Living Through History with a Historian—Witnessing Monumental Societal Change in the Soviet Union from the 60s to the 90s
American diplomats and their families abroad become accustomed to living through exciting or harrowing events; but occasionally their lives provide them a unique window into historical transformation of great import. In this “Moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” we get a first hand perspective of monumental societal change in the Soviet Union from historian Naomi Collins and Foreign Service Officer James (Jim) Collins, who lived in Moscow four times during its darkest and its most hopeful days, allowing them to witness some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century.
Naomi and Jim Collins traveled to the Soviet Union for the first time as newlyweds. Wedding vows like the ones they pronounced to one another are all based upon trust between the wedded, then a contract is signed to solidify the union. On a larger scale, a similar relationship exists between the people of Western societies and their democratic constitutions; everything is based upon the idea that the governed trust their leaders to work in their interest and hold them accountable through free elections. The USSR was different. The couple arrived in Soviet Russia in 1965 to spend one year at Moscow State University as a part of the U.S.-Soviet bilateral exchange. In this, their first trip outside the United States, what they found was an alien society governed by leaders that lacked trust, controlled virtually all aspects of people’s lives, and imposed an alternative world view alien to nearly everything we took for granted in the West. They were also surprised to find that Soviet youths, contrary to nearly all portrayals in the Western press, were utterly cynical about Marxist ideology; no one believed the official storyline. Personal relations were also alien. The Collinses always suspected some apparent friends to be involved with the KGB, and understood others would have to report to the authorities if they maintained contacts. Beyond these strange realties, the couple was stunned at the relative poverty they saw in rural Russia and many parts of the cities they visited: homes without indoor plumbing, rural dirt roads that turned to slush in the Russian snow, and drug stores without basic medicine like penicillin. The USSR just did not meet the expectations Americans had for a strong competing superpower. Leonid Brezhnev had taken power away from Nikita Khruschev, and there was a prevailing mood of a return to the heavy hand of control over society and little hope for an opening to the West.
This student year came to an abrupt end when one young man came to the couple asking for help defecting; they found themselves in a helpless position; they advised him against taking such a risk. A few months later, the same man reportedly jumped ship in the Philippines and provided Jim’s name to authorities as a reference. Word of this event eventually reached the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, leading the Embassy, fearing an incident, to evacuate the Collinses immediately. In hindsight, the couple concluded this to be an overly dramatic reaction, but it left with a deeper understanding of the Soviet citizen’s life and a totalitarian system of pervasive control. It truncated the Collins’ research experience, but provided them a special appreciation for the lives of citizens in the society they lived with upon their return in 1973 to work at the U.S. Embassy, in the face of constant KGB surveillance and an effective, oppressive regime.
As Brezhnev’s era continued in the seventies and the Soviet Union established itself as a nuclear superpower, its economy lagged. Stagnation and deficit increasingly plagued the USSR during the period, despite efforts like the Kosygin 1973 economic reforms. At the same time, during this era the Soviet regime in an effort to retain control over its people cracked down on its dissidents and minorities, particularly the Jewish community—in an effort to hold the ideological line and shape domestic understanding of the world and the USSR’s position in it. While the Soviet Union thus remained a rather closed off and isolated country, Jim Collins pointed out that the challenges to the Soviet leadership’s ability to keep people fully isolated began in this period. The Soviet ideology continued losing its influence, especially among educated people, who saw and understood its limitations. It gave the U.S. Embassy the opportunity to moderate the Russian perspective of America’s image. U.S. diplomats introduced Soviet citizens to American popular culture, especially jazz music, which quickly gained popularity among young people.
From 1973 until 1975 Jim Collins was assigned to the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Naomi Collins worked with public affairs officer David Nalle in the “library” slot at the embassy. Undoubtedly, these were challenging times, throughout which they had to endure multiple hardships. It was almost impossible to feel welcome or establish friendships and trustworthy relationships. Being constantly under surveillance, bugged and watched, they couldn’t feel at home even in their own residence. As Naomi discussed in her interview, some relationships and marriages were affected by these distresses. Their third stint in Moscow was different, as change was afoot. Jim became the Embassy’s deputy chief of mission (DCM), eventually becoming the ambassador in 1997, and Naomi wrote a book (Through Dark Days and White Nights: Four Decades Observing a Changing Russia) covering this era.
When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he began a program of reforms, embodying the famous ideas of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform). Gorbachev encouraged a liberalization of the media and of the academic world. Soviet citizens gained more mobility. Slowly, alternatives to state-run entities, such as cooperatives and some smaller private businesses, began to take shape. Gorbachev introduced the idea of electoral reforms. And critically, opened limited economic engagement with the West. Gorbachev’s ideas acknowledged the need for international cooperation, engendering both hope and opposition from the hardline communist elite. By the fall of 1990, despite Gorbachev’s reforms, the Soviet Union was in trouble economically and was struggling to grow enough food to sustain itself. Gorbachev’s conservative opponents opposed the economic reform direction the country was taking and were deeply unhappy with what they saw as increased cooperation with the West and reforms that seemed to rip apart the system from within. In September 1991, a badly thought out coup attempt against Gorbachev collapsed after just three days, as a result of strong protests throughout the city, but the incident weakened Gorbachev’s hold on power.
In the summer of 1991, the Collinses had set off on a vacation through Russia and Ukraine, a rare reprieve from the frantic pace of embassy life. They had never been to Ukraine before and were excited to visit the seaside city of Odessa. They returned to Moscow expecting a tranquil August. It was not to be. On August 19 Gorbachev’s opponents launched a coup against the President that threatened a return of the hardline communist leadership and an end to the Gorbachev experiment. As the chargé d’affaires in the absence of an ambassador, Jim Collins led the embassy’s response to the crisis. He decided that the U.S Embassy would not engage in any way with the coup representatives or undertake any diplomatic contacts with them, beyond ensuring the safety of American citizens and property. It was an uncertain time, which could have turned even more violent at any point. But by the morning of the third day, the coup had begun to fall apart. Amid this chaos the new U.S. Ambassador, Robert Strauss, arrived in Russia and unflappably set out to work with Jim to demonstrate the U.S. government’s backing for the forces of reform Gorbachev represented. Although Gorbachev managed to recapture power after the dissolution of the junta, this would not last. By December, the fifteen Soviet republics had asserted their sovereignty, and the Soviet Union quickly unraveled. The Collinses, with the ambassador, led the U.S. Embassy in this new landscape of dizzying change and massive engagement. Embassy staff built off their previous groundwork to establish communications with the newly emerging republics, until the new embassies were launched. Almost overnight, every aspect of the Collinses’ lives and work changed momentously, as they and the embassy staff adapted admirably and rapidly to the new reality.
After a period in Washington guiding the development of U.S. policy to all the New Independent States, Jim and Naomi returned to Moscow, this time as U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation. Ultimately, the Collinses’ personal experience in the Soviet Union provided them a unique perspective and shaped their understanding of some of the most significant historical events of the twentieth century.
Ambassador James F. Collins’ interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on July 15, 2003.
Naomi F. Collins’ interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on February 9, 2012.
Read Naomi F. Collins’ full oral history HERE.
Drafted by: Andrew Lim, Artemis Katsaris, Derek Gutierrez, Gray Gaertner, Joyce Ma, and Yulia Siverikova
Cracks of the Regime
“They so distrusted their own government to tell the truth, that they assumed any government publication was all lies.”
N. COLLINS: The students [at Moscow State] were bright and interesting . . . . I realized before too long—and wrote about it at that time—how little interest they had in ideology, theory, Marxism and communist theory . . . . They were already quite cynical then, even in the 1960s. At the time we thought that the regime could not last forever with this lack of interest; that at some point, it would crumble. There was also a lack of interest in the parades and forced holiday hoopla, not to mention TV and radio. What we did not realize then was how quickly, suddenly, unexpectedly, and soon the Soviet regime would collapse. We did not then guess that it would be in our lifetimes.
Q: I have talked to people who have served in Warsaw in the 60s and 70s. One thing they were convinced was that there were only about five really convinced Marxists.
N. COLLINS: That’s right. In Moscow at that time, the only convinced Marxists we met were those who were hired by the KGB to work with us, follow us, travel with us, keep an eye on us. They were allegedly with the foreign student office.
Q: How did you know who the KGB types were?
N. COLLINS: Oh, it was easy. As soon as we arrived, they greeted us at the station. All smiles and good cheer and positive thinking. I was suspicious. One good thing about coming from New York, I was cynical enough not to trust these professionally cheery people . . . .
The Russian students were careful but incredibly curious. They asked questions constantly. They would look at America magazine, the glossy publication of USIA (the U.S. Information Agency). These were hot items, this U.S. propaganda. We could also acquire books by American authors and share them with Russian friends. I remember, as they were reading, wide-eyed, a piece about Harlem. A friend asked, “These pictures of Harlem, are they real? Are those houses the ones they really live in?” I looked at the brownstones and said, “Yes.” I told them that many people shared these: they were not for one family alone. But then they looked at the streets parked up with cars and asked, “But they have those cars?” I said that some of them do. They so distrusted their own government to tell the truth, that they assumed any government publication was all lies.
J. COLLINS: From Paris we took the train, the fabled Orient Express, to Vienna. changed trains there, and boarded the Soviet Chopin Express train for the trip from Vienna to Moscow. In all it was a four-day trip from Paris, and when we finally did get into Moscow, we really knew what it meant to arrive! And the trip gave a real sense for the distances involved in all those historic movements of peoples, armies, travel accounts we had encountered only in books to that time; how far it was for Napoleon to walk. Then, when we arrived, it was sensory overload . . . .
It did not take long before I came to see how extraordinarily anti-human the Communist order really was, and how much time Russians spent in humanizing what was a system designed to be impossible for a human being to live in normally. It really did bring home the meaning of the word “totalitarian.” The system of controls and self-isolation really worked. There was no regular involvement with the West at that time; foreign radio, including short wave was jammed. There was no Western press, except for Communist party newspapers from other countries. There was no travel outside the Communist bloc by anyone but “cleared” people. It was impossible to know a Russian for any length of time unless he was vetted by the security services or working for them. We were monitored virtually all the time. I don’t know that I ever had a conversation of any substance in someone’s room. Real talk was always out in the park or on a balcony or someplace people thought they were not being overheard.
On the other hand, over time, living within this world engendered in me a basic sympathy and admiration for the ability of Russians we knew to survive it all, live in their world and in some ways make it work for them.
Q: What else struck you about your fellow students?
J. COLLINS: There were two impressions I had of the students at that time: One was how
extraordinarily immature they were in some ways compared to their American counterparts. Not in terms of their training, which was often clearly a cut above ours, but in terms of their ability to deal with things of daily life. Most of them never had the chance or need to make serious life decisions for themselves. For us by age 24 or 26 we were used to having made these kinds of decisions: about our futures; where we were going to school, what career we might choose. But almost all of their decisions were made for them either by the system—which might select them for something—or by their family, who might say, “We can get you into this or that,” based on connections. In general, they were quite unprepared, it seemed to us, for taking responsibility for their futures. That made a big impression.
A second big impression was that few if any really bought into the ideology or the “Party line.” Ideology played a pervasive role in the system as the legitimator of the Communist structure and intellectual disciplinarian. Nevertheless, nearly everyone thought ideology important for others than themselves. But there was great cynicism about Marxist studies and the required courses on Marxism-Leninism among the students I knew. These studies punched your ticket either to get a degree so you could do something else or so that you could get into the Communist Party channel and establish yourself as part of the elite. And so nearly everyone went along.
“The gaps were so enormous, with the 18th and 20th centuries coexisting in one place.”
Q: I heard of a Soviet specialist, who ended up in a little village, and he had the radio on, and they were talking about a space flight and here was a woman in the middle of the square pumping water into buckets to hang on the yoke on her shoulder. Draw a contrast from that.
N. COLLINS: Exactly. I wrote a poem on that theme a few years later. I was struck by the contrast between Soviet rockets and satellites heading for the moon with young girls in Moscow walking home from school in their heavy khaki cotton stockings and stiff white organdy hair bows, the way my mother looked in pictures when she was a child in the 1920’s or so. It was so anachronistic. And those village pumps.
The disconnect between rocket science and shared village pumps for water, outhouses instead of indoor plumbing, was so stark. In those villages—beginning just outside the windows of our high-rise building—the roads were unpaved, impassible mud in spring when the snows melted. The gaps were so enormous, with the 18th and 20th centuries coexisting in one place. There were also the stories of highly trained brain surgeons performing surgery in hospitals without hot running water. And the drugs they lacked would fill a book: aspirin, penicillin, as well as birth control devices and condoms. For so many years, the only way to limit family size was through abortions. Estimates suggest some five to eight per woman, which is a lot. Especially when anesthesia was not available. I try not to imagine how that would feel.
Q: This is your first time there. What did you think when you left? How did you feel about going back?
N. COLLINS: I returned from our student year there thinking that it was a long way from home, and that its economy and basic life were so primitive compared to ours that they had an incredibly long way to go. Such a conspicuous absence of consumer goods, of detergent, plastics, implements, and of course large goods, washers, driers, refrigerators, and cars. And I was thinking, “My God, if this is our superpower enemy, and they are so fragile at home, and so far from being “advanced”—well that was unexpected and a shock.
“Jim and I spent our final night there totally awake, for fear the KGB might get to us before we got out in the morning.”
Maybe this is a good place to retell how our student year ended. Sometime during the winter or spring, a stranger knocked on our door. He said he was a student and wanted to talk to Jim. He suggested taking a walk because he knew our room was bugged. We all knew this. So Jim went off with this young man, then returned, then went off for another walk with me to explain what happened. (I don’t have to tell you how cold it was outdoors.) Jim told me that the young man told him that he planned to defect from Russia. This put us in a difficult position, of course. Jim discouraged him. But some months later we got a call from the cultural officer at the Embassy who was in charge of students. He (I think his name was Christiansen) told Jim to come down to the Embassy right at that moment. And Jim did. The officer told Jim that they have to get Jim and me out of the country very quickly because a young Russian man had jumped ship in the Philippines and claimed to be a friend of Jim’s. Jim and I spent our final night there totally awake, for fear the KGB might get to us before we got out in the morning. We had our door wedged with a chair under the doorknob.
We weren’t being paranoid. This was a realistic possibility. We knew that an American professor, Frederick Barghoorn, had in fact been arrested and jailed on trumped up charges just a year or two before. The image of being in a Russian jail was not something I could sleep with. We never knew and never learned what the truth was: whether the man had simply defected and wanted a cover story, or whether he was a plant who made up the whole story to frame Jim. But we did know that we were going to leave immediately. The officer had told us that he and a car would be waiting for us outside the gates of the Embassy at 8:00 A.M. And we were to leave as if it were just a normal day for us, going to the bus or Metro to go downtown. That is, we were not to carry anything with us. Take your passport and we’ll put you on an early Air France flight out of Russia, he had said. We did as he said. We left everything in our room. (They found another American student later to pack up our things for shipment to London.)
They put us on a plane that we thought, and they thought, was going nonstop to Paris. The officer waited until the plane took off. We relaxed immediately. But what a shock when the plane landed in Warsaw! And we thought—oh, God, we’re vulnerable here. Maybe they’ve caught up with us. The pilot made us all get off the plane. So we did the most defensive thing we could think of: stayed with the crowd of French tourists on our plane, followed them from booth to booth as they shopped for knickknacks at the airport. As young as we were then (I had turned 24), we had survival skills. We imagined that no one would want to break through this cheerful crowd to capture us in the middle of it, making a distressing scene. We did not allow ourselves to be isolated for a second.
We landed in Paris not sure what to do, but managed to get a plane to London that night, arriving quite late. When we arrived in London, the immigration people were of course suspicious. We had no baggage. No money. Your passport is stamped with Russian visas and you’ve been living there, they said. What are we supposed to think? . . . . But of course we’re here today, so it all turned out well.
Making friends and contacts in the Soviet Union:
“We felt it was the right thing for them not to have us enter their lives”
Q: On more of the personal level, how did you find living there, contact with the Soviets, social contacts, and contacts with the KGB, and getting around?
J. COLLINS: Well, we were there as a family: Naomi, my wife, and two young children Robert and Jonathan, and me. Our daily lives were very much embassy centered. The American community was small. I think it was about 300 total in Moscow at that time. I think the number of officers for all U.S. agencies at the embassy was about 50 to 60. Our contacts with Soviet citizens were very circumscribed . . . .
There a broader section of people from different ministries were engaged, because visitors wanted to see a variety of officials and others and making these contacts provided entre to a broader than usual range of people. But these contacts were rarely followed up. There were efforts to have junior diplomats and ministry people come to events or to meet, but that was never very successful. And any contacts with non-official Soviet citizens (at this time) were very, very limited . . . .
I had contact (outside official business) with two people I came to know there when we were students, both of whom showed up in our lives in ways that made me ask, “How would they show up?” But one was someone we liked and got to know well and see him from time to time. It was obvious that nobody saw anyone at the embassy for more than one meeting without having to report back . . . .
So, I think the answer about my contacts with Russians is that I had all the expected and normal professional contacts, but they were almost never informal. Occasionally we would get people to visit us from places like the institutes, or from the academic world. Some of those would come to a dinner or a lunch, but usually only when it could be justified as an event in someone’s honor or with the excuse that there was a very formal reason to visit a foreign diplomat at his home. It was almost certain too that they always had to get permission to do it.
So, did we have many real relationships with Russians? No, not really. Except for a couple of people, we had known earlier, we did not have what you would call friendships.
Q: How would you say your relations were with Russians then: were you being shunned or could you meet people?
N. COLLINS: It was possible for most of us to meet only those Russians who were cleared to associate with foreigners. There were people at the embassy whose job it was to know dissidents, minorities, and nonconformists. They did befriend and socialize with people “on the outs.” We chose not to because it seemed, overall, that many Russians had enough risks in their life without associating with suspect foreigners. We felt it was the right thing for them not to have us enter their lives.
At the time, we knew a Russian pianist, Lev Vlasenko, whom Jim had met when he came to Harvard in 1960. As soon as we arrived in Moscow, we looked up his performances at the Conservatory. When we attended one and went backstage to see him, he hugged Jim with tears in his eyes. I guess we said something about getting together, and he looked into our eyes, and simply said, “I hope you will understand.” And that was it. We could greet him after performances, which we did. But it would have been selfish to impose our well-intentioned hospitality on him. He had occasional clearance to travel outside Russia. When he did, he’d send Jim a postcard. But we didn’t want to jeopardize his career or travels, or his wife’s career . . . .
As for other Russians, we would meet and talk in casual relationships, parks, restaurants, trains. Like Americans, Russians talk to “strangers.” And they were curious. But developing deeper relationships was dicey, other than with those sanctioned to know you. This didn’t mean that everyone at the embassy felt or acted the same way: this is what we chose.
“Openness, privacy, luxuries that could not be afforded during all those years living in Russia.”
Living under surveillance:
“Openness, privacy, luxuries that could not be afforded during all those years living in Russia.”
Q: Did you have any problems with surveillance?
N. COLLINS: I had a real problem living with it. And I had a problem with the concept. I found it very disturbing, intrusive, and discomforting. I didn’t take it very well. It made me edgy even though I had nothing to hide. I don’t think Jim and some others necessarily felt the same way because he and they were less bothered by it. Knowing our bedroom was bugged bothered me a lot. Knowing my movements were monitored—like a mouse in a maze. They kept close tabs on us, close scrutiny. It’s inhumane. I like to talk candidly, as you’ve probably figured out, but I couldn’t do that in Moscow for fear that my grievances, annoyances, and ideas might be used against me—or more likely, against Jim. He tends to be far more careful in what he says, controlled, and good at secrets. Living with that pall made me more cautious, careful, and less opened: I didn’t like what it did to me.
Q: How did you talk?
N. COLLINS: Well, we didn’t really. We didn’t talk candidly when we were indoors, ever. Conversation was very limited. When we had something that was really important that had to be shared, we had to discuss it outdoors in the open air in any season, sometimes freezing. Sometimes if there was enough background noise from a crowd of people in the apartment or the music up loud, it might be possible to speak and not be overheard. Perhaps this brings us back to the high divorce rate we were discussing earlier. A marriage can survive temporary travel for a few weeks, but over months and years, this kind of constrained living takes its toll. Couldn’t even talk about one’s own children or their issues, let alone exchange or share concerns of daily life. Openness, privacy, luxuries that could not be afforded during all those years living in Russia.
Q: Did you have any particular problem with harassment? I assume you knew you were bugged.
J. COLLINS: I did. We were closely monitored almost all the time. We knew our apartment was bugged, and you assumed there was eavesdropping on everything you did. I had little harassment personally, but was followed a lot. This was partly because our hosts often confused me with the embassy station chief. Also because I was doing work of real interest, it was clear the authorities really wanted to know what I was up to, who I met, what I was doing. I always had the impression they were especially interested in my contacts with Arab diplomats, for example. So, I was used to being closely watched; but nobody tried to interfere with me or my work. On the personal level, we assumed people came into the apartment occasionally, but that was neither here nor there: we took that for granted. On the other hand, there were colleagues who had other experiences. Our officers who had contact with dissidents were actively harassed. They had tires slashed on the car or a huge chunk of ice smashed their car hood to send the message that what the officer was doing was not acceptable. In general, of course, the KGB assumed everybody was involved in intelligence work, and there was a lot of spy vs. spy gaming as a part of life. It was wearing and it took its toll on many in the community. But I personally saw it as part of the working conditions and would not let it interfere.
The system’s effect on marriages:
“And if the pressure of Russian surveillance weren’t hard enough on families and marriages, then there were the incredible and endless working hours of the Embassy.”
Q: The Foreign Service has been particularly rough on marriages, especially in Eastern European assignment . . . .
Q: What’s the problem? Why would this happen?
N. COLLINS: That is a good question. First, we would have to ascertain whether the incidence of divorce was indeed higher among this group than among those who served in other regions or worked in D.C. I don’t know. I’m also not sure if it’s higher than it is in comparable professions, although it appeared to be higher than that among military officers. If it is indeed higher, it’s probably because of the strain put on families: difficult and challenging setting, few cheering sides to life, and of course officers working seven days a week, evenings, weekends, and holidays, leaving families on their own in an unappealing setting. Constant surveillance even in the “home.” So few outlets. In the few spare hours, professional “entertaining” and attending events is virtually required. As for cause and effect: hard to know if East Europe drives people to greater divorce, or if officers who select that area are already less concerned with family life than, let’s say, those who choose Latin America. I’d love to see longitudinal studies—but I do agree that divorce rates appear to be high.
Q: Did you find there were wives who couldn’t take it [living in such conditions] at all?
N. COLLINS: Well, the stresses were hard on everybody. I would be surprised if anybody thought all this was fine, fun, comfortable, easy, or joyous. And if the pressure of Russian surveillance weren’t hard enough on families and marriages, then there were the incredible and endless working hours of the Embassy—weekends, holidays, and evenings all considered normal working hours. When people in Washington have those schedules, at least there are outlets for their families: movies, playgrounds, restaurants, children’s events, a beach or pool or mall. There wasn’t even one good working playground for children in the whole city. No place for the slides and swings and climbing for a little child.
J. COLLINS: . . . I think the other thing that was true about Moscow was that you had, if you were an FSO, the sense that you were a part of something that mattered, that made a difference. That’s why you choose a career like this. Everything I was working on was in the newspapers and was of interest up the chain. I had a readership that included the Secretary of State, something not too many could say. That was compensation for a lot of the other things. At least for me. It was much harder on Naomi and the family.
Rest and Relaxation
“These days were truly vacation time . . . .”
Q: Did the Soviet Union shut down in August the way Western Europe did?
J. COLLINS: It was certainly vacation time. August 1 saw the roads out of town jammed with unusual traffic heading for the dachas. The shutdown was not as pronounced as it has become over the past 20 years, but it was a pretty good imitation of Europe and was certainly a time no one planned major business. That said, if we had been more focused, I suppose we would have been watching the development of Gorbachev’s negotiations over the Union Treaty. But having got the summit out of the way in July, embassy staff were going to go off to vacation and the personnel turnover at the embassy was in full swing. Gorbachev went off to his dacha on a previously announced vacation as usual, and with key people out of the capital government business was on idle with “actings” left in charge.
In this regard the embassy was no exception. We had bidden farewell to Jack Matlock not long after the summit—I think Jack left on the 10th of August—and I became chargé. With confidence that this was the quiet time, Naomi and I decided we would also join the travelers to see some of the country we had not visited. We made a short trip to Leningrad and then on return, never having visited Ukraine, we set off for a short trip to Odessa. We enjoyed these trips, and I recall especially impressions of Odessa where we stayed in the Krasnaya hotel, a Sovietized former British luxury hotel from the early 20th century It was a memorable trip with recollections of descending the staircase Eisenstein’s film on 1905 made famous, having a first encounter with apricot ice cream, and encountering an elderly Jewish gentleman who had survived the war and was relishing the opportunity to tell his American guests about his youth watching grand balls on the veranda of the royal palace that overlooks the Odessa harbor. These days were truly vacation time, albeit full immersion in Soviet shortages of food and water. And we returned to a quiet, almost sleepy Moscow.
“Have you heard the news? You better turn it on.”
That did not last! On the morning of the nineteenth of August at about three minutes after seven I had a call from one of my political officers Ed Salazar who said, “Have you heard the news? You better turn it on.” The radio in the voice any Moscow veteran knew well was announcing that Gorbachev had been temporarily relieved of his responsibilities as president for reasons of health, and an extraordinary committee (the Russian was GKChP) was taking charge of the government. Vice President Yanaev was heading the committee and serving as acting head of state. There followed a bunch of orders and the obligatory martial music that anyone familiar with Soviet practice knew normally accompanied either death of a head of state or signaled a change at the top. End of vacation! My immediate reaction I remember was “OH (expletive),” and we were off to the races.
Q: I have to say for anybody in charge of a diplomatic office and somebody calls and says, “Did you hear the news?” . . . . [laughter]
J. COLLINS: It’s usually bad news. Rarely do they say Merry Christmas or something. Certainly the case this time.
Q: I assume you called in your staff, those who were there.
J. COLLINS: Fortunately pretty much the whole country team was still there. They had not yet turned over much that summer. Joe Hulings, my co-DCM, Ray Smith and John Blaney, my political and economic counselors, were still in place. Our attaché Greg Govan was likewise still there. The country team sat down at 8:00 a.m. We discussed first what we knew, which frankly wasn’t a heck of a lot. We had the announcements from the Kremlin and their list of orders. We had heard nothing from Gorbachev or on his behalf from anyone with him. Nor had we heard anything yet from Yeltsin at the White House. It was peculiar that we saw the beginnings of military movements by some interior ministry forces outside the city, but at that hour they had not yet showed up in the center of town or in our area—a bit peculiar and out of character with what we would have expected. People we had out looking around the city reported normality with people going to work and no significant movement of forces. Communications seemed to be working normally with CNN on, the phones and fax machines operating normally. The one anomaly at this time was suspension of normal press distribution and media programming. On the whole at this early hour urban life seemed to be pretty normal.
The next question for us was what we, as the embassy, should do given the circumstances? How should we conduct ourselves? We had American citizens’ safety and property to think about. We were faced with issues of embassy security and conduct in the context of uncertainty about Gorbachev’s position. And we had no guidance or official reaction from Washington for which all these events were unfolding at something like 1:00 a.m. We had been on to the Operations Center but at most, key officials were just being alerted to what had been announced. In short, this country team was on its own and this chargé had the unusual problem of making some critical decisions on his own.
An Important Decision
“The embassy would have nothing to do with GKChP or representatives of the Soviet Government . . . .”
Q: I can imagine it was tense.
J. COLLINS: Well, I suppose, but I also remember us taking on the business we had before us with calm discussion and as a real team. The thing I remember in a way most of all is that at the outset these events pulled us all together. Any past differences or old squabbles evaporated in the face of a shared sense of purpose and responsibility. As I recall, that meeting first of all agreed we didn’t know key facts about what was going on. We did not know what to make of the announcement about Gorbachev and health, but having heard nothing from Gorbachev himself, we were highly dubious that this was all that it was cracked up to be.
At the same time, we decided that without clarity on that score, without hearing from Gorbachev or a credible statement from him, we didn’t see how what had been announced could be a legal act, at least from what we knew of the Soviet constitution. The issue for us thus became how did we deal with issues absent clarity about who was legally in charge in Moscow or at least would be taken as such. What would we do in the event, which I thought almost certain, we were approached by the leaders of the GKChP in a manner that would require us formally or informally to recognize their authority. These issues were not, of course, discussed in a vacuum. We all understood that the leaders of the GKChP were led by Gorbachev’s opponents and that this was the effort to halt Gorbachev’s effort to reform the Union.
That morning, as Chargé, after consulting with my colleagues, I guess I made the one significant foreign policy decision I ever actually made on my own. I decided that we, the embassy, would have nothing to do with GKChP or representatives of the Soviet Government except insofar as it would be necessary for the protection of American citizens and property. We would not engage in, if you will, diplomatic work with them or have other contact with that government until we had clarity regarding the legitimacy of the GKChP’s actions. We reported that back to Washington as what we were doing. Nobody said no, and as Washington came awake that, in effect, was accepted as policy.
In the meantime, developments progressed quickly during the early morning. The Ministry of Interior divisions were beginning to stream into town deploying into the city center around the Kremlin and to the area of the White House located right across from the embassy compound. We also learned that Yeltsin had arrived at the White House, and was contesting the action of the self-proclaimed committee in the Kremlin. He had announced he did not recognize the GKChP’s authority, said their action was illegal, and famously atop a tank announced he would oppose them. That set both the policy and physical framework for the entire situation we found ourselves in over the next three days.
Part of History
“We didn’t know whether the junta was going to try a military assault on the White House.”
My historian wife Naomi has noted that one of the problems in being a part of historic events is that unlike those who write about them after the fact, those who are living participants do not know how they will turn out. And that was certainly true for us during these critical days. We didn’t know whether the junta was going to try a military assault on the White House. Everybody agreed it was fully within their capability to do it, and few thought the resistance could prevail if they did. They also agreed it would be very violent, bloody, and dangerous for us and all others in the area, and would have very nasty consequences. In the end, of course, no assault came. Just why no one knew at the time: perhaps they couldn’t count on their troops to fire on their own people, perhaps they feared the consequences of a military conflict between different parts of the military, which was certainly possible given what was around the White House: perhaps they just could not launch a bloodbath. Historians will have a lot of documents to mull over about this decision. In any event, the military assault did not come, and we came through the coup safely. As the second day came to an end, it was pretty clear that the junta was in trouble, and as we awoke on the third day, there were signs things were beginning to unravel.