This is a long one. It’s long, but still not long enough to encompass the roller-coaster emotions of the second expulsion of American Diplomats from Russia in eight months. I could write a book about the heroism I have seen over the past week. About the resilience and the sheer bloody-mindedness of those of us leading this Foreign Service life. Maybe I will someday, but for now this is my catharsis. Written now because it is no longer “world” news. Written so that you all know the human story behind the politics. The photo above tells a big part of the story (credit to Charlie Starr for the photo). Anthony, standing alone on the tarmac this morning (April 5th) watching the plane pull away, carrying 60 American Diplomats and their families away from Moscow. What it doesn’t show, and you have to imagine, are the amazing people who have his back, as he has theirs.
Things have gotten pretty tough lately here in Moscow…again. It seems like a lifetime, but it is only a week, since I was sitting reading a text message from Anthony saying “I won’t be home for dinner,” and thinking nothing of it, because he is often not home for dinner these days. A few hours later the world came crashing down around us. I was home with Peter, Jamie was out on the compound with friends, when suddenly my phone started to ping with messages from him (so-and-so says they are leaving), and texts from my work friends (are you okay?). I turned off the movie we were watching and checked into the news, and there it was…Russia expels 60 American diplomats. As it became clear why Anthony was not home for dinner, it also became clear that this time the impact for us as a family, and for me personally, would be immense.
It’s difficult to describe the shock as the names started rolling in one at a time, through texts and calls. Neighbors, friends, senior diplomats, bright young officers, families. Whole sections of the Embassy. All given 7 days to pack up and leave. I sat in a neighbor’s house wearing, I’m sure, the same expression of dazed disbelief as everyone around me at the implications for us as a community.
Jamie and Peter stayed pretty strong for their friends – providing shoulders to cry on, and offering support in the way of snacks, company, and probably an occasional silly joke to help lighten the atmosphere. Then, back home, as the three of us waited for Anthony, I heard Jamie cry out – a text had just come from one of his close friends to say his dad was on the list. As I held his head in my lap, he sobbed at the unfairness – not just of him losing a friend, but at the way in which our community was about to be torn apart again.
When Anthony finally got home he read the list to me, and I had pretty much the same reaction as Jamie as I heard name after name of friends and colleagues with whom we had shared dinners, sundowners, and tables at official events; craft nights, trivia nights, taco nights and happy hours at Uncle Sam’s. I was gut-punched. People who had supported each other through personal crises, birthdays, college acceptances, game and race wins, illnesses, everyday grumbles and celebrations. Worse still were the families torn apart – one spouse expelled, the other not, with children still at school.
Together, Anthony and I considered the the loss. 60 of the finest officers and their families. Two of the spouses were teachers at the school and one a school nurse. When the number was tallied, dozens of kids at the school and probably the same number again of kids under 4. Dozens of pets.
Following closely on the heels of this realization was the staggering enormity of the task ahead for a community that would not be allowed time to grieve, but would have to pull together to get everyone packed out on time.
In the past week I have watched this community rise above a terrible situation and give more than they might have thought possible; working tirelessly to surround those who are leaving with a blanket of love, support, and whatever help they might need at any moment of the day. Many departing diplomats were still trying to do their jobs while they completed paperwork, sorted their household goods, got their pets ready, explained things to their children. Completed a list of tasks in a week that we usually spread over months.
The rest of us cooked food. We arranged play times to get little ones out from under the chaos, and provided some normalcy in a situation for which none of us had a frame of reference. We were making it up as we went along. We walked dogs (to the point of exhaustion when needed). We sent our teenagers to carry bags and boxes to the free tables and donation bins. We made sure there was an Easter Egg hunt.
Last Sunday at Easter Mass we had 3 Baptisms, 8 First Communions, and one Confirmation. Many of them in borrowed suits or dresses, but all of them ready to step up two months early to celebrate the sacraments for which they had been preparing since September. Because some of them would not be here in 2 months.
Much too soon, we gathered at our house last night to wish our departing friends “fair winds and following seas” (always the naval reference). Although some would go home to finish packing, still had emails to check, still had offices to clear out, it was clear that some of the burden had lifted, and shoulders were a little less slumped. They had achieved the impossible, and now all that was left was to walk away. Yet even as I say that, I am reminded that this is not all that is left. The next mountain – that of finding an onward assignment (with good schools, with jobs for tandem couples, with decent health support, with career opportunities) is now in front of all of them. And for many of them is also the challenge of how their kids will complete the current school year.
This morning the compound stirred earlier than usual for most. At 4am, I walked outside to see labeled suitcases stacked outside too many homes. Pet carriers stood ready. People moved around in the early morning, breath freezing in the nighttime temperatures – some with purpose, firing off orders through walkie-talkies, some waiting anxiously for the trucks to come, trying to get dogs to pee one last time before the long flight, or locate tape to secure documents to animal crates. I walked past, greeting everyone: “how are you?” “hanging in there” “did you get any sleep?” “not much” the most common exchanges. The homes with little ones traveling were obvious by the way travel cots, strollers, and car seats took the places of checked suitcases. So many suitcases. So many people.
Once the baggage was loaded, reluctant pets were (unceremoniously) crammed into travel crates and lifted onto the too small truck – did nobody tell them there were dozens of animals? Golden retriever sisters, Anyushka and Lili, still puppies, embarking on an unexpected (unwanted) adventure, but at least they were together. Mr. Elvis, our compound celebrity yorkie, trotting around in his own daze, but glad to be allowed on the bus with his owner. Military officers appearing in dress uniforms almost undid whatever composure I had left.
Then came the buses and the most difficult part of the morning. No matter how successful anyone had been at holding it together until then, the final moments were just too much. Hugs and tears and determined whispers NOT to say goodbye, but “until the next time” and “until the summer.” Many entreaties to keep the heart of the community beating, to keep moving forward with the work, not to let this get us down.
And then they were gone. And the rest of us dispersed reluctantly to pick up the pieces of our day.
It’s a bit of a cliché, and infinitely ironic, that this morning dawned bright and sunny, snow melting fast, grass appearing from underneath – sad and dirty, but faintly green where the sun touched it. Freezing middle-of-the-night temperatures giving way to a daytime high of +6 C (a balmy 43 F). Spring finally fighting its way past the Moscow winter. If not quite hope, then at least not despair.
I remember sitting with some friends this past New Year’s Eve. One of them had her mom visiting, and we were looking back on the year (as you do) and remembering the events of the previous months. She asked me to use four words to say something about the events of September as we looked to a new year ahead.
I said “We are still here.”
And guess what? We are still here. The collective “we”. The American “we.” You have all seen the news. Our 60 Diplomats went home today. The photo in the Washington Post is not fake news.
What you cannot see on the left of the surreptitiously-taken photo is the crowd waving them off. The 60 who have just left may be some of the finest, but so are those left behind. They have already proven themselves in the way they performed the miracle of getting everyone away. Together. On the same flight. With all of their pets. With all of their household goods and cars following closely behind. There are not too many people who can truly appreciate the sheer audacity of this achievement. If you do, and even if you can only imagine it, then you know the caliber of the people who are left behind. We are going nowhere.
We have closed one of our Consulates. Anthony traveled to St. Petersburg last weekend to pack up and lock up the mission there. To take down the flag, allow every staff member to touch it, and to present it to the departing Consul General. But we are going nowhere.
Those who are being forced to leave may be devastated, but they are demonstrating remarkable resilience and strength. I just got a photo of their landing at Shannon airport for a breather, a chance to release their pets before the trans-Atlantic crossing, and maybe a pint of the black stuff.
There is no pretense in their courage as they play the hand they have been dealt with dignity and efficiency. They can move forward, and rely on those of us left behind to stay strong.
Those of us left behind will stay tough and keep the mission going. Last week we rallied around our friends and did what we could to help them meet the deadline for departure. Next week, the halls of a building emptied of some of the finest people I have the privilege of knowing, will be walked by some of the finest people I have the privilege of knowing. And we will pick up the pieces, carry on the work, and continue to live here in this sometimes gloomy, but ever vibrant and enigmatic city.
I leave you with an Irish blessing for both sets of people:
Go n-éirí an mbóthar leat
Go mbeadh an ghaoth i gcónaí ar do chúl
Agus go dtí go gcomhlíonfaimid arís
D’fhéadfá Dia a shealbhú i bpilmeán a láimh
(May the road rise up with you
May the wind be always at your back
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the palm of his hand)