Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

My Many Lives: From Diplomat To Journalist

My checkered Russian career has had a lot of peaks and valleys -- although lately it seems like one long downhill slide. I started life in Moscow as a diplomat -- surely one of the most prestigious of professions. I'm not sure people have any idea what a diplomat does, exactly, but there is a certain snob appeal. You get to wear serious clothes, carry a briefcase and smile graciously. The "diplomat" cachet can open doors -- I could talk my way into the most exclusive of restaurants and out of almost any traffic violation. I hobnobbed with the greats -- if being in the same room as Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, and about 200 other people can be considered hobnobbing; and on one memorable occasion I was asked to translate for the great Andrei Sakharov as he accepted an award. It was an interpreter's nightmare -- in front of every Western correspondent in Moscow I froze completely, reducing an eloquent speech to something like "He says 'thank you.'" There were, of course, real advantages to being a diplomat. I had my own water heater -- something I think of with real nostalgia at this time of year. But the drawbacks of the Moscow diplomatic corps in the bad old days of the mid-1980s were very real: A Russian specialist, I was all but forbidden to associate with Russians, or "Sovs" as we so charmingly called them. I sometimes felt that I was in a plastic bubble -- I could look, but not touch. So I abandoned the high life and the ambassadorial crowd for the greater freedom of academia. My second incarnation in Moscow was as an administrator for an American college program. For two years I molded young minds, imparting such pearls of wisdom as "Don't ever say things couldn't be any worse in Moscow. They can always get worse, and often do." I am proud to say that, despite my best efforts, over half of my young charges have returned within two years of leaving my tender care. Those were great years -- we traveled the length and breadth of the Soviet Union, while I tried vainly to keep a group of 21-year-olds out of trouble. College kids do the darnedest things: One seemingly level-headed type disappeared for two days with a Georgian businessman he met on a bus. He came back to the dorm, disheveled but happy, with tales of wild nights of debauchery. I must have aged 10 years. Another pair, one male one female, locked themselves in the bathroom of a Soviet train en route to Riga. They claimed they were just talking, but, as they say, I've heard that line before. As a matter of fact, I've even used it. No one got arrested, miraculously, not the group that dug up bricks from Red Square, not the others who stole Soviet flags from lampposts on Revolution Day, not even the one hooligan who swiped the emergency telephones from all the elevators in our dormitory. This was all in the early 1990s, when the dollar was king. Tickets to the Bolshoi less than a dollar, and the metro was so cheap we couldn't even calculate what percentage of a cent it was. Students could live it up on $100 a month -- provided they stayed out of the few hard-currency bars in town. But babysitting for semi-adults palls after awhile, and I eventually made my way to the crazy world of journalism. No water heater, no briefcase, no easy wealth. I still get to hang out with the greats, but they're usually trying to avoid me. Career-hopping in Moscow can be fun. I wonder what's next?