On the morning of October 24, 1986, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Arthur Hartman drove himself to work.
Later that day, the ambassador's wife, Donna Hartman, personally served popcorn from a silver bowl to a group of Soviet generals at a Moscow reception, according to a Washington Post report. Behind the scenes, U.S. Marines washed the dishes.
The implementation of Russian President Vladimir Putin's July 30 order that the United States reduce the staff at its diplomatic missions by 755 employees will not be the first time U.S. diplomats in Russia have faced the prospect of enduring without the support of secretaries, drivers, cooks, and other staff.
Late on October 23, 1986, Soviet authorities barred the United States from employing Soviet nationals at its diplomatic missions, effective immediately. Some 260 local staff lost their jobs in the move, which was the culmination of a series of tit-for-tat measures through the year that marked a tense moment in superpower relations. Local hires did not return to U.S. diplomatic missions in the country until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
On October 31, The New York Times reported that Raymond Benson, counselor for press and cultural affairs at the Moscow embassy, spent the day washing cars. Assistant naval attache Gary Barnes was unloading supplies at the embassy commissary.
Mission employees all spent one day every two weeks doing support-staff work until the State Department was able to hire and bring in new workers from the United States.
It was a tense time in bilateral relations, even though the relatively young and liberal Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in the Soviet Union in March 1985 and had immediately begun making promising changes. He removed long-serving Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko -- known in the West by the sobriquet Mr. Nyet -- and, in May 1986, replaced the dour Anatoly Dobrynin, who had served as Soviet ambassador to the United States since 1962
In November 1985, Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan held a summit in Geneva at which they clashed over the U.S. plan to develop a space-based antimissile system, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Pressuring The U.S.S.R.
In general, the Reagan administration was pursuing a policy of pressuring the Soviet Union in many ways, including SDI; the provision of arms to fighters in Afghanistan; pushing world oil producers to boost production in order to lower global oil prices; and confronting the Soviet Union on human rights, particularly the emigration of Soviet Jews.
It was also a time of intense espionage activity on both sides. In August 1985, Washington barred Soviet construction workers from working on a new U.S. Embassy building in Moscow after it was revealed the structure was riddled with listening devices. Throughout this period, CIA assets in the Soviet Union were disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Although the CIA initially blamed the leak on agent Edward Lee Howard, who was exposed in 1985, it is now believed that Howard's exposure was a KGB operation to protect a more valuable CIA mole, Aldrich Ames, who spied for the Soviet Union and Russia from at least 1985 until 1994. U.S. Navy officer John A. Walker was arrested in May 1985 after having spied for the Soviet Union since 1968.
In February 1986, the State Department accused the KGB of spraying U.S. diplomats with a potentially dangerous chemical agent intended to make them easier to track, in an incident that became known as the "spy dust" scandal.
The FBI began complaining at the time that it was unable to cope with the task of monitoring the large number of possible Soviet agents in the United States. The diplomatic missions of the two countries had already been capped at 320. In addition, the FBI was tracking Soviet journalists, exchange students, Aeroflot employees, and others who might have been conducting espionage without diplomatic cover. A particular problem for the FBI was the large Soviet mission to the United Nations in New York.
In early 1986, Washington took the unprecedented step of ordering the Soviet Union to reduce its UN mission by 100 diplomats over the course of two years. The first 25 would have to leave the United States by October 1. After the Soviets refused to respond to the U.S. order through the summer, Washington submitted the names of 25 mission diplomats to be expelled. Washington warned that if Moscow retaliated by expelling U.S. diplomats, the U.S. reaction would be "severe."
On August 24, 1986, the FBI arrested Gennady Zakharov, a diplomat with the Soviet UN mission as he was receiving information from a U.S. double agent. Six days later, the Soviets arrested U.S. journalist Nicholas Daniloff, also for allegedly receiving classified documents. After an intense flurry of diplomatic activity, Zakharov and Daniloff were allowed to return to their respective countries in late September.
In the midst of the Zakharov-Daniloff scandal, Reagan and Gorbachev held another summit, in Reykjavik, Iceland, on October 11-12.
'Not The American Way'
In early October, the Soviets retaliated to the U.S. expulsions by themselves expelling five U.S. diplomats. True to its word, one week later, Washington announced a reduced "ceiling" on the number of Soviet diplomats in the United States -- 225 in Washington and 26 at the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, for a total of 251. Washington also expelled five Soviet diplomats.
The State Department did not anticipate that the reduced ceiling would become a problem for Washington. The Soviets traditionally brought their own support staff to their diplomatic missions, which had been counted under the previous ceiling of 320. The United States, however, hired local support staff for its embassy in Moscow and its consulate in Leningrad (now, St. Petersburg), so its official diplomatic mission was well below the new ceiling.
That's when the Soviets surprised Washington by banning the hiring of local staff, effective immediately, in addition to imposing the same 225/26 restrictions and expelling five additional diplomats. Despite the fact that the Soviets had expelled five more diplomats than the United States had, Washington decided to end the standoff. For their part, the Soviets quietly met the next three deadlines for reducing their UN mission.
But for a few months in the severe winter of 1986-87, U.S. diplomats in the Soviet Union bit the bullet and carried on without support.
"We didn't conquer a continent by giving up," embassy spokesman Jaroslav Verner was quoted as saying at the time by the Washington Post. "It is not the American way."