There is a way for US to avoid having to ship home any of its valued American staff -- but they probably don't have the fortitude for what that would take
Russia's order to the US to cut down the size of its diplomatic staff in country from over 1200 to just 455 is unprecedented in scale. The US diplomatic in Russia has never faced such a large forced reduction in its staff.
The only forced reduction that comes even close was in 1986, when Moscow ordered the withdrawal of all 200 Soviet employees of the embassy. And here is the thing, even when this, far smaller reduction took place, the spoiled US diplomatic staff, despite initial bravado, in the end barely survived.
A survivor of the great reduction of 1986, the deputy chief at the time Richard Combs, told the story to Radio Free Europe. The loss of Soviet employees presented a great difficulty:
In ’86, what they did was withdraw all of the Soviet local employees -- I think there were about 200 total. These folks did all the heavy lifting.
We employed Soviets as maids and cooks and cleaning people and chauffeurs and mechanics and plumbers and all of that stuff. So obviously we had to figure out how to fulfill all of those essential functions ourselves.
And that was a big problem because it involved a lot of heavy lifting, among other things.
But it was a challenge which the US staff nonetheless accepted with a high degree of confidence:
In terms of the atmosphere, most Americans who served in Moscow were there in a dedicated way. You know, we were on all the front lines of the Cold War and all that stuff. So esprit de corps was pretty high in the embassy.
So the initial reaction was, "Goddammit, we’ll make this thing run ourselves and to hell to the Russians, the Soviets."
So the diplomats rolled up their sleeves and got on with it:
And that was fine for a while. But we had to establish rosters of work duties, such as cleaning toilets and moving crates of milk, and all that sort of thing, that included everybody in the embassy except for the ambassador and me. So that meant on any given day a fair number of embassy officers and staff put on work clothes and did menial tasks for the day.
But being the richer sort of Americans they also looked for other, less labor-intensive, solutions to their problems. And found them:
We also found interesting ways around this problem. For example, the embassy of the Philippines had a fairly large staff and a lot of dependents, and we immediately hired some of them to work...
It's truly remarkable how Americans diplomatic corps people were able to sniff out brown people to put to work as their servers, even in 1980s Moscow. How's that for a truly colonial experience.
Nonetheless, despite such successes by the end of it all, the morale had well and truly sunk:
The initial reaction was, "We’ll make this work, goddammit. We’re Americans" -- national pride and all that. And that held up for a while, but then it got tiresome, having to clean urinals every day.
Another interesting moment is when Combs reveals just how cluless the American staff had been as to the amount of work went into maintaining their embassy and lifestyle:
The amount of stuff that comes into an embassy, we found out, is quite mind-boggling. I mean, even mail and boxes and stuff. We ordered a lot of stuff from Sears routinely.
We had a work detail, on a roster, every day, mainly foreign-service officers along with secretaries and the embassy doctor and everybody else. That was just a lot of physical work.
Of course, someone had to clean the toilets and the urinals at the embassy building, to clean the embassy itself, that locals had done, and we had taken it for granted, obviously, for many years.
Of the 1200 people employed by the US diplomatic mission in Russia today at least one half are locals. (At least 600 are in Moscow of whom 300 Americans.)
That means the US now has a choice to make. It can fire all the Russians. This would allow it to keep all, or at least the vast majority, of its American staff in Russia. It could then claim it had outsmarted Putin, as expulsions barely affected its American staff.
But if the US actually does so, its highly privileged American staff will have to lift furniture, drive vans, and clean toilets. Something that well and truly broke their spirits 30 years ago.