WASHINGTON -- Someone had to clean the toilets. Someone had to lug that fresh milk into the embassy. And it couldn’t be the ambassador.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's order that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia cut 755 staff members was a return to a tactic that hasn’t been seen in bilateral relations in years.
Thirty-one years, to be precise.
In October 1986, Soviet authorities ordered a reduction of some 200 employees of the U.S. mission.
At the time, the second-in-charge was Richard Combs. Now long retired from U.S. foreign service and a life of diplomacy, Combs recalls in an interview with RFE/RL what happened in October 1986 when diplomats fluent in multiple languages or steeped in Kremlinology found themselves driving school buses or schlepping around crates of fresh milk.
RFE/RL: What do you recall from that time when the order came down, from the Soviet Foreign Ministry, that there would be an expulsion?
Richard Combs: In ’86, what they did was withdraw all of the Soviet local employees -- I think there were about 200 total. These folks did all the heavy lifting. We employed Soviets as maids and cooks and cleaning people and chauffeurs and mechanics and plumbers and all of that stuff. So obviously we had to figure out how to fulfill all of those essential functions ourselves.
It had a funny -- or not-so-funny -- impact to the social side of diplomacy. How can you have a dinner party or a reception when you’ve got nobody to cook, nobody to serve, and nobody to clean up except for yourself?
And that was a big problem because it involved a lot of heavy lifting, among other things. It’s astounding how much heavy stuff comes into the embassy on a daily basis, and somebody has to schlep that stuff from the train station to customs to the embassy and so forth. That was the major problem: the logistics of operating a large, important embassy, without suddenly some 200 local, Soviet employees.
RFE/RL: So there were no diplomats per se who were expelled...?
Combs: No. Over the years, of course, diplomats had been expelled. But in this instance the Foreign Ministry and the Soviet government decided to remove all of the locals. We had grown quite dependent on them for the operating of the embassy and the consulate in Leningrad.
RFE/RL: What was the atmosphere like in Moscow in 1986?
Combs: There had been some tit-for-tat expulsions that led up to this. We had actually been warned informally that if we continued to expel Soviets from the United States, we were very vulnerable because we had all these locals employed...
In terms of the atmosphere, most Americans who served in Moscow were there in a dedicated way. You know, we were on all the front lines of the Cold War and all that stuff. So esprit de corps was pretty high in the embassy. So the initial reaction was, "Goddammit, we’ll make this thing run ourselves and to hell to the Russians, the Soviets."
And that was fine for a while. But we had to establish rosters of work duties, such as cleaning toilets and moving crates of milk, and all that sort of thing, that included everybody in the embassy except for the ambassador and me. So that meant on any given day a fair number of embassy officers and staff put on work clothes and did menial tasks for the day. So that got tiresome after a while. That was No. 1.
No. 2, it had a funny -- or not-so-funny -- impact to the social side of diplomacy. How can you have a dinner party or a reception when you’ve got nobody to cook, nobody to serve, and nobody to clean up except for yourself? So the nonessential part of the embassy operation suffered more than the essential...by which I mean gathering information, reporting it, the substantive side of the embassy. But the social side, which is important in diplomacy, we couldn’t do very much for the reasons I mentioned.
Also, there was a kind of a safety element as well. We had to keep our automobiles and school buses in repair. Somebody had to drive the school buses to get the kids to school, as well. There were some real-life implications that had to do with safety, and we had to cope with that as best we could.
RFE/RL: So you would have a low-level junior member of the diplomatic staff getting behind the wheel of a minivan to drive the kids to school?
Combs: We had one or two larger buses...and somebody had to drive those as well. What helped us a lot is that we had a separate bilateral agreement with the Soviets, as I dimly recall. They were building a new embassy in Washington at the time, and we were building a new embassy building in Moscow, and we had a fairly large contingent of Seabees (the U.S. Navy’s specialized construction battalion) to oversee construction. And, thank God, these guys were skilled mechanics and in construction, so they pitched in and helped a lot.
We also found interesting ways around this problem. For example, the embassy of the Philippines had a fairly large staff and a lot of dependents, and we immediately hired some of them to work because they were not, obviously, Soviet locals, and there was no restriction on how many people we could hire as long as they were not Soviet locals. So we found workarounds, but it had a major impact.
RFE/RL: Were there any amusing recollections of diplomatic staff doing interesting or unusual tasks from the time?
Combs: Skilled, well-qualified diplomats were carrying furniture and a lot of things. We brought a lot of stuff in from Helsinki, Finland, like fresh milk and fresh fruit and vegetables from the Stockmann’s department store up there. Somebody had to go down to the train station, lift that stuff off of the train cars, put it on trucks, bring it to the embassy, lift it off the trucks, and put it into the refrigerators or wherever it went. And this went on day after day after day. That got awfully tiresome after a while.
The initial reaction was, "We’ll make this work, goddammit. We’re Americans" -- national pride and all that. And that held up for a while, but then it got tiresome, having to clean urinals every day.
The amount of stuff that comes into an embassy, we found out, is quite mind-boggling. I mean, even mail and boxes and stuff. We ordered a lot of stuff from Sears routinely. We had a work detail, on a roster, every day, mainly foreign-service officers along with secretaries and the embassy doctor and everybody else. That was just a lot of physical work. Of course, someone had to clean the toilets and the urinals at the embassy building, to clean the embassy itself, that locals had done, and we had taken it for granted, obviously, for many years.
It’s interesting, by the way, that this was a fairly clever move on the Soviets’ part, because they hire no American employees in their embassy and their consulate, so we were not in a position to retaliate. Obviously, the locals we had had to cooperate with the KGB, and we knew that, but somebody made a decision many, many years ago to put up with that problem in order to keep the American staff [numbers] down.
[The order to cut the U.S. diplomatic workforce came just eight months after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made his announcement about “glasnost” and “perestroika” -- the new policies of openness and economic restructuring that lay the groundwork ultimately for the Soviet collapse. Despite the thawing rhetoric at the time, on the front lines, at the embassies and elsewhere, the Cold War still very much remained.]
Combs: [The withdrawal] was a tactical move on the Soviets’ part, that they warned us about. And that was typical Soviet behavior. But that was contrary to what Gorbachev was doing at that time. Nobody expected they would really follow through with it.
RFE/RL: There must be some funny stories from that period, when you had erudite, multiple-language-speaking people cleaning urinals or taking the trash out...
Combs: We didn’t see it as all that humorous at the time. Of course, we all cleaned our own apartment, and [the ambassador and his wife] had to clean Spaso House (the historic U.S. ambassadorial residence in Moscow). They had some help. What we quickly did is we hired other third-country folks living in Moscow who were willing to come and work for pay, of course, and they did not fall under the restrictions because they obviously were not Soviet citizens. So we found a fair number of workarounds.
But we also put a fair number of American spouses and dependents to work. The initial reaction was, "We’ll make this work, goddammit. We’re Americans" -- national pride and all that. And that held up for a while, but then it got tiresome, having to clean urinals every day. The main thing is we did our best to keep it equitable, to put everyone on the work rosters. I probably should have been on there, but the ambassador thought that we should stay in our spiffy clothes in case we had to go over to the Foreign Ministry. He and I were the only exceptions. But literally everybody else, the admiral in charge of the defense office, the embassy doctor, [and] everybody were on work rosters.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity