Marylander on duty in Moscow awakened the White House

August 25, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun Richard H. P. Sia of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

MOSCOW -- America's man in Moscow was sound asleep in town house No. 1 Monday morning when the telephone woke him to a nightmare: The Soviet Union was in the midst of a coup.

That was the last untroubled sleep Marylander James F. Collins would have for the rest of the week. As deputy chief of mission in a U.S. Embassy between ambassadors, Mr. Collins had to keep President Bush informed of what was going on and help to guide his decisions.

So when Mr. Collins got the call from a staff member who was monitoring the radio, he wasted no time calling Washington.

"They woke me up," said Mr. Collins, "and I woke Washington up.

"We were trying to ensure [that] Washington not only knew what was going on but what the appropriate response might be," Mr. Collins said. "The president was nice enough to say I was in charge."

Mr. Collins is a student of history, so the call he got later Monday from the Russian Federation building is likely to have a special significance in his memories as a diplomat.

He was summoned across the street from the embassy to the federation building to pick up a letter from Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian president, to Mr. Bush.

"We brought it back, translated it and sent a telegram to the president," Mr. Collins said. "We also relayed the contents by phone.

"We talked with the vice president and Kennebunkport," he said. "We were in charge of finding out the telephone number where President Bush could reach Yeltsin."

An embassy staffer was sent to press his way through the shoulder-to-shoulder wall of people around Mr. Yeltsin's building obtain the vital number. It was the only way. Moscow has no real telephone book.

"We had two real concerns," Mr. Collins said, describing the 24-hour workdays he put in as the drama unfolded. "One was to give Washington and the Department of State the best sense we could of what was happening here hour to hour and minute to minute. We kept an open line to the State Department.

"The other big concern was the safety of the people in this building and Americans living and traveling here."

The embassy was in the middle of much of the action. The death of three Russian civilians Tuesday night occurred near the front of the embassy offices. The huge crowds that gathered to repel the tanks around the Russian Federation building were right across the street from the back of the embassy housing compound. As the situation worsened, embassy officials, fearing they would be caught in the middle of a tank battle, organized a contingency plan for evacuations.

Surveillance was easy. The embassy staff could watch the actio from atop the new high-rise embassy building, still unoccupied because it was so thoroughly bugged by Soviet authorities while it was being built.

Mr. Collins was sitting in the embassy cafeteria Friday, smoking a cigarette after eating cheeseburgers with the new U.S. ambassador, Robert S. Strauss, who arrived Wednesday as the tide turned against the coup.

"I spent much of Wednesday getting out to the airport to meet the ambassador, which again was a hair-raising experience," Mr. Collins said. "We passed one long armored line, which I was glad to tell him was heading in the right direction, out of Moscow."

Mr. Strauss and Mr. Collins were immediately invited to fly to the Crimea with the delegation of Russian officials who set out to find out just how "ill" President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was.

"The ambassador and I had 15 minutes to make a decision about whether we were going. We decided we were going and went out to the airport, ending up in the middle of another long line of tanks," Mr. Collins said.

At the same time, the Russian officials, discovering that the coup leaders were also on their way to the Crimea, unceremoniously --ed off. The U.S. diplomats got left behind before they could even reach the airport.

Mr. Collins' wife, Naomi, who has worked in Baltimore since 1984 as executive director of the Maryland Humanities Council, was visiting Moscow when the coup began. She lives in the family home in Bethesda, to which she returned Tuesday.

"It was an interesting ride to the airport," said Mr. Collins. The couple had to weave their way around barricades thrown up by Muscovites trying to block the path of tanks, sometimes driving on the sidewalk and finally finding themselves in the midst of a long column of tanks roaring through the city.

Mr. Collins, who is 51, came to Maryland in 1967 for a job teaching Russian and Soviet history at the Naval Academy. He joined the Foreign Service in 1969 and was later assigned to Moscow, where the couple and their two sons lived from 1973 to 1975.

For Mrs. Collins, who has a doctorate in history, the danger was never as great as her own fascination.

"My husband probably was thinking more optimistically than anybody," she said Friday in an interview from Bethesda.

"I wasn't quite as sure the coup would fail. I've been back and forth to Russia for 25 years, and I'm familiar with what you might call the dark side."

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