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memoir | in vodka veritas: diplomacy in central asia

Memoir | In vodka veritas: Diplomacy in Central Asia

Image source: A man sells vodka at a shop in Jeti-Oguz, Kyrgyzstan, in 2009. (David Trilling)

This essay is part of a series by American diplomats sharing their impressions of the dramatic early years of Central Asia's independence from the Soviet Union. These memoirs were written at the invitation of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. We publish these with special thanks to Nargis Kassenova, director of Davis's Program on Central Asia. This essay was originally published here

There was a time not so long ago when some thought it was clever to dismiss American diplomats as striped-pants cookie-pushers, implying that in their supposedly exalted, cushy positions they do little more than host – and attend – fancy dinners and plush parties. As with all stereotypes, there’s usually at least some degree of truth in their origins. And this one is no exception to that rule, because a significant amount of diplomatic work does indeed get done – and information gathered – in social settings, especially when some alcohol is involved. And maybe nowhere else was this more true than after the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, when the United States established 14 new embassies in the newly independent nations.

I started my diplomatic career in 1985. In my first three consecutive positions, the work focused on Afghanistan, during and after the Soviet-Afghan War. But I was not a Sovietologist. In fact, I had never studied the Soviet Union, nor did I speak Russian. Nevertheless, when the State Department needed to staff up those 14 new embassies, I threw my hat into the ring; and to my great delight, because I loved to be where history was happening, I was assigned to Tashkent. After a year of preparation, including learning basic Russian, I arrived in newly independent Uzbekistan where I was to embark on something the State Department had not trained me for: vodka diplomacy and the value of in vodka veritas.

Vodka Hoagland

Tashkent, 1994. Richard E. Hoagland (back row) as the embassy’s public affairs officer. 

Uzbekistan had not been one of those Soviet republics that had been agitating for freedom from Moscow. In fact, independence came to its leadership as a rather bewildering shock. Its first president, Islam Karimov, had been a senior Communist Party official, and Uzbekistan was still very, very Soviet when I first arrived in 1993. Our U.S. embassy, in a pleasant, leafy neighborhood, south of the center of the city and just off a large park, was the former Komsomol (Young Communists) headquarters building. In those early days, the management staff of our embassy was having great difficulty finding enough apartments or houses to rent for the newly arrived American diplomats and their families. And so, for the first six months that I was in Tashkent, I was assigned to live temporarily in a rustic – very rustic – cottage on the former KGB compound. Eventually, the embassy found a more permanent house for me, at an astonishingly exorbitant rent, that was owned by an Armenian mafioso.

A diplomat’s job is to get out into the community and build contacts with people of influence. In Tashkent, that was complicated by the fact that the government of Uzbekistan assigned me – and most other American diplomats in key jobs – a “minder,” essentially an intelligence officer who was supposed to be present at every meeting I had with any Uzbekistan citizen. And with him inevitably in tow, I first learned the intricate protocol of Soviet vodka toasts. In fact, I learned at least three levels of drinking vodka. And then, over the years, I came to understand the fourth level – it’s simply part of the job; it’s how work gets done.

Level one: A formal tradition

The first level was at official diplomatic dinners where there was a set series of toasts that would begin the evening. The host usually offered the first toast to honor his guests. The guest of honor then offered the second, extolling the virtues of “the generous host.” Often the third toast would be “the silent toast” to those who are no longer with us; and, in fact, there would often be a place set at the table, but unoccupied, for that “silent guest.” The next toast would quite likely be “to all the beautiful women in the room,” with the men standing while the women demurely remained seated, and only the men would drink that toast. Sometimes the order of the toasts would vary, but these were the most common initial ones that started the evening. If you’re keeping count, that’s already four vodka toasts, one right after the other, and they were expected to be “bottoms up,” with the empty shot glass immediately refilled after each toast.

The real purpose of this toasting? There was a clear, psychological logic to it. In the Soviet Union, where all looked over their shoulders and necessarily measured their words in public, toasting was a socially, and even politically, accepted way to loosen tongues. As the vodka flowed and the evening wore on, the toasts would often become more and more elaborate but with carefully embedded truths. Those who listened attentively would hear a bit of “real truth” – including political truth – even if it was camouflaged in high-flown, ornately decorated anecdotes. And almost always that was acceptable, a sort of “what happens in vodka stays in vodka.”

Level two: A way to extract information

The second level was much more personal and quite often used by intelligence agents, often at one-on-one dinners. As we became more familiar with each other, my minder would sometimes invite me to dinner at a fine Tashkent restaurant. This wasn’t, however, an act of friendship. It was part of his job. His goal was to see what he could drag out of me about what was the real purpose of the U.S. embassy and what was really happening behind its carefully guarded walls. I am certain that he was convinced that I was an American spy, and that’s not just my own supposition.

When I was still in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1988, working with the Afghan resistance during the Soviet-Afghan War, Moscow had published its annual “list of American spies,” where I was cited as a CIA officer whose job was to get Afghans drunk to drag information out of them. (See? That’s how they do business.) Of course, that wasn’t true, but my Tashkent minder most certainly would have had that bit of misinformation handed to him when he was first assigned to “cover” me.

One thing that I had learned in life, even before becoming an American diplomat, was my alcohol limit. And that was simply to enjoy myself, but to maintain control and never, ever slur in public. And so when my minder would take me to dinner, one on one, he would constantly be refilling my vodka shot glass. By that time, I had somehow well learned how to handle vodka, or at least good vodka like Stolichnaya or Gzhelka, and could put away a fair amount while maintaining a modicum of responsible sobriety. Especially so that I could go home and late at night still write up our conversation with the intent to use the relevant parts of it the next day for a diplomatic cable report.

I emphasize that it had to be good, pure vodka. Once, at an official dinner in Samarkand, I was served vodka that tasted like a catastrophic disaster in a chemical plant. That might have been the only time in my diplomatic career that I immediately turned my shot glass up-side-down on the table, the universal signal of “I’m not drinking tonight.” Oddly enough, that was acceptable, because it was generally assumed that it was for health reasons. 

I well remember after one of those one-on-one, vodka-soaked dinners with my minder that had ended with him more than a little drunk, he awkwardly staggered out of the restaurant to find his car and driver. The next morning, he telephoned me in my embassy office and asked, slowly and deliberately, “How are you?” I replied that I was fine. “No,” he said, “I mean, how are you?” I replied again that I was fine and asked what I could do for him. After a long pause, he muttered, “You’re a better man than I am!” Apparently, his hangover that morning was worse than usual.

Level three: Simply for pleasure but certainly useful

After having been in Tashkent for a year, and after scores of lunches, dinners, and other social gatherings, I’d gotten to know, at least to a limited degree, one of my counterparts at the Russian Embassy. As a child of 1950s and 1960s America, I’d grown up with the stereotype of Soviets as lumpish, featureless, and utterly alien. But as we occasionally chatted at public events, this young man seemed surprisingly human. 

One day, he told me that his ambassador was having a Friday evening dinner for his embassy’s employees at their suburban osobnyak (guest house) and would I care to attend as his guest? Absolutely! I asked my own ambassador for permission. At first, he didn’t at all like the idea, but eventually he agreed, with one condition: I would have to take along with me an American Embassy minder. No, it wasn’t an intelligence officer, just a colleague. The ambassador was simply being prudent: If anything were to happen to me, there would be another American to call for help.

The Russian Embassy’s country house was in the far northern suburbs of Tashkent behind tall and anonymous walls. And like many houses in that part of the world where public life and private life are distinctly separated, once through the heavy metal gate, another delightful – and private – world awaited. The path to the house was covered by a tall metal trellis heavy with grapevines and pendant clusters of ripening grapes. The dinner itself was set up outside the house at a long table in a lovely garden. We began the traditional first course of endless appetizers covering every square inch of the table without the standard series of toasts. The ambassador simply offered an initial toast to welcome his guests and wish them good health and a pleasant evening. 

As that course was drawing to a close – but certainly with more, a lot more, to follow – people began to push back their chairs, and the young Russian diplomat who had invited me told me it was their tradition at such in-house dinners to go to the sauna before the main courses were served. “But,” he said, “you’re American, and we know you don’t like to be naked in saunas, so you can wait here.” “Of course not,” I replied. “I’ll join you.” I wasn’t going to miss that experience! But my American minder looked distinctly uncomfortable. 

As all undressed, sure enough, my American colleague left on his T-shirt and briefs, confirming one of the Russian stereotypes. There was another round of vodka shots before we entered the wood-fired sauna itself. Once everyone was profusely sweating, we stepped outside the sauna for more vodka before the second, sweltering session. Finally – finally! – we stepped back outside, had another round of shots, and made a dash for the swimming pool where we dove in for the traditional cooling down. Then we dressed and returned to the dinner table for the next courses – first soup, then shish-kabob, then massive servings of traditional Central Asian pilaf, and then – finally! – ice cream and fresh fruit for dessert, with a shot or two of cognac to close out the evening.

I’ve recounted this in considerable detail so that you know it was a long, traditional, and very informal evening with lots of chatter around the table. And it was the chatter that fascinated me, because with vodka-loosened tongues these Russian diplomats talked about their perceptions of Uzbek independence: “Ridiculous! They don’t have a clue what to do. They’ll soon come crawling back to Mother Russia!” They chatted about their perceptions of the American embassy: “Why in the world would the Uzbeks let them set up shop here in our own backyard? I hear the Amerikanskiye are paying them millions of dollars just so they can spy on us!” And, like people everywhere in the world, they gossiped: “Have you seen the [European nationality deleted] ambassador? He can’t handle his vodka! He gets falling-down drunk at every official dinner! Ha-ha!” And, of course, the next day I wrote a diplomatic cable reporting this fascinating evening.

Level four: It’s just part of the job

Ten years later, I returned for another assignment in Central Asia, this time as U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan. What I had previously learned of vodka culture still frequently came in handy. As the end of my three-year term approached, I received multiple invitations from high-level officials for farewell lunches and dinners. The most memorable was a one-on-one lunch with the minister of defense. He had been especially important in our bilateral relationship during my tenure in Dushanbe because, after 9/11, the United States had significantly ramped up its presence and interest in Central Asia. We established temporary U.S. military facilities at Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan and at Manas International Airport in Kyrgyzstan. What is little known is that we had also seriously considered a third U.S. military facility, in Tajikistan. But when the moment came to make the final decision, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided that two sites would be adequate, and we withdrew our request to the government of Tajikistan. That did not go over well in Dushanbe.

My farewell lunch with the minister of defense took place in his newly refurbished private dining room in the ministry. Immediately upon my arrival, he made clear that only the Russian ambassador had ever had the honor of dining in that room with him. In fact, Ambassador Maksim Peshkov, a superb Russian diplomat and the grandson of the great Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, was one of my very best colleagues in Dushanbe. 

This one-on-one formal lunch with the minister of defense was unusually long, and my vodka shot glass was constantly refilled. His rocks glass that he emptied with each toast was kept fully refilled with Glenfiddich scotch. The conversation was fascinating because the minister, over time, and in a number of different ways, made clear that his sympathies were most certainly to the far north, in Moscow, and that he was most definitely not a fan of NATO. In fact, he said that he hoped the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would soon take on a military face and become strong enough to put NATO back in its place. On the other hand, he said that Tajikistan hoped to improve its military relationship with the United States. But he made clear that we would need to do our part, too.

As he stood up unsteadily at the end of our three-hour lunch, he insisted on showing me other “secret rooms” in the ministry of defense, and I anticipated that I might actually get to see darkened command centers with huge video screens. But each new room that he ushered me into was little more than a brightly-lit, empty conference room with a large floral display – and staff bearing a silver tray with a fresh bottle of vodka and shot glasses for more toasts. By the time he showed me to my official car, he was quite unsteady on his feet and was most definitely slurring.

My cable to Washington the next day, analyzing the conversation and reporting the ambiance of this lunch with the minister of defense, eventually took on a life of its own. It was among the first batch of cables that WikiLeaks dumped to the public, and The Guardian in the U.K. published it in full on December 12, 2010, for all the world to read.

And today?

Today, nearly 30 years after the unexpected independence of the Soviet socialist republics, the Soviet tradition of excessive vodka toasts has waned in Central Asia. Yes, it continues, at least to a degree, especially in provincial towns and cities. But in the capitals, much less so. And probably nowhere less so than in Kazakhstan, where elegant official dinners still have polite toasts but with sips of fine wines, and certainly not “bottoms up!” Why? 

Immediately after independence, President Nursultan Nazarbayev decided, “If we are to succeed as an independent country, we will need a new generation that understands the world.” And to that end, he created Kazakhstan’s bolashak (“future”) program that, over the years, sent tens of thousands of young Kazakhstanis abroad for university educations – not just a one-semester exchange program, but full, four-year educations and sometimes even graduate degrees. Now, a generation later, you can walk into any Kazakhstani government office or private business and meet young people who speak foreign languages and really do understand how the West works. This is less true in the other four nations of Central Asia.

Today, I look back on that far-distant past and am immensely grateful I had the opportunity to observe history in the making – even if it was well-lubricated with vodka toasts.

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