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Burnt Toast in Moscow: A Tradition Gone Horrible Awry

Russian banquets (and, of course, Russian drinking) are legendary, as tradition dictates that every drink be accompanied by a toast (or “tost” in Russian). These can be something simple and heartfelt, such as to friendship, or more grandiose and significant, such as to good neighborly relations between our two countries. At more formal, high-ranking affairs, the toasts are often scripted in advance, laden as they are with political meaning.

Gary Crocker worked in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) when he was part of a high-level international delegation with European and Japanese parliamentarians who were visiting Russia in 1994, not long after the collapse of the USSR. As is the custom, there were toasts. As is not the custom, Crocker made a rather pointed joke, which fortunately, did not lead to an international incident. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in March 2012. (Photo: AP)

You can read other Moments on Russia and the USSR as well as these more sobering pieces on Protocol and alcoholism in the Foreign Service.


“It’s getting sappy, everyone’s toasting to their Russian comrades”

CROCKER: [At the time] we have Abkhazia, we have Ossetia, we have, Chechnya, we have Ingushetia, and we have Tajikistan.  All of these places are unsolved problems.  They declared independence.  Chechnya declared independence in 1991, for example.  Belarussia and a few others are still in what they call the Commonwealth, which I’m about to go see firsthand. There’s a lot of problems on just how this new arrangement is all going to work out and what the Russians are up to in these republics along their border.  And you have tension in the Baltics, with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania questioning whether the Russians can still keep their big naval bases there or their troops. In the Ukraine, we have the naval base in the Crimea.

I actually don’t remember how I even got on the big international delegation with Europeans and Japanese.  Most of them were parliamentarians.  Two of us went from Bureau of Intelligence.  There may have been some other Americans, including military.  But surprisingly thin on the American side.

We were sent to Moscow to hear their pitch that they wanted to have blue helmets, UN sanctioned blue helmets to go into these former Soviet states to be peacekeepers where there was conflict.  First we go out to the UN observers military training bases near Moscow. This was the training facility with a Russian general in charge.  We went through all the classrooms to see how they trained them on the treaties and the rules. It was a very impressive academic facility with a good purpose.  There were people who had been on peacekeeping and observer missions. …The United States even provided this school with trucks….And out of that little session comes my favorite story….

The general sat at the end of the table and he’s a very typical Russian general with big jowls.  And I actually knew him from Geneva and I knew he spoke English.  So it’s getting kind of, I would say maudlin or sappy, everyone’s going around the table toasting to their Russian comrades.

I had no idea why I did this, but I got up and at this point mentioned this person running for president [of Russia] who wants to take back Alaska and other wild views.  He’s really way out there.  And so I stood up and said, “General, I’m very tired of this person and I just want to put you on notice that if you ever touch Alaska we’ll wipe your damn country off the face of the map.”

You have to consider, these are a lot of humorless diplomats. There’s dead silence.

And I’m watching the general and I said, “However, we might make a deal on Texas.”  And he’s smoking a cigarette and he’s pretending he has to have the translator tell him what I said.

And then he looks down at the table and he says (in very deep voice), “Mr. Crocker, would that include the Dallas cheerleaders?”