Speak Russian?

Back in the days when the world was hale and hearty (and the U.S. won every war it entered), I was a member of the Second Battalion, 273rd Infantry Regiment.  We met the Russian army at the Elbe River, effectively cutting Germany in two and bringing the war we then fought to its inevitable conclusion.  Following orders, we waited patiently for the Russians, thankful like all infantrymen for the opportunity to sit down.

In time, the Russians arrived, clad in a striking array of battle costumes, and there was an avalanche of cheering and handshaking.  Since none of us could speak Russian, nor they English, there was limited conversation except in pidgin German, which none of us liked to use, but we were all happy.  We showered them with gifts – they had nothing – and were relieved that the war was coming to a close.  Language limitations kept the celebrations reasonably within check; even with flash bulbs popping off for photographs, there wasn't much we could say other than welcome, good to see you.  After saying that four or five times, we ran out of ideas.

 Almost immediately after the war's end, I became involved in transporting former P.W.s, or displaced persons, back to their home countries.  From the expressions on some of the faces we transported, I gathered that the Soviet government was not as popular as it claimed to be.  My observations didn't matter, however.

From there I moved to military government and finished at long last my tour of duty.

Back home in America, I took advantage of the very generous veteran's programs, earned an M.A., and began working for a living, obtaining a job with the newly formed U.S. Information Agency.  We were tasked to relay to the world the true picture of the United States.  I believed in what I was doing and enjoyed the work.

Another happy event that came at the same time was the news that someone in Chicago had formed an American version of Veterans of the Elbe River Link-Up, and there was the possibility of a reunion in Moscow.  It was noted that all the expenses would be covered by the Soviet government other than transport to and from Moscow.  In those days, such a round- trip ticket would have been too costly for me, so I asked some local news media if they would be interested in a participant's account.  Two expressed interest, and I felt sure that an offer would materialize.  Future glory was in the offing: a personal story with my own byline in addition to the opportunities presented by the publication of the first story.  How lucky could I get?

Along with the congratulations bestowed upon me was the information that our colleagues in the State Department would have to approve the whole venture.  I blithely set off, therefore, to visit the Soviet Desk officer, accompanied by one of our liaison people.

The desk officer was large and heavyset and seemed older than most of us.  The conversation was shockingly brief.

"They'll blackmail you," he said.


"They'll blackmail you.  They'll arrange for you to meet one of their provocative female spies.  She'll seduce you.  They'll take pictures.  Show them to your wife, and you're gone."

"But I'm not even married."

"Too bad.  You'll be blackmailed anyway."

"Too bad?  You mean I can't go because I might make love to a woman?"

I felt the calming hand of the liaison officer on my shoulder and heard him say, "Thanks for the time extended."  The interview that was to lead to fame, fortune, and personal glory was over in less than a minute.

I walked wordlessly back to my home office – a wise decision, since I was in no mood to talk – and there received consoling words until the conversation, rather quickly, I thought, turned to projects underway.

A year later Washington was the meeting place, and I volunteered to be a host.  To this day, I do not know whether the Russian I guided had actually been at the Elbe or not.  It did not matter, because although he was amiable, he did not want to go to the places I invited him, nor could I take him to the places he wanted to go.  It was a fairly sterile meeting.

Shortly after, I began a three-year tour of duty in India, which was the start of my Foreign Service career.  I met a few Russians at diplomatic cocktail parties, which I might have mentioned to my Embassy superiors or might not have.  Much depended on the length of my conversation and its pertinence to current affairs.  In general our conversations were limited; very polite; and, to be candid, rather boring.  We did not want to give out information, and we were careful not to do so.

I mention these episodes now because there has been so much talk about meeting with the Russians lately.  Diplomats are professional public speakers.  They cannot negotiate unless they talk.  Academicians talk about "publish or perish."  Diplomats, professional negotiators, must either negotiate through talking or resign.  It's important to know what people are talking about, but as in everything, there is a limit.

Yes, in 1955, I shook the hand of a Russian Army lieutenant.  Turn me in if you like.  After all, the TV news media have 24 air hours to fill.