Monday, December 8, 2014

John McVickar: Remembered Vignettes of Embassy Moscow

U.S. Embassy, Moscow in the 1960s
For any veteran of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow – I served there myself twice, in the mid-eighties and then early nineties – McVickar’s account of his tour from June 1959 to September 1961 will have a familiar ring.  The venues, from Spaso House (the U.S. Ambassador’s residence) to the Bolshoi, are entirely recognizable.  So, too, the professional pressures of living under persistent surveillance and petty bureaucracy – sadly a hallmark today, too, of diplomatic life in Putin’s Russia.

McVickar’s vantage point is from well down the pecking order.  I particularly like his anecdote about sidling up to a conversation between Soviet leader Khrushchev and U.S. Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. Llewellyn "Tommy" Thompson at the annual July 4th Spaso House reception, only to have Thompson say:  “McVickar, get some more ice.”   Diplomatic life is one part glamour, two parts figuratively getting more ice…
Nikita Khrushchev and Mrs. Thompson at Spaso House, 1961  James Whitmore, Life Magazine

But McVickar also made the most of the opportunity to mingle with Russians whenever possible, around the city and during his travels.  That, in my mind, was what made the work in the Soviet Union exhilarating:  listening to Russians in countless ad hoc conversations open up about their closed society, against the backdrop of the Cold War’s riveting headlines. 

McVickar writes that his service in Moscow “turned out to be an intense daily venture” encompassing “three busy summers and two long, cold but still adventureful [sic] winters.”  It had an enduring effect on him, he says, “for better and worse.”  Somewhat paradoxically, as he notes, it led to him becoming both a conservative Republican and a convinced environmentalist.  His recollections of the life of a U.S. consul in Moscow are here.

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