The Foreign Service Journal - March 2017
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MARCH 2017



etal revolt from below were masterfully

reported by Michael Gfoeller (later an

adviser to General David Petraeus with

the rank of ambassador) and Michael

Desaro. ECON became the assigned

contact point for Boris Yeltsin, and there

was no shortage of information from us

about growing Russian nationalism.

What most drove our deep concerns

was our daily exposure to a nose-diving

economy with great centrifugal force

that was an enabler if not incubator of

separatism, be it in the Baltics, in Russia

itself or elsewhere.

I must quickly add, however, that

pressure to contain our alerts abated

considerably on the arrival in 1990 of

Deputy Chief of Mission Jim Collins

(later ambassador to Russia). I was also

pleased with the embassy’s cable, “Look-

ing into the Abyss…,” sent in mid-1990.

Even though it pitched the end of the

Soviet Union only as a possibility, not

a prediction, it nevertheless reflected

some of the deep stability concerns the

Economic Section had long been signal-

ing to Washington. I urge historians

to seek declassification of the range of

Embassy Moscow reporting from all sec-

tions during this critical period.

Washington and, somehow,



—and likely the KGB—were aware

that the Economic Section had long

been warning of the prospect of Soviet

collapse. After I returned fromMoscow

in 1991 to join the Senior Seminar, I

requested an appointment with the

Director General’s office after having

been turned down curtly and succes-

sively for many onward assignments,

some of which I should have gotten


Frankly, I was looking for a step-up

after my performance in Moscow, but

instead I was presented with a printed

letter requesting my resignation from the

Foreign Service, and told bluntly that I

had to sign it on the spot.

A Washington-Style

Show Trial

When I asked why, I was lectured that

my section had done much too much

overly pessimistic reporting, includ-

ing cables on our meetings, and that

unnamed senior officials at State and in

the White House had been “alarmed”

and “embarrassed” by the dire reports,

assessments and predictions that ECON

had made on prospects for the USSR.

As the person in charge of ECON, I

would now be held accountable. In true

Soviet fashion, when I demurred on sign-

ing the resignation letter, I was told that

the only assignment I would be permit-

ted henceforth would be a do-nothing,

out-of-agency job (i.e., professional Sibe-

ria); that is, until the DG’s office could

build a sufficient case to select me out of

the Foreign Service.

Resign now, and embarrassment

could be avoided, I was told. The only

thing missing was a revolver on the desk.

I later successfully rebounded, rerout-

ing my career, but I barely survived this

professional purge attempt. And I must

say, it remains a very odd feeling to have

been officially denounced on Soviet tele-

vision, only to come home later to face

this kind of “show trial” frommy own


This anecdote not only makes clear

where the Economic Section stood on

the issue of Soviet stability. It also shines

a clear light on the risk of being a mes-

senger of troubling news.

Make no mistake, I deeply respect

the Political Section of that period and,

of course, Amb. Matlock. I would also

point to the remarkable work of people

like Thomas Graham (later NSC Russia

director) on the Baltics and nationalities,




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