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Moscow in the 1950s

The General Services Officer or GSO is responsible for carrying out such functions as contracting, clearing goods through customs, maintenance, and warehouse supervision. It is an important job (ask any FSO who has been to a post with a bad GSO) and often one of the more under-appreciated ones. However, in interesting places they can have some of the more interesting stories. Like Joseph Neubert, who served at Embassy Moscow from 1953-56, first as a GSO then as a Political officer. Here he talks about scrubbing rugs, irate clientele, a July 4 reception conversation with WWII military hero Marshall Georgiy Zhukov, and the next-to-impossible process of getting a driver’s license. You can also read about his experience with the KGB and other Moments about the USSR and Russia. These excerpts are taken from Neubert’s memoirs, which he gave to ADST in 2007.


The old bait and switch, Foreign Service edition

NEUBERT:  After a bit of home leave, I left Seattle on July 4, 1953 en route to Moscow via London. The date provided me with an unexpected bonus. The United Airlines Boeing Stratocruiser I was on had only one passenger to Chicago. Me. In those easy days before terrorism, the captain invited me to ride the co-pilot’s seat….

The Embassy in Moscow was then (July 1953) the same one that recently burned. [Note: The embassy frequently had fires. Read about one of the more dramatic ones.]

But then it was a brand-new converted apartment house into which the Embassy was just completing its move from the former Embassy on Mokhovaya Street (at left), across from the Kremlin, next door to the National Hotel. It all seemed spacious and nicely furnished. Both Coby Swank and I had been assigned as “Political officers.”

But when we were ushered in to meet Ambassador Charles Bohlen, it became apparent that these titles had little meaning. Bohlen, clad as usual in flannel “bags” and sport jacket, informed us that Coby would be the administrative officer and I the General Services Officer (housekeeper). He added, grinning, “Your offices are on the first floor. If you never see me there, it means you’re doing a good job.” We never saw him — but we were admittedly deflated as we left his friendly presence.

As General Services Officer (or housekeeper), I had some sixty Russians working for me, only one of whom spoke any English. The rest were carpenters, mechanics, painters, plumbers, laborers, what have you. Two things happened immediately — I changed the sign on my door to read “Genial Services” and, secondly, I set out to work with my “team.” I won’t say we were totally successful. We tried to keep people (including Mrs. Bohlen) happy by doing what we could. And, I think, by and large, we succeeded.

There were, of course, some people who could not be kept happy. Like the Air Force Attaché (departing) who called up in a rage one day because we had dismantled his daughter’s bicycle to be shipped home. Did we realize it would cost him money to have it reassembled in the U.S.? We put it back together for him — forget the U.S. taxpayer.

I suppose (in retrospect) the most amusing job I had as GSO was washing the rugs in the main salon at Spaso House [the official Residence of the Ambassador]. There were, at that time, two Belgian patterned rugs under the awesome main chandelier. After fruitless negotiations with the city organization for dealing with foreign embassies we finally decided it was necessary to do it ourselves. So I and half a dozen Soviet employees got down and washed them ourselves. I can’t say our results were spectacular. But I appreciated them twenty years later when one of those rugs turned up as the main rug in the salon of the Residence in Leningrad.

There were other amusing aspects to the job of GSO in Moscow. For one thing, we still had to care for “American House,” a barn-like brick structure down on the river. There, the male single staff, military and state, lived. And they had their “bar” — a large and handsome area — and their quarters. Their quarters were interesting because they were in what was formerly a morgue. There was many a joke about this, but it was true. During the war, Ambassador Averell Harriman had insisted that the Soviets provide quarters for the American military mission. Eventually, these were the quarters provided — and converted. A former morgue. It was, in fact, the best bar in town — with dances and all. The first orchestra (of Embassy employees) was called the “Dremlin Krows.” This eventually was complained about and (the same orchestra) became known as “Joe Commode and his Four Flushers.”

Check and Mate

My second year in Moscow involved being in the Political section. This made life much easier….

At the American July 4 Reception in 1955, I saw Marshall [Georigiy] Zhukov standing grimly alone, with all his medals. I sent up and introduced myself and referred to the presence of an American Chess Team. I asked him if he played chess.

He eyed me coldly. “No,” he said.

I said I was surprised, that from reading Russian novels I assumed all Russian military officers played chess.

Zhukov smiled (sort of) and said that I had been reading the wrong authors. He added, “If you give me my choice between officers who play chess and officers who have never heard of the game, I will take the latter. Under conditions of modern warfare, you must decide quickly, not think — and chess players always want to think.”

“As God is my witness — Although, of course, I don’t believe in God” 

It was during this year that Senator Ellender came to Moscow. Just why was never very clear. He was on a boondoggle involving U.S. aid programs of one kind or another. (Read about other CODELs.) He had a meeting with the Embassy officers at which he spoke of the evils of aid programs to people who were not very friendly. When reminded, gently, that we had no aid programs to the Soviet Union, he ignored the point and went right on.

Well. After that, he wanted to go out and visit a collective farm. For lack of anyone else, I was told off to go as his interpreter. Ha! All I knew of collective farms was what I had read in the press. That, I decided, was enough. So I went. But, it turned out, he didn’t want to learn about collective farms; he wanted to tell the Russians about farming in Louisiana. Quite another kettle of fish!

I learned a lot about farm terminology and Louisiana that afternoon — to my eternal embarrassment as the Foreign Office types helped me become an interpreter. Happily, “compost” was still “kompost.”

A day or two later, Ellender went to the Kremlin to meet (for whatever reason) with [at left, Anastas] Mikoyan, the eternal Minister of Foreign Trade. For some reason Mikoyan deprecated “unemployment” in the U.S. and Ellender, quite sensibly, observed that in the U.S.S.R. they had a great deal of “structural unemployment,” that is, they paid people to do little or nothing.

Mikoyan got red in the face and, pounding the eternal green baize table, said, “There is no unemployment in the Soviet Union, as God is my witness — although, of course, I don’t believe in God.” That broke up the meeting.

And you thought the DMV was bad…

Earlier that year, I had had, at a much lower level, another interesting encounter with the Soviet bureaucracy. The Catholic priest resident in Moscow, Father George Bissonette, had been declared “persona non grata” and told to go home. He left his Chevrolet in my custody. So I set out to get a driver’s license. This was not simple. In those days, the Embassy required that any Embassy officer driving in the Soviet Union should — indeed, must — have a Soviet driver’s license. To get one was not easy, even though the Soviets had just come to recognize that not all chauffeurs were professionals and, therefore, had to be auto mechanics as well as drivers.

A word of explanation is perhaps in order. Until 1954 or so, all drivers in the U.S.S.R. were “professionals,” driving state vehicles. About 1954 a few “lucky” Russians began to get cars of their own. Was it reasonable to insist that those too should be mechanics capable of maintaining their own vehicles mechanically? Obviously not, since the first people in the Soviet Union to have private cars were party big-wigs and their wives. So the laws were changed. A new category called “amateur chauffeur” was introduced. To get a license as an “amateur chauffeur,” it was only necessary to take an examination on “the rules of the road,” not on carburetors, etc. 

I applied for a license under the new regulations, first having obtained and memorized the “Rules of the Road.” And it was well I had done so. The examination was individual. I sat across a “sand table” from three steely-eyed inspectors, chief of whom was a tight-lipped woman. We ran through all the hypothetical traffic situations on the “sand table.” Then went on to such questions as “Under what eleven conditions may you not back up?” Fortunately, having memorized the book, I could answer such otherwise unanswerable questions.

Finally, however, when I began to feel all was well, the examiners stumped me. The question, posed by the Dragon Lady, was, “You are stalled on a level railroad crossing. What do you do?” My first reaction was instantaneous, “That’s not in the book.” She smiled acidly, “Even so, what do you do?”

I asked, “Which direction will the train come from?” She said she couldn’t say. I said I would put the car in reverse (the lowest gear) and grind it off on the battery. She refused that.

I said I would get out, flip a coin to decide whence the next train, and run down the track to try and flag it down.

All to no avail. She informed me I had failed the examination and added that I could come back and do it all again in thirty days. I was not terribly amused and told her the least she could do was tell me the answer to her unauthorized question.

She told me I should, under the postulated circumstances, honk the horn three times, and railroad workers would appear and remove the car from the tracks. I’m sure I looked astonished. I said, “But, what if there are no railway workers?” She smiled, sweetly this time, “In the Soviet Union, there are always, railway workers.”And, to give her due credit, I’m sure there are.

Anyway, a month later, I returned to listen to one or two perfunctory questions, and my “amateur chauffeur” license was granted with no further ado. Even the “road test” consisted of driving around the block.

I need my space – and some air freshener

My involvement with Father Bissonette led me to other adventures, prior to his enforced departure. He, obviously, was celibate and I was a bachelor. We spent a certain amount of time having dinner together, playing chess together, and so on. Whether because of our occasional get-togethers or other reasons, his chauffeur and my housekeeper (both Soviets) fell in with each other, and one day my housekeeper announced she had to go off on maternity leave. As one can imagine, I was the butt of a good deal of ribbing, but it was clear where paternity lay. Anyway, she finally left and I asked for a temporary replacement.

After a bit, the Soviet authorities provided me with a grossly fat woman, obviously fresh from the farm, but apparently good-natured. I took her on (partly because I was sure no one else would be offered). Soon, it was born in upon me that there is indeed such a thing as the “envelope” within which people prefer to operate. I am one of those people who prefers generally a distance of three to four feet between me and others. My new housekeeper accepted the “three to four” but substituted inches for feet. And she ate garlic. And she had strong body odor — mostly stale perspiration. And I couldn’t stand it!

What emerged each morning was indeed a comedy. As a bachelor, I had to give her marching orders for the day. But, as I talked, she got closer and closer, until I was bouncing off her ample “front porch” and trying to evade the garlic. It got so that I would back around the dining room table-pulling out the chairs to create obstacles — as I ticked off the order of the day.

The whole thing ended rather unfortunately. I came home one evening about five to take a shower before a reception at the Ambassador’s residence. As I was standing naked in my bedroom, about to put on my robe to go shower, she trotted in for some reason or other and I told her — in mean Russian — to get lost. She flounced out and I never saw her again. But the Embassy did get a note complaining that I had used abusive language to my housekeeper. Which I had. We never answered the note. And, happily, my regular housekeeper shortly returned.

Don’t insult me with a tip! (in front of witnesses)

In the period after I obtained a driver’s license I went off on various excursions about the Soviet Union. One of these took me and some of my friends to Kharkov, Poltava, and Kiev and back. This was instructive for a variety of reasons. On the way Kharkov from Moscow — a distance of perhaps 600 kilometers — we met ten vehicles coming toward us and passed twelve going in the same direction. We also encountered one gasoline station. The “year of the automobile” was not yet upon the Soviet Union. Needless to say, the road was rough two-lane macadam all the way.

The road from Kharkov to Poltava and Kiev was no better. Poltava was fascinating because of the museum dedicated to Peter the First’s defeat of the Swedes in 1709. But the hotel (allegedly Intourist) was less amusing. It was a two-story structure left over from before the war. The rooms were commodious and each had a sink and bathtub. But the toilet facilities were something else again. There was, to be sure, a “ladies” and “gents.” But the “gents,” at least, had not been cleaned in weeks and none of the plumbing was working. To enter was to enter the Augean stables. Incredible! I, at least, elected to try the back courtyard. But so had everyone else, so this was no improvement. I gathered, without directly inquiring, that the “ladies” was no better. So we hastened on to Kiev.

I should mention, in passing, that the most common question asked us in Poltava, once folk knew we were Americans, was “Lucky Strike?,” meaning, “Do you have a Lucky Strike?” All of the townspeople remembered the short-lived U.S. air base at Poltava in 1944 and remembered American cigarettes.

In Kiev we had a wonderful time. The architecture and the people seemed warmer than in Moscow. Perhaps simply because they were more southern. It started when we went up to the rooms and, bags delivered, I offered the bell-boy a tip. He looked outraged and refused.

I stepped back into the room. He followed and grinned. “That was just for the ‘duty’ woman at the key desk.” He fidgeted, “I can always use more money. Can’t we all?” So he accepted a tip. And was our good friend and consultant thereafter.