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48

DECEMBER 2016

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THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL

This firsthand account of a fire in the secure area

of Embassy Moscow on March 28, 1991, conveys the

importance and drama of Diplomatic Telecommunications

Service work during the last days of the USSR.

COMMUNICATIONS BEHIND THE

IRON CURTAIN

BY T I MOTHY C . LAWSON

Timothy C. Lawson is a retired Senior Foreign Service

officer. He served in the USSR twice, from 1983 to 1985

and from 1989 to 1991. In addition to Moscow, during

26 years in the Foreign Service, he served in Jordan,

Lebanon, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Pakistan, South Korea and

Washington, D.C. A member of AFSA and the National Military

Intelligence Association, he retired in 2007.

M

arch 28, 1991. Moscow’s

gray Stalinist-style build-

ings—adorned with red,

hammer–and-sickle-

emblazoned flags waving

in the wind—loomed

against a metallic sky. The

sidewalk from the new

embassy compound up

to the old embassy, where I worked, was slippery with dirty,

ON RUSSIA

melting snow. A small church, nicknamed “Our Lady of Eternal

Surveillance” or, later, “Our Lady of Perpetual Observation”

because it doubled as a KGB listening post, sat directly across

the street. The morning was normal but for one thing: ten-

sion hung in the air like icicles, a tension felt not only by our

embassy reporting officers, but by millions of Soviet citizens.

Supporters of Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian

Federation, planned to stage a demonstration that day. Even

after the fall of the Berlin Wall, demonstrations inside the USSR

were rare. This one, if held, would directly defy Soviet President

Mikhail Gorbachev. The yoke of control was still tight, with the

Kremlin remaining our number-one national security threat,

but fissures in the heart of communism were forming. You

could see it on Arbat Street, teeming with subversive artists and

FOCUS