U.S. Diplomatic Couriers: Into Moscow
In the 1950s, Diplomatic Couriers traveled tens of thousands of miles per year, crossing borders both geographic and cultural. The United States and the USSR, once allied at the end of World War II, had become adversaries in what became known as the Cold War, as Soviet power crept further west across Europe. Events like the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948–1949 caused U.S officials to grow increasingly wary of the possibility that Western European leaders might deal with their security concerns by negotiating with Stalin and the Soviet Union.
The Truman administration looked to military alliances and humanitarian assistance to bolster the security and prosperity of Western Europe and cement Euro-Atlantic ties. The North Atlantic Treaty signed in 1949 brought the United States, Canada, and much of Western Europe into a collective security alliance. The Marshall Plan, proposed by Secretary of State George C. Marshall, directed $12 billion toward the rebuilding of Western Europe, regenerating industrialization and bringing extensive investment into the region.
The Soviet refusal either to participate in the Marshall Plan or to allow its satellite states in Eastern Europe to accept the economic assistance helped to reinforce the growing division between the East and the West in Europe. The U.S. Diplomatic Couriers felt acutely this division as they carried diplomatic pouches from behind the Iron Curtain in Western Germany to our missions in Budapest and Bucharest, and from Helsinki into the Soviet Union to support the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The couriers traveled in pairs to ensure their own safety and the security of the diplomatic pouches.
During this era, the U.S. Diplomatic Couriers provided service to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from Helsinki. This “Helsinki Detail” was often a 3- or 4-week detail during which the couriers would take turns collecting and delivering the diplomatic pouches from the mail hub in Frankfurt, Germany, up to Helsinki, Finland, then into the Soviet Union. Couriers traveled by air several times a week, carrying smaller pouches on Aeroflot or SAS flights directly into Moscow. In order to bring in larger loads, the couriers made monthly train trips through Leningrad into Moscow. Depending on flight or train schedules, the couriers often spent several days off-duty in Moscow.
In this short documentary, the U.S. Diplomatic Couriers talk about the journey and their personal impressions of what it was like to travel into Moscow during this era.
- Rebecca A. Ross, Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Department of State
NARRATOR: In 1918, the Diplomatic Courier Service was established to support the work of American diplomats by ensuring that classified messages and materials were delivered safely and securely to U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. Over the hundred year history of the courier service this core mission has not changed, and remains critical to the national security of the United States.
Before the onset of the jet age, this small group of couriers traveled tens of thousands of miles per year, often spending months on the road. Following World War II, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union—once allies—were increasingly strained and grew into what became known as the Cold War.
Even during these complicated times, a mutual respect for international conventions on diplomatic relations meant that the couriers were among the few still able to travel into the Soviet Union. Making the trip from Helsinki into Moscow several times a week, they brought the diplomatic pouch with classified correspondence from Washington, news from the West, and even personal mail.
MR. JAMES VERREOS: Some of the more interesting and funny things occurred, of course, especially on trips to Moscow. The Soviets were right on your back. You were almost never six feet away from somebody who was looking over your shoulder.
We served the Soviet Union by what we called a satellite office in Helsinki.
MR. ERNEST HOHMAN: But Helsinki is very unique, there’s no question about it. You go there in the winter months and they have a sign that says, welcome to Santa Claus land. And that’s where, in a sense, you feel—a lot of ice and snow. But it’s a beautiful country.
MR. KENNETH COOPER: Every time I had the Helsinki detail it was always in December, January, or February. So I have probably a different perspective on this than the guys who did it in June, July, and August. But we had a lot of fun there in the meantime.
MR. PHILIP OLIVARES: Well, that detail was about a month. But we rotated on it, because I think there were about four or five of us in the mill on that. One man was traveling from Frankfurt by train up to Hamburg. From Hamburg they flew to Copenhagen, and then continued on to Stockholm, and then into Helsinki. And two guys would take it from Helsinki into Leningrad and into Moscow.
MR. VERREOS: We would station couriers in Helsinki for usually a two month period. And during those two months, all they would do would make the twice weekly trips into the Soviet Union with flights from Helsinki to Leningrad to Moscow and back and out. And then once a month, there was a train trip from Helsinki to Moscow delivering the non-classified pouches. By treaty, nothing could come in as just plain freight material, as you would say, commercial material.
Anything that went in for the embassy had to be in a pouch. So when we’re moving furniture, for example, the non-classified pouch usually was one or two freight cars. The material would be stuck into the freight car, and the freight car would be closed, and a wire and lead seal and a tag would be placed on that freight car as if it were a bag.
MR. DONOVAN KLINE: On Helsinki detail, there were four couriers at a time, up there rotating. Once a month, we went to Moscow on a Russian a sleeper train out of Helsinki Station. We went to Viborg, and we passed through there with little or no problems at all. It was nighttime when we left—of course, saw nothing. It was pitch black. We would take in surface pouches with copies of Newsweek and Time.
MR. VERREOS: We were traveling soft class, because the class conscious Soviets didn’t have anything like first class and second class. They had soft class and hard class. Well, we were traveling soft class, so we would have a cabin. All we did was play cards and enjoy whatever food they had on the train. It wasn’t particularly what you’d call first class, but it was better than hard class, believe me.
MR. COOPER: I think we had one train trip a month. We flew in and out most of the time, on a Russian Ilyushin 12 and then later an Ilyushin 14 airplane. That was always kind of exciting. I remember one instance where I had something like 12 large bags, all under diplomatic seal. And we took up the whole center of the airplane. And I thought, surely Russian customs are going to dig in their heels on this. But they didn’t bat an eye.
MR. KLINE: The other trips were always flying in. And we flew in mostly on Aeroflot and FinnAir, depending on the day of the week, I think.
MR. OLIVARES: First time I flew a Saab, that was a funny experience. Looked like a DC-3 with a nose wheel. The stewardess would come and ask you, “Have you ever been on the Saab before?” And if you hadn’t, they’d give you a little booklet. They said, “Please do not be alarmed. When we land the pilot will feather the props to reverse the engines to slow down to assist on the braking.”
But on doing so, a whole sheet of flame would come out of the exhaust things. Blue flame would go past, I mean you could see this. People, I remember seeing—I was pre-warned by the little booklet, but there was some guy who didn’t read English and didn’t know this, and he jumped out of his seat.
They were funny, those flights. I remember on one of the Aeroflots, looking for my seatbelt. And the pilot happened to be coming on board. He was going down the aisle. He said, “No, don’t worry about that. You don’t need those.”
We used to get these caviar sandwiches for breakfast. It was a soft roll with fresh caviar, not the tinned stuff. They took it for granted.
MR. VERREOS: Going to Moscow in those days—to get off the train and walk around the city was just depressive. The Russians were, the people were hungry to hear about America. A few of them would speak some English. A few of them spoke some German. Unfortunately, none of our couriers that I knew of spoke Russki—[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]. But whenever we were able to communicate, they were very, very friendly, the Russian people.
Some KGB person was watching us. They knew that. And on a couple occasions, people at a party that had one or two vodkas too many would just flip the finger, knowing that the KGB would get it. Some were defiant, but there were very few.
MR. OLIVARES: Going into Moscow, it was a little difficult. Everything was black, brown. Nobody had any color on them at all. The city was so drab. It seems to me, most of my time in Moscow had to be in the wintertime. There was always snow on the streets, people shoveling it away, and everybody doing their duty. They just went about their life like a drudgery. There was no happiness or pleasure in their faces. Particularly when you got on the metro, which was very elaborate. The government decided this is going to be our showpiece, and it was. It was such a contrast with the people sitting in the metro.
MR. KLINE: First trip there, I was surprised by how wide the streets were there. They were really wide. There was more traffic there than I expected to see. A good bit of it was Russian trucks, but there were more cars than I ever expected to see. And we can go anywhere we wanted around town. I walked a long ways there, up to Red Square one day. Saw the mausoleum where the two stiffs were, Lenin and Stalin.
It was interesting. People were lined up eight abreast outside to get in. When we got in, it was below ground. They had selective lighting with these mummies were. They looked very lifelike, both of them. Stalin was somewhat shorter than I expected. He was only about 5'3" or 4". Lenin looked exactly like all the pictures I’d ever seen of him—goatee, the whole thing. And he looked very natural.
We were respectful. I wasn’t sad at all. The others were, because that’s why they were there. This was all they knew. This was their life since 1917, and this was 1957—40 year anniversary that year. It was interesting, to say the least.
MR. HOHMAN: We had this “propisk” which allowed us to jump the line and get into the mausoleum to see Lenin and Stalin. Russians from outside of Moscow were allowed at least once a year to come to Moscow on their internal passport. And there were huge lines in all kinds of weather. One of the hotels that we had was near Red Square. And after dinner I walked over to where the mausoleum is for Lenin and Stalin, and watched the changing of the guard.
And as I was watching, a man nudged up to me and said, “You American?” Yeah. He said, “That’s a nice coat you’re wearing.” He said, “You want to sell it to me?” I said, “No, it’s the only coat I’ve got.” He said, “Do you have any jeans?” I said, “Look, this is a sacred place. We’re right here for the changing of the guard. We’re in front of the mausoleum for Lenin and Stalin, and you want to do this?” He says, “Why not? What better place?” No, I didn’t sell them anything or give him anything. But I was really shocked about that situation, really. Yeah. I said, well, free enterprise. We’ve got it right here.
But the whole Kremlin, we were allowed to see the museum and so on. And then across the way they had the GUM department store.
MR. COOPER: We got to go into the Kremlin at one time on some kind of an embassy tour. It was an unusual happening. We were shown a typical dining room in the Tsar’s palace. I think they wanted to impress us on how high on the hog the nobility lived as opposed to the peasants.
MR. KLINE: There weren’t that many tourists in Moscow in those days, outsiders. I went through St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, which I found fascinating for several things. There were no church services being held in there, but it was quite pretty inside besides being beautiful outside. There was a store there called GUM, G-U-M. I don’t know what it stood for in Russian. I bought caviar there and hauled the caviar out to Helsinki where we had parties with it. And it was delicious beluga caviar, really delightful.
MR. COOPER: I did get to go to GUM, the big department store, one time. Sort of an exercise in futility. Huge lines at every counter. There was a shortage of everything.
MR. HOHMAN: The huge department store was a depressing sort of place. There were only limited things that we could really find of interest, even though we had a good exchange rate. Musical instruments were rather cheap, or some books—English books, because they didn’t recognize the copyrights. One of the interesting things was Russian caviar. The caviar was from virgin sturgeon, they said. That was the best tasting. There really wasn’t a heck of a lot to buy.
MR. VERREOS: In the men’s shoe department they had four sizes of shoes, and two colors—black and brown. Apparently they bought the size a little bigger so they could stuff paper or whatever in so that the shoe would fit. In 90% of the different stands, say in the women’s department for dresses or stockings and stuff like that, they would have on display. But they would have no product available to sell.
You’d go down the big street on which the embassy was, to the various shops. You’d go to the shop that sold bread. And you look in there, and there is no bread. But there’d be a line of people going around the block. It was very depressing to see people there.
The pricing situation was ridiculous. We could get seats to the Bolshoi in the first eight rows for what it cost you to buy an egg if there was one available in the market. I remember, it was 32 rubles for the seats at the Bolshoi, and it’s 32 or 34 rubles to buy an egg.
MR. CELLA: We spent the afternoon walking around Red Square. We’d always get tickets to go to the Bolshoi and Stanislavsky. I remember coming out of an intermission at the Bolshoi. I guess we were watching some big ballet. The best seats are the first row of that center balcony. And right in the first row of that sitting up above us was Khrushchev and Bulganin. Bulganin was the official head, and Khrushchev was the chairman. We were that close to them. The balcony is only like, that high from the ceiling of this room.
MR. HOHMAN: There is a great amusement area, Gorky Park. Very nice, with the Ferris wheel that they had there. It was a fun place. A lot of people with their children there, also. They had games, swings and so on, for them. Chess was a big game. Of course there were very skilled individuals using all these well-known moves, and then people surrounding these chess players, watching them. And they’re going, “Ooh, aah.”
It was light and fun. Moscow generally, because of the lighting and because of the atmospheric conditions, the way the buildings weren’t properly maintained, had a drab atmosphere to it. This was a ray of sunshine, particularly during the spring and summer months.
And a favorite among them was eating ice cream. Because I understand Micoyan, one of the Russian premiers, visited the United States and he liked ice cream. He brought ice cream machines back to Russia. And Russians, even you got four or five feet of snow out there, eating a cone of ice cream.
MR. CELLA: We used to stay in that place called the Amerikanski Dom, the American House, a good distance walk from the embassy.
MR. OLIVARES: That was a way from the embassy itself. It was about a mile down the road. There was a building with mostly the military air attache people, the staff, the sergeants and all that. But that was a big center of life for the Americans. That was—everybody, even the staff from the embassy went down there. And there was mostly bachelors in there.
MR. VERREOS: Over at Amerikanski Dom, the America House, which was about two, three miles away from the embassy, and it was on the Moscow River pretty much opposite the entry to Gorky Park. And Amerikanski Dom is where the single personnel lived. The girls that were so-called maids to do the cleaning service and the maids in the cafeteria in Amerikanski Dom were all striking beauties, believe me.
MR. KLINE: In the America House, Amerikanski Dome, we had two or three Russian women who served our meals at the restaurant there. One was called Tanya. And she spoke very good English. And her ears were wide open at all times, listening to the conversations around those tables. And we’d walk in and we’d say, “Do svidaniya, Tanya.”
MR. CELLA: In the Amerikanski Dom was a nice looking woman who worked there as a waitress and everything. Tanya, her name was. So I made a big spiel to her. And all she said was, her response was, “You want soup?” That’s all I heard after that. “Vince, do you want soup?”
MR. HOHMAN: We stayed initially at that time at the so-called Amerikanski Dom, which was a housing area separate from the embassy, but it was an embassy place. We had food there that was served by a Russian, a very, very interesting woman. And some of the fellas tried to date her and so on, and she would never budge and say, “Soup? Vince, soup? More soup for you?”
MR. VERREOS: The Amerikanski Dome, by the way, was the social center for all of the diplomatic personnel in Moscow. Every night at Amerikanski Dom we were showing some American movie. So we always had a lot of the diplomatic corps would be coming in to see the movie.
MR. KLINE: Once a week they held open house there for the Western foreign embassies—Brits, the Swedes, the Finns, whoever, you know, Germans, for bingo. One night there was a terrible noise out on the side of this building toward the Moscow River. And we all looked out and here it was, the Russians practicing for their Independence Day celebration—so-called Independence Day celebration—in November, on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
They rolled tanks by us. They rolled cars by us. They rolled great big huge guns on flatbed trucks, and all kinds of stuff, making this clamorous noise for a couple of hours, practicing for the spontaneous demonstration that was going to be two weeks later in Red Square.
Later on when we lost our space in Amerikanski Dom, we stayed in Russian hotels. And there were women overseers on each of the floors. I’m sure they kept sure that we didn’t go anyplace. Or if they did, they called somebody. I’m sure of that. I don’t think—well, I don’t know, but I don’t think I was followed up there. I may have been, who knows?
I didn’t worry about it. They didn’t want an incident and we didn’t want one. They wanted their couriers outside treated well, and so they treated us. Now, I don’t know whether they followed us or not. They probably did, but I wasn’t looking for it and I wasn’t worried about it ’cause I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
MR. OLIVARES: Well, we knew in Moscow, definitely. I don’t know about the other countries behind the Curtain, but definitely in Russia you knew somebody was following you. Yeah. Wherever you went, somebody kept an eye on you. Because you stood out too, in those days. Your dress, for one thing. Nobody bothered you, of course. Most of them were rather surprised to meet an American. It was a far off place they’d heard of, but—Oh, Americans here?
They couldn’t believe it. If you were a foreigner, they thought you were from the of their own satellite countries. They’d look at you and say, [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]—in their own language. And you say, No, Amerikanski. They couldn’t believe it. Those people? As much as we would say on this side, Russians? Communists here in New York?
Your job was to take care of those pouches. But I don’t think we ever felt that somebody was threatening us or trying to steal them, but we always have to assume that. And that’s why you took care of them.
MR. HOHMAN: I know sometimes as a newcomer, we were tailed by the KGB and so on. They were all very curious as to what you were doing. They figured that you were more than just a diplomatic courier. Occasionally you were able to speak to some Russians, but it was very difficult to do so.
I had an incident also, coming out of a hotel in Moscow where a young fellow got a hold of me, and he spoke English quite well. And it turns out that he was born in Brooklyn, New York. And I, having been born in New York, I was familiar with the area where he was located. And he said that as a teenager his father picked up the family and went to Russia.
They were originally from Russia, the family. And there was this call out —Come back to Mother Russia and rebuild the country. You have your obligation, even though you’re an overseas Russian, and so on. So he did that, and took his entire family.
This young fellow that I was talking to, he lived outside of the city of Moscow. But he said that they had the authority, they had to have internal passports and it gave the authority that at least once a year he could come to Moscow and he could be able to see the Lenin-Stalin mausoleum and so on, and other sites and places there. So he asked me if I would do a favor for him. And I said, “What’s the favor?” He says, “Help me get into the American Embassy.”
I said, “Well, just walk into it.” He says, “No. There are militia guards out there and they would restrain me from coming in.” He said, “I’m trying to get back to the United States. I don’t like this country. They regard me as a traitor. I hardly speak Russian. And so speaking, I feel I’m an American from Brooklyn.” And he had a Brooklyn-ese type accent, too. Which surprised me, that he wasn’t able to get into the embassy. He said, “No, no. Militia guards won’t let me go in there. And he said, I’ve tried a couple of times and they stopped me.” And I said, “Well, I’m sorry. I can’t help you either.”
So, whether a case of entrapment or so on, I don’t know. A very sympathetic sort of arrangement too, that he didn’t have access to go back to the place of his birth. Because it’s part of our basic nature to help others, even though they are strangers.
MR. CELLA: But it was fun, Moscow. You’d try to enjoy it, because we were in there a lot. I couldn’t wait to get back to Helsinki. That’s another thing. On a train, the difference—how you notice when you cross the border into Russia. There was just unending ending trees, roads with nobody on them. But then you’d come back and then cross the border into Finland—nice little houses with the smoke coming out of the chimneys. Everything nice and clean. Huge, huge difference.