Memorandum by Mr. Bertel E. Kuniholm of the Division of Eastern European Affairs


In general, the problem of free entry of goods for diplomatic officers stationed at Moscow presents no major difficulties. Members of the Embassy staff have always received the merchandise they have ordered, and, except in the case of arms and munitions, no shipments have been withheld by the authorities thus far. No import duties have been levied.

However, if and when consulates are to be opened in the Soviet Union outside of the city of Moscow, the question of customs privileges for consular officers will necessarily require careful attention on the part of this government. In spite of the hardships inherent in a situation requiring the conduct of foreign relations under a white flag, [Page 443]diplomatic officers in Moscow do receive special treatment and consideration. Consular officers are not so favored. Since the problem of attending to the simple business of living requires so much more time and effort in the Soviet Union than elsewhere, it is incumbent that freedom from unnecessary discomfort and irritation on the part of an arrogant and belligerent Soviet bureaucracy in some measure be assured our consular representatives.

On the other hand, the question of export duties levied at the time of departure from the Soviet Union is a point at serious issue, and one which has been the principal sour note in the relations of the Embassy staff with the Soviet customs authorities. The facts with respect to this question are the following:

At the time of departure of Ambassador Bullitt from the Soviet Union,87 a minute inspection was made by the Soviet customs authorities of his furniture, furnishings and effects. Although this was in conformity with established procedure in the case of previously transferred subordinate personnel of the Embassy staff, it was hardly to be expected that a chief of mission were not to be extended the courtesies by usage customary upon departure from a post of duty. Under the circumstances Ambassador Bullitt addressed an informal note to Mr. Krestinski, Acting Commissar for Foreign Affairs, inviting the attention of the latter to the facts at issue.

Mr. Bullitt ventured to suggest that the practice of inspecting baggage of departing diplomats was perhaps not in the best taste and open to serious abuse. He observed that the inspection upon which the Soviet Government insisted was for the purpose of levying an export duty on articles purchased in the Soviet Union. Mr. Bullitt pointed out that it was the practice in all countries which levy export duties to exempt from payment of such duties bearers of diplomatic passports, and to accept from diplomats—in lieu of inspection—certificates that articles to be exported were for personal use and not for sale. He suggested that no harm would come to the Soviet Union if a similar rule were to be adopted. The Ambassador requested in written form a statement of the policy of the Soviet Government in this respect, so that the Government of the United States might consider its policy with respect to the question at issue with full knowledge of the facts.

Two months later, on July 17, 1936, the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs made reply to the Ambassador’s note, merely transmitting a text of the rules established for the clearance through customs of the goods and baggage of the members of the Diplomatic and Consular Corps in the Soviet Union. It was officially stated in the note accompanying [Page 444]the text that these rules were established and made applicable to the Soviet Union effective February 16, 1933.…

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Particularly obnoxious and unpleasant are the actions of the various categories of customs inspectors at the time of departure of officers who have been transferred from Moscow. Inspection is insisted upon, even in the case of Chiefs of Mission. The customs officers watch the packing of every article. Inspection of those entitled to diplomatic privileges, that is, those on the diplomatic list, is effected at home,—not at the customs house. In addition to the regular inspectors, there are also present, at some time during the packing, representatives of “Glavlit” (Office of Affairs concerning Literature and Publications), of the People’s Commissariat for Education of the RSFSR,87a which, in addition to its other functions, acts as a bureau of censorship. Officers of this organization inspect all books and publications of the diplomatic officer. All books published in the Soviet Union subsequent to the Revolution are allowed to pass without duty and without question, excluding so-called banned publications. Books published abroad subsequent to the Revolution are also exempt from duty. Books published in Russia prior to 1917 are subject to duty, and are assessed by these representatives of “Glavlit” according to their own tariff. Books published abroad prior to 1917 may be allowed to pass, at the discretion of the Chief of Customs, free of duty, on rare occasions. Generally, however, these latter are subject to the same regulations as books published in Russia prior to the Revolution.

In the case of works and objects of art, special representatives are dispatched from the “Antiquariat” section of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Trade. These formerly operated under the direction of the “Torgsin”88 stores. They examine every object of value, and set appraisals corresponding to their own tariffs.

In all of the foregoing categories it must be proved that only such merchandise, goods and effects which were taken in by the officer are also being taken out. If articles were purchased within the Soviet Union, for rubles, an export tax must be paid, equal to 100 percent, or more. It behooves the officer, therefore, upon arrival in the Soviet Union, to open all of his packing cases in the presence of customs officers and have everything listed and checked as on an inventory. This means that every book, every phonograph record, every piece of jewelry, etc., must be listed, so that subsequently everything can be identified. This necessitates a tremendous amount of work, in fact, [Page 445]several days of typing, etc., making out duplicate lists in several copies, by the officer himself.

The so-called import registration book,89 besides being an irritant and annoyance of no mean proportions, can be, of course, a most dangerous weapon, if used unscrupulously by the Soviet Government. If possible, in future negotiations for a consular convention, an effort should be made to abolish this provision of the law.

Another matter which would well be taken up in connection with customs procedure, is the present treatment of goods upon arrival at customs. Each package or box is immediately opened at customs before notice is sent to the consignee. Very often this is done carelessly and clumsily, and merchandise is often damaged. The actual examination could much better and more safely be accomplished if the consignee or his agent were actually present during these formalities.

The importation of arms and munitions is always a cause for prolonged and arduous negotiations with customs. Permission must be obtained from the Commissariat for Internal Affairs, through the Foreign Office, in each case. Complete information, including calibres, gauges, munitions serial numbers, etc., must be furnished for each weapon.

At the final customs inspection in the case of a transferred and departing diplomat, each box and case is tied with rope (purchased by the diplomat) in each direction, and the knot at juncture sealed with a customs lead seal. No box or case will be permitted to leave any frontier unless fastened and secured in this manner. These formalities, as all others in the same category, may be effected at the home of the officer. Clerks and others, not entitled to customs courtesies, must submit to the foregoing inspection and sealing at the customs house.

  1. Ambassador Bullitt crossed the border leaving the Soviet Union on May 16, 1936.
  2. Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic.
  3. All Union Combine for Trade with Foreigners, having stores which sold merchandise for foreign currency only at the rate equivalent of the noncirculating gold ruble. These stores were ordered to be abolished effective February 1, 1936.
  4. A special book of registration in which was specified the amount of duty that would be rebated annually by the Soviet authorities to each Chief of Mission. All amounts in excess of this quota were supposed to be payable, although in practice the Soviet Government usually did not endeavor to collect these duties.