarthy, follow the links.


“My father was a young officer in the Imperial Guard”

Vladimir I. Toumanoff, Political Officer, Moscow, USSR, 1958-60

220px-ToumanishviliMy ancestors were part of the elite, part of the ruling apparatus of Georgia. In a tried and true ancient tradition (still practiced widely in the taking of hostages) the Russians divided the ruling families of Georgia and took some members of those ruling families north to St. Petersburg. They kept the hostages at the royal court to watch and control them and to ensure that their relatives, who remained powerful in Georgia, behaved according to Russian wishes.

Provided the native relatives behaved, the treatment of the hostages was quite kind – in fact quite generous, even to the point of granting that part of my family which was at the Court a Russian title of nobility, and estates. The Russian title was Knyaz, which translates into English as ‘Prince’ but unrelated to the Royal Family.

In Russian practice it was hereditary, passing through all the male line, but including wives and daughters for their lifetimes. So my ancestors became titled members of the Russian aristocracy, and over time they Russified, abandoning the Georgian version of the name for the Russian, and Tumanishvili became Toumanoff (the French spelling adopted by the family for transliteration to the Latin alphabet of the Russian, Cyrillic Tumanov). It was a title which I never used or mentioned. But my parents did. That background becomes relevant later.

Down through the generations some of the male members of the family joined the military, and by the time the First World War broke out a century later my father was a young officer in the Imperial Guard, eventually rising to the rank of Colonel.

kozakkenIn the course of the Russian Revolution and the following civil war he fought, quite effectively, against the Bolsheviks and their Red Army, joining the White armies early and fighting to the bitter end.

Thus, as a titled Czarist aristocrat he was not only, by definition, a mortal class enemy of the communists, but one who had cost them much blood. He and his family faced certain death if captured, and so, when the White armies were finally defeated, my parents escaped to Turkey and eventually reached Constantinople, where I was born on April 11, 1923.

Turkey had gone through a revolution and the leader of the new government, Kemal Ataturk, made Ankara his capital, established diplomatic relations with Soviet Russia, and was gradually extending his sway over all of the country.

In the summer of 1923 Constantinople was still occupied by the British, and nominally under a Turkish Governor of the old regime. There was still a Czarist Embassy issuing documentation to Russian refugees, and my parents and their now two sons were thus reasonably safe.

However, one fine day an order came from Ankara to the Turkish Governor to arrest the Toumanoff family and ship them off to Ankara, where they would be turned over to the Soviet authorities. Everyone understood it would be the end of the family.

The Governor agreed to delay the order for 24 hours, so we had to escape from Constantinople very quickly. With the help of some American friends my parents managed that, and within 18 hours we were off in a freighter heading for New York City…

Return to Moscow, 1958: “… a stalwart, energetic, intelligent, kindly and humorous people, looking aged ahead of their years”

One of the officers at the [U.S.] embassy in Moscow was PNG’ed, declared persona non grata by the Soviet Government and expelled, for God knows what reason… I was transferred from Frankfurt to Moscow to take his place…

So I arrive in Moscow, and it comes to me as an extraordinary surprise in a number of ways. One was that, having grown up in a Russian family after the Revolution and knowing how profound the changes had been since then, what extraordinary traumas the society had gone through, and the insistence by the Government and the Communist Party that it was remolding everything, destroying the old and remolding entirely the Czarist society, all its institutions, its mores, values, and its very people, I expected to recognize very little from what I had lived with, had learned by living with my parents and their Russian friends, all of whom had grown up under the Czars, before the revolution.

I was astounded at how familiar it all was, that except for a certain coarseness in the language, a certain loss of vocabulary and introduction of much bureaucratic slang, the Russian language had changed very little…

Moscow 1958Body language had not changed. Facial expressions had not changed. Forms of humor had not changed. There was really remarkably little of the impact I had expected after nearly 50 years of Soviet power and unbelievable traumas and human sacrifice. It was astounding to me how little the communist experience had changed the people.

That was one major surprise. I found myself being taken for a fellow Soviet. Except for my foreign clothes, I did not stand out as an alien in spite of the enormous and shocking differences in the physical appearance and amenities between Russia and America.

Those were a second surprise, as anyone who visited Russia in the late ‘50s will attest. Materially, even Moscow was a different civilization, to say nothing of the condition of the rest of the country. The people impoverished, stunted and too often maimed or crippled. Structures, except for Stalinist showpieces, worn out, shabby to slum-like, neglected and crumbling, with huge identical poorly built “new” apartment blocks already breaking down. Crowds and lines everywhere seeking scarce or nonexistent goods. Truly appalling, backward working conditions.

And with all that a stalwart, energetic, intelligent, kindly and humorous people, looking aged ahead of their years. I thought I would be a Rip Van Winkle, that the place would have changed to such an extent that I wouldn’t understand it, and it wouldn’t understand me. And that was simply not true. ..

“ I heard footsteps behind me, which quickened when I quickened and slowed when I did “

Another surprise was how quickly an event occurred which showed me that the place was not all that friendly, or all that easy to navigate in. The first day in the Embassy, I said to myself, Great Scott, here I am in Moscow! And I went out for a walk, just to look around and soak up the reality that I really was in Moscow, with all the associations the name of that city had for me.

And I hadn’t gotten a block and a half from the Embassy when I heard footsteps behind me, which quickened when I quickened and slowed when I did, several times. When they were very close behind as I approached an intersection, I turned as I came to the curbstone to the person who was just behind me at my shoulder and asked, in Russian, whether there was something I could do for them.

us-emba1The individual was rather taken aback, but in very short order it turned out that he was a Yugoslav. He had been incarcerated at some point, jailed or in a Gulag, had been finally amnestied or released having served his term, and he wanted to escape from the country [with help from the American embassy.] As a former prisoner, however, he had no right to visit Moscow.

He had waited in a barber shop across the street from the Embassy until he saw someone who was obviously an American, or at least a foreigner, dressed in foreign clothing, come out. He hoped an American diplomat could help him escape…

I explained to him that I was an American, in the American diplomatic service, and that my purpose in being in Moscow was not to worsen relations between the United States and Russia but rather, if possible, to improve them, and that even if that were not my purpose and duty, I certainly was not in a position to help him in any conceivable way.

I suggested he go to his own, Yugoslav, Embassy, which he rejected in disgust because they would just turn him over to the Soviet police. I then told him that I was probably being followed by the KGB and that he would probably be picked up when he left me. His earlier manner and now obvious terror convinced me that he was genuine, and not a Soviet plant calculated to trap me on my first outing.

So I suggested he say he had asked me directions to the post office, I would point down the side street toward the center of town, and we should part. Which we did. I crossed the street and after a few steps looked back. He was already surrounded by several men forcing him against his struggles into the back of a large black car. I did not stop to watch and walked on. They must have driven up quite close behind us as we talked on that corner.

First day, and first walk on Moscow’s streets. That was the first episode which started to tune my radar pretty finely in terms of what to expect. It was not to be the last…

 “We know who you are”

[Ambassador] Llewellyn Thompson [seen at left with Khrushchev at a party,] by the time I got to Moscow, had established an extraordinary relationship with Khrushchev, and one of the privileges resulting from being the most fluent Russian speaker in the Embassy was that Thompson – whose Russian was really quite good – nevertheless took me along with him for some of his meetings with Khrushchev, and they met fairly frequently. Not to every meeting – he did not take me out to Khrushchev’s dacha. Those were informal family affairs and I had not been invited.

But to the occasional more official meetings he took me along in case he needed some translation. He would also sometimes check his reporting cables to be sure he had properly understood and had missed nothing. They spoke Russian quite freely and I recall only two occasions when he asked me for help with a word.

After I’d gone to the first or second of these I realized that Thompson had established a truly almost unbelievable degree of confidence and trust with this extraordinary personality called Khrushchev. I am convinced that when Thompson finally left Moscow – this was after I had left – Khrushchev lost one of probably the only two people in the entire Soviet Union whom Khrushchev totally trusted. The other being his wife, Nina Petrovna.

With Thompson I think he knew he would not be deceived, not be lied to, and that he would get accurate, thoughtful information and opinion – that Thompson genuinely represented the United States Government, the President, and that he had the President’s confidence and was the epitome of what an ambassador should be.

But to have this happen in the Soviet Union was perfectly extraordinary. Eileen and I came to know Nina Petrovna a little, and she was marvelous. I’m sure that she kept Khrushchev sane, because she was so intelligent, so down-to-earth, so straightforward and so genuine.

I think she must have been emotionally and morally a tower of strength for him. There was no falseness; there was no artificiality; but intelligence and thoughtfulness and acuity. The same was true of Thompson.

Well, I don’t think he could be anything else. It came so naturally to him to have that kind of integrity, presence, acuity, perception, thoughtfulness, accuracy. It did work. I mean, he recognized the nature of the relationship, and he valued it, as did Khrushchev.

Now let me tell you of an episode which demonstrated this relationship and, incidentally, why I was not troubled in Moscow by entrapments or police harassment, or anything of the kind. You will recall that when we began these interviews, I said that my Russian ancestry was prominent, privileged, and titled aristocracy, that my father’s final rank was Colonel in the Imperial Guard, which was a very elite group, close to the Tsar.

Obviously, my father fought on the side of the White Russian armies during the Civil War, was an adamant opponent of the Revolution and the Bolsheviks, and in the United States actively and publicly opposed recognition of the USSR. To such an extent was he an enemy of the Bolsheviks that they put a very large price on his head and on the heads of the entire family.

My mother, who graduated from the law faculty at Moscow University, was equally dedicated and equally able, intelligent, and skillful in her opposition to the Communists. The Bolsheviks captured my father several times during the revolution and civil war, and on each occasion he broke out of captivity, and even engineered the escape of a prominent General. He was anathema to the Bolsheviks, and, as his son, I was not sure (a) whether the Soviets would let me into the country, even on a diplomatic passport, or (b) what might happen to me after I got there.

Clearly, there must have been a large dossier on my father and his family running into the early thirties, until shortly after U.S./Soviet recognition when my parents settled back into private life. American Communists disrupted some meetings, public lectures and a radio broadcast by my mother while she and my father were actively opposing recognition. So I assume Soviet Intelligence tracked my parents in the United States through 1933.

Therefore when I got to Moscow in 1958, I thought I’d probably be more of a target of the KGB than most American diplomats, and I had better be alert and tune my radar pretty sharply.

You remember that when the Germans were approaching Moscow early in World War II, the KGB started destroying and burning their files. My guess is that somewhere in those bonfires the dossier they had on my parents disappeared, and by 1958 nobody remembered anything about Toumanoffs. Otherwise they would have turned up the dossier when the Department applied for my diplomatic visa.

Another reason they didn’t identify me right away is that the last name, Toumanoff, is a very common Russian name. As common I suppose, as Anderson, or Edwards in the United States. There were probably a hundred thousand or more Toumanoffs in the USSR. Anyway, the following episode transpired, which illustrates, among other things, the nature of Ambassador Thompson’s relationship with Khrushchev and his effectiveness as our Ambassador. Khrushchev went off to the Balkans, I forget whether it was Sofia or Bucharest, but he was out of the country.

When he returned all the ambassadors went out to the airport to welcome him back, as was customary for a Chief of State, although he was actually chief of the Communist Party. As Khrushchev came down the reception line of ambassadors he stopped at Thompson and said, “There is something I want to talk about with you. When I finish this reception line they will pull up my car and you could ride in to Moscow with me and we can talk on the way.”

“… that Khrushchev knew me by name and trusted me to ride with him would be a considerable shield against KGB harassment”

Ambassador Thompson had taken me with him to the airport and I stood at his shoulder in the reception line. By that time I had been at several of Thompson’s meetings and talks with Khrushchev. He knew that Thompson trusted me and he had accepted me as part of the threesome that met.

When they pulled up Khrushchev’s limousine, I recall three rings of security personnel between the car and everyone else. I could be wrong on that, perhaps only two, but security was certainly visible and tight.

From the car Khrushchev waved to Thompson, who started forward, but I held back as I had not been invited. Khrushchev saw that, called me by name and waved me forward. As I went to the car through those concentric rings of security personnel I knew I was going to be safe for the rest of my tour in Russia unless I did something really stupid, which I had no intention of doing.

The fact that Khrushchev knew me by name and trusted me to ride with him would be a considerable shield against KGB harassment or provocation. At the same time, it made me a dangerous person on whom they would concentrate their attention, especially to identify and learn all they could about me. I think they resented that special access and protection, the more so when they finally learned my ancestry.

In any case, they finally figured out who I was, but this was in the last six months or so of my tour….There was some sort of a Soviet affair, an official dinner for some U.S. delegation, perhaps Congressional. In those days there were quite a few American visitors. Before the U-2, that is. I was sitting across from a Soviet official, I don’t remember who he was, but not high ranking. In the middle of the dinner he looked me straight in the eye and said meaningfully, almost in a challenging tone. “We know who you are.” That clearly, with emphasis.

I brushed it off with, “Oh, fine, good.” And that was that. But he was saying that they’d finally figured out who I was. It must have come to them with a jolt to find the son of a titled White Russian, Imperial Guard Colonel and mortal enemy, in their midst meeting and riding with Khrushchev.

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