S’Novym Godom, Happy New Year.
Ilya Levin wandered into my office in 2008. He was looking for a posting in Africa, and I said “just fine.”
Ilya wanted to tell me about some dark history of a previous assignment, but I wasn’t interested.
“Are you an available bidder?” I said. And yes he was, so onward to the U.S. Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam, as Public Affairs Officer in Tanzania.
Xenophobia marks the culture of the U.S. Department of State, where it is least needed. Others questioned my judgment and action. Ilya did fine, in fact his assignment was triumphant. In summer of 2010 I received a call on my cell phone in Conakry, Guinea, marked “highly urgent” on the screen. It was Ilya, calling to tell me he was happy in Dar.
Most correct: happiness is a matter of rarity and urgency when it happens. There is so little of it to go around.
Erudite and maybe a touch naïve, Ilya had been Amnesty International’s local rep in Leningrad in the 1970s. Wearing a target on his back, he frequented the Writers Club where thinkers (i.e., enemies of the State) gathered.
He was a refusenik from 1975 to 1977. In 1977 the KGB tried out new technologies on him, and found a way of planting toxic powder, to burn the flesh of a person’s legs and buttocks seated on a certain chair. Ilya’s leg went on fire and began to atrophy. The Leningrad Military Medical Academy – not in sync with their own internal security apparatus – stepped in and cured him of his flesh meltdown. Such were the ways of the experimentally adventurous, Soviet authorities. He testified about these bizarreries later at the Sakharov hearings in the U.S. Senate, 1978. As Levin says today, “The KGB works to cripple you and the military treats the injury.”
The Soviet authorities spat him out like a bad tooth in 1977, so he went to the University of Texas (Austin), then to work at Voice of America in Washington, 1982-93. Then he joined USIA Director Charles Wick’s WORLDNET overseas television network 1993-98. Finally after 16 years he made his way across the street to the U.S. Information Agency and acquired U.S. diplomatic status.
He was sent to Moscow, Vladivostok, Ashgabat, and Asmara (Eritrea), where he established Eritrea’s first children’s library. He kept his Russian accent and made bootleg vodka in the bathtub from a still-secret recipe, including elements of horseradish and hot jalapeño. His brand first appeared on the printed menu of the Petrovich eatery in Moscow in 2000. You can get it there to this day.
Eritreans loved him but didn’t know what to make of him. They called him “The Russian.” Shortly after Ilya got his posting to Tanzania and entered Swahili class at the Foreign Service Institute, he invited me up to his flat in Columbia Plaza for a drink. In the hallway on the way, he said, “I should warn you, the apartment is more a warehouse than a dwelling.”
Indeed it was. The standard one-bedroom was stacked to the ceiling with books in cardboard cartons, with barely room enough for a tiny round table, two folding chairs, some Turkmen rugs rolled up, and a couple of bottles of spirits. We had fine whisky and talked into the evening. Talk is everything to a Russian, and a sign of friendship and acceptance. I was honored to be the interlocutor.
Ilya represented the U.S. government in Iraq in 2005-06, and has gone back to the region, now in a scrappy provincial area in eastern Afghanistan, where his ex-compatriots made some mischief in 1979. As U.S. diplomat, he is the senior civilian representative at a Polish military base in Ghazni, in southeastern Afghanistan.
Given the choice of learning Pashto or Dari a year ago, he energetically chose Dari, “the language of kings and of Omar Khayyam.” He threw himself into it. He likes it there, and wants to spend an extra year.
In summer of 2008, Ilya traveled to San Miguel Allende in Mexico, and found the cocoa beans and recipe for perfect oven-baked chocolate. Here is a man who has his head screwed on right. I trust he wouldn’t be offended if I called him the world’s most benign eccentric. Eccentrics are our best and last hope, in a period of gridlock, global warming, and grey prose.
In an interview with the Moscow Times in 2000, he said, “Good vodka is nothing without friends to appreciate it.”
Looking forward to our next drink and soirée, when Ilya has his next R&R in Washington, I hope, next spring.
Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.