U.S. Diplomatic Couriers – Into Moscow

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. [MUSIC PLAYING] 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 America 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 and 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.” (LAUGHS) 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
Dom, 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, 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 armored 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. [MUSIC PLAYING] 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. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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