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Frenemies: Warm Encounters with Cold War Soviets

Just because the war between the two superpowers was cold didn’t mean that relations between U.S. and Soviet diplomats had to be frosty. While there were certainly some testy times, U.S. diplomats report that their relationships with Soviets were sometimes warm, funny, and congenial — especially if the Soviet officer was trying to convince them to defect.

And while they may not have cared for U.S. politics, a number of Soviet diplomats loved other aspects of American culture, especially Westerns, rifles, magazines, and, of course, Kentucky bourbon.

Thomas F. Johnson reports the amusing exchanges he had with Soviet diplomats during his time in Liberia in a 2003 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy. George G.B. Griffin and Ernestine S. Heck both share their experiences with Soviet defection with Kennedy in 2002 and 1997, respectively. (The happy poster says “Person to person. Friend, Comrade and Brother!”)

Read more about the Cold War and  other humorous Moments.

 

“Our Russki guests showed they felt at home with us by consuming two liters of vodka, a liter of gin and a half bottle of Old Grand Dad”

Thomas F. Johnson, Assistant Public Affairs/Information Officer, Monrovia, 1975-1977

JOHNSON: I was always wary of their motives, as they were of mine. However, we socialized with several of the younger [Soviet] diplomats. One evening we invited three officers and their wives to our apartment to see the 1966 Hollywood film “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”

They loved every minute of the film and insisted that I show, rewind and show again and again the opening credits which printed on a montage of Soviet and U.S. flags accompanied by the national anthems.

In true Russian fashion, our Russki guests showed they felt at home with us by consuming two liters of vodka, a liter of gin and a half bottle of Old Grand Dad. On another occasion, the Soviets came to my office to ask to borrow films. “Oh, you want films about American ballet or orchestras?” I inquired.

“Nyet.”

“Literary films?”

“Nyet.”

“Okay, what sort of films do you want?”

“Cowboy movies!”

I was able to borrow several Westerns from USIA Washington [United States Information Agency], which greatly pleased both my Liberian audience as well as the Russians. Perhaps to show their appreciation, the Soviets invited Carolyn and me to a screening in their embassy of a “Russian Western.”

Shot in the rolling hills of Moldova with a cast of gypsy cattle farmers, the high point of the ponderous horse opera was a torrid love scene in which an actress pulls open her blouse exposing her pendulous breasts. “See! We have no censorship in the Soviet Union!” whispered a Russian to me hoarsely.

We got to know Anatoly, a young Russian FSO [Foreign Service Officer]. He owed his appointment to the Soviet Foreign Service to a chance meeting with a senior Russian diplomat who had served in the Red Army with his father. Anatoly’s first post was at the UN in New York City.

He was a one man tourism bureau for the Big Apple, which he considered the most fascinating city on earth. Shortly before we departed Monrovia for Washington he asked me if he could buy my .30-30 rifle.

Since I had not shot the gun in years, I readily consented. I told him that I had not realized he was a hunter. “I am no hunter,” he responded.

“Then you are a collector?”

“I am not a collector,” he replied.

“Why do you want the Winchester?” I responded. “Do you think I want to spend the rest of my career in Africa?” Anatoly announced. Apparently personnel officers in the Foreign Ministry were open to bribery.

One day a senior Soviet diplomat sought me out at a reception and asked in a conspiratorial tone if we could meet for lunch. I thought he wanted to “turn me.” However, the matter was almost as delicate.

It seems that on the eve of their great national day the hospitable embassy had completely depleted its supply of vodka. No vodka. No national Day.

Perhaps I failed to understand the strength of my bargaining position when I agreed to provide eight cases of American Smirnoff vodka for cash. Actually the embassy commissary had purchased too much vodka and was glad to get rid of it. At the national day celebrations I noted that no Smirnoff bottles were in sight. My host tapped a Russian bottle with his finger and smiled slyly.

Perhaps my gesture spread oil on troubled waters regarding an ongoing problem between the Soviet ambassador and our army attaché who lived next door. Every morning the American colonel’s pet chimp climbed up on the wall separating the properties and turning his rear end toward the flag with the hammer and cycle emptied his bowels onto Soviet territory….

[None] of my Soviet contacts ever really told me what he thought about Communism. I sensed that my Soviet counterparts were patriotic Russians, not doctrinaire Communists. However, the TASS [Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union] correspondent was a definitely a true believer. He returned to Monrovia from home leave full of genuine enthusiasm about declarations at a [Communist] Party Congress regarding the “new Soviet man.”

The Soviet FSOs must have been deeply troubled by the contradictions between their indoctrination and what they experienced outside of the USSR. They were masters of “double speak”, i.e. they mouthed doctrines which they clearly knew were fallacious and kept their own opinions to themselves. I doubt they confided to one another.

It was fun to watch their reaction to irreverent banter among Americans about the Carter administration. We told one another “Jimmy jokes” in their presence and they joined in the laughter. I never heard a Soviet diplomat make a critical remark about Moscow. They got their Brezhnev jokes from us and the British.

And while East Block diplomats were not officially targets of USIA [United States Information Agency] Monrovia’s public affairs strategy, my embassy colleagues and I went out of our way to be conciliatory toward them. The Soviet Deputy Chief of Mission asked me to get him a subscription to National Geographic, which of course I did. He even reimbursed me for the cost. He simply liked the magazine.

In 1976 Time carried a feature article on discoveries of large petroleum reserves in China. The cover of that issue showed Mao in an Arab head dress. The Soviets thought the depiction of the Chinese dictator was the funniest thing they had ever seen and begged us for our copies of that issue of the magazine. Perhaps the covers were selling on the black market in Moscow….

“They spent the evening trying to convince me to defect to the Soviet Union”

George G.B. Griffin, Second Secretary and Vice Consul, Colombo, 1962-1965

GRIFFIN: The pool at the Galle Face Hotel (pictured) was a sort of international gathering spot. Much of the diplomatic corps used to hang out there, including the Soviets. My wife and a young Russian woman became friendly, and I began talking to the husband. We were all about the same age, in our 20s, and our kids were the same age.

As I was supposed to, I always reported our conversations. He didn’t say much of intelligence interest, but he seemed to want to be friends.

Our station chief, who read those reports, saw this as an indication that the Soviet wanted to defect. He knew the man had a particularly sensitive (i.e., KGB) job at the embassy, and asked me to keep talking to him. I agreed, after the Ambassador and the DCM authorized it.

That led to a wild dinner party one night. The Soviet invited me to dinner at his house. I said sure, assuming it included my wife and son. But he wanted just me, saying he wanted to talk alone. So, after a nod from my boss, I agreed.

I arrived to find a table the size of two put together, groaning with food, and thought it was going to be a big party after all. But there was only one other guest: his boss, the KGB station chief. They spent the evening trying to convince me to defect to the Soviet Union, pouring Scotch down my throat, and asking me to chase it with vodka. I can’t drink vodka and told them so, which seemed to upset them, but they finally agreed I could do beer.

Soon, things were moving right along. The station chief was a Georgian who had been the equivalent of a Golden Gloves boxer as a young man. He had been assigned to Rome and then Paris as cultural attaché, and claimed to be an opera singer. He proved it loudly, running around the room, on the back of a sofa, onto tables, leaping here and there, singing various Italian and French opera roles. He was very good.

They tried hard to convince me, going into deep, embellished detail about how great the Communist Party was, and how well one could live as a member. They said I could be a member as a foreigner and get special benefits – blah, blah, blah.

Afterwards, I went to the Embassy and reported as much as I could remember. Our station chief was excited. He was convinced that the younger officer tried to cover his tracks by saying that I wanted to defect, but actually wanted to do so himself, and asked me to keep after him.

He suggested that I try again to get him to come to my house for a return visit, and said that if I could get him there, his people would be outside and get him safely away. I was to make sure he brought his wife and child. I tried.

The Russian sounded excited over the phone, but said he had to check with his boss. The next day he called me back and said he couldn’t do it right away, but perhaps a little later. I said it was up to him. The following day he showed up at the pool with his boss, the KGB chief. They walked around a bit and generally ignored us. My wife went up to him and asked about his wife. He said she had suddenly left for home, and seemed sad.

So, his wife and kid vanished quickly, and a week later he was gone too. I never saw him again. Shortly after that, I was condemned in Blitz, the Indian Communist Party newspaper in Bombay. I was charged with being a CIA spy; up to no good in this “idyllic” country down south. Then there was an article in another communist journal. Both stories were quoted by a Communist Party Member in a speech on the floor of the Ceylonese Parliament.

He accused me, the USIS [United States Information Services] Cultural Affairs Officer, and a real spook of trying to unseat the SLFP [Sri Lanka Freedom Party] Government, and asked the Prime Minister when she was going to have us PNGed [declared persona non grata] and thrown out of the country.

That was followed in 1964 by the publication of an East German book called Who’s Who in the CIA. Sure enough, I’m in it.

“The ambassador was having an affair with his wife, and this was how he was going to get even”

Ernestine S. Heck, Niamey, Niger, Wife of Ambassador Douglas Heck, 1974-1976

HECK: One of the funniest stories I can remember from my time there:  My husband would get trips back to the United States for various reasons. The U.S. government would pay to send him home. He had gone home at one point, and I don’t remember specifically why, but anyway he was on one of those trips back to the United States, and because there was never money for the spouse, the spouse stayed.

About five in the morning there was a knock on my door in this big house with this six-acre compound. It was one of the guards. There had been a man at my gate since two a.m. who had wanted to come in, and they had decided not to disturb me until more or less daylight. It was a communications clerk from the Soviet embassy who wanted to defect.

Now I was by myself, and this Soviet didn’t speak French or English and I didn’t speak Russian. It was a very interesting conversation. I knew from listening to my husband that there was a code that you were supposed to use, and it was the name of somebody.

I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to, in this case since Doug was not home, call the DCM, the chargé, and say to him “Mr. Woop is there to see him,” and he would then come over. Now this was after I had already heard from the Corsicans that they weren’t really listening to our phones anymore because they couldn’t understand us, but I had to rack through my brain and I finally thought of the name, which was a long Russian name, and I called up the then chargé, who later became ambassador there, named [John S.] “Jack” Davison.

I said to him that Mr. So-and-So was there to see him. Jack did come over and rescue me from having to decide what to do with this poor schmuck who had been outside the door for four hours at that point on what amounted to a dirt road leading to nowhere. The house and the embassy were across the street, and then it went out to a little restaurant and that was it.

There was nothing out there, so how he had ever hid — maybe no one came by, I don’t know. That was my one experience with the Soviets. The agents came in, the CIA, which was not located there, and they smuggled him out of the country.

For all I know, he became the best intelligence person they ever had. I do not know. They never told me. But it all had to do with the fact that the ambassador was having an affair with his wife, and this was how he was going to get even with the wife. The ambassador was our friend, but I never knew the wife.