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The Regional Program Office Vienna

by Robert J. Baker

In Vienna, an independent organization, the Regional Program Office, included a printing house with four big four-color presses, a 30-strong total of experts in translation, editing, design, exhibits, photography, printing, administrative, and computer work. Our work was entirely to help U.S. Embassies in Communist Europe. RPO reported directly to USIA headquarters in D.C.

The collapse of Communism marked by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall meant two big things in my view. Hurrah, for the Evil Empire’s millions of oppressed people, and second, alack for me. After thirty years working against Communism, I wanted an easy last assignment for my personal part of the battle. I had suffered from workaholism my whole career and wanted to retire without intense work pressure.

Twenty years earlier, I had seen the RPO Director, John Jacobs, sitting at the same desk I coveted. His staff published some excellent magazines and produced exhibits and other support for eight Central European and Russian posts. He did excellent work and still had time to enjoy Vienna. Now I was Director of the Regional Program Office.

Its flagship magazine, the monthly, America Illustrated, was directed mainly at the Soviet Union, but also appeared in Polish. It was excellent. It even won American publishing prizes. USIA in Washington, selected the best articles from American magazines and bought the rights. RPO translated and printed them in Russian and Polish. It was one of the premier ways the U.S. had to get past Soviet censorship. Under our bilateral accord, Moscow limited distribution of America Illustrated to 50,000 Russian copies. However, copies passed from hand to hand, so an estimated 50 people read each copy, until it fell apart. Moscow was allowed to circulate 50,000 copies of Soviet Life, its propaganda magazine, in the U.S. in exchange. It sold so badly that American agencies sometimes bought copies from newsstands to keep the circulation up so the Russians would not reduce the number of copies permitted to America Illustrated.

RPO also typeset a quarterly intellectual magazine, Dialogue, in Russian, Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Czechoslovakian, and Hungarian and printed four versions. RPO translated six versions and two were translated at post. Dialogue was a major piece of work for RPO and of significant influence among elites in the countries where it circulated.

RPO also made handsome photo exhibits for American Embassy public libraries in Communist countries. Our shop printed up to wall size color prints, about 8×12 feet. The mostly smaller photo exhibits hung in the American Embassy public library windows. We published the occasional art catalogue for Ambassadors whose official residences held outstanding American art, e.g., for Spaso House, the residence in Moscow. We also did routine printing (letterhead, envelopes, invitations, etc.) and computer work for all our posts. We e-mailed the daily official USIA Wireless File of U.S. news and views, and canned official feature stories, every morning to all posts. We made exhibits for many posts to mark special events.

All that worked beautifully until 1991. I had expected to sip my excellent coffee, give directions, do some editing, officiate at staff retirements and work just 40-hour weeks until I retired in four years. Perfect! I had always worked very long hours and deserved an easy job at the end of my career.

10/11/1986 Trip to Iceland Reykjavik Summit Arrival of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at Hofdi House

However, Moscow’s reformist Communist General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, appeared on the Soviet scene. He perestroiked the USSR to collapse while trying to rescue its creaky administration and discredited politics.

Hard-line Kremlin men seized him at his dacha in the Crimea one weekend just a month after my first sip of that great coffee in Vienna. They muffed it. When I read that the coup had failed and Gorbachev went free, my heart sank for me, though it rose for the millions suffering under Communism.

I believed that the hard-line Communist failure to overthrow Gorbachev meant the end of the USSR and freedom for the Evil Empire’s people and its suppressed nationalities.

I knew that would mean also, inevitably, new countries arising from the ruins of Moscow’s empire. Quite soon, new American Embassies I felt would be established in the new countries. The USSR did soon brake up into 15 countries. The new governments welcomed American information efforts. So did new non-communist government in the Baltics and the Balkans.

For RPO, I believed that meant we needed to translate, and to print many new languages from our little shop. Printing in local languages would demonstrate U.S. political respect for the new non- communist governments and their peoples.

Because Czechoslovakia broke into Czechs and Slovaks, we needed new typefaces for them; ditto for Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia which came out of the old Yugoslavia. Our printers, editors, translators, and artists all worked to create the new language typefaces needed for printing at RPO, but we also needed new translators for many countries.

Russian had been imposed on them by Moscow, at least as a second language. Before Moscow collapsed, it insisted we send only Russian translations to all parts of the USSR. Uzbeks and Ukrainians had to read America Illustrated in Russian, for example.

Instead of simply directing our Viennese staff to do their routine work, I had to work intensely seven days a week. That was just what I had hoped to escape in Vienna after a lifetime of self-imposed workaholism.

The day in August 1991, when Gorbachev returned from his dacha to Moscow, a free man and still the General Secretary of the Communist Party, I called my staff together. I asked them to find me as soon as possible, good translators for the new countries or governments I felt would arise after the ruin of the Soviet empire. Two weeks later, none had been found though the staff checked all Austria and all their contacts beyond. I needed new translators for Albanian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Belarusian, Estonian, Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Slovene, Tajik, Turkmen, Ukrainian, and Uzbek. We already had translators and could adapt in-house the typefaces for Slovak and Czech, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian, when those countries emerged.

For Albanian, I had a brainstorm. I vaguely knew we had a Vienna listening post that did translations from Albanian into English for the CIA’s daily world roundup of radio and television news reports. I found the guy in Vienna who translated Albanian into English. I called him and took him to lunch at the Embassy cafeteria. He agreed to become our Albanian translator. I gave him a copy of the U.S. Constitution and asked him to translate a couple pages. I sent his work to the Voice of America Albanian section in Washington, D.C., for checking. He got a perfect score. I hired him to translate the rest of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, our two most basic political documents. They told a lot about the U.S. and might even inspire Albanians as that country searched for political ideas for its own new constitution. Under Albania’s strict Stalinist Communist dictatorship, we had not even been permitted to have an Embassy in Albania.

With a translator on board, I asked my staff to find Albanian typefaces so we could print his translations. No luck commercially anywhere in Western Europe, but my enterprising Czech chief editor found a tiny Eastern Rite monastic order in Vienna. They had Albanian typefaces to print religious pamphlets they smuggled into Albania. We got their help and sent off to the U.S. Embassy, Tirana, the Constitution and the Declaration in Albanian. They gave them out to the new political leadership in less than a year after the fall of the dictatorship.

Most of the needed translators were still missing. I recalled that a friend was now Vice President of Radio Free Europe, the CIA’s broadcasting service to Eastern Europe based in Munich. I called him and flew to see him for lunch. With his cooperation, I signed up 15 of his staff translators, all previously cleared and vetted as competent. I set them all to translate initially the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

We were still missing the Baltic state languages, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian. I made a trip in 1991 to meet professors of English in each country and added them to our stable of translators. We also obtained or made typefaces for each country and were able within a year and a half to print the Declaration and the Constitution in 18 of the 21 languages of formerly Communist Europe. We sent them to our Embassies to distribute to political leaders and universities hungry for authentic, basic political information about the United States. I hoped they also might inspire ideas for the new governments being organized throughout the region.

After the fall of Communism, we needed to meet the huge demand for information about the U.S. in countries fed almost exclusively anti-American propaganda for 70 years.

Europeans like exhibits. I thought we could make a cheap, handsome photographic exhibit based on a U.S. map we already had printed in nine languages. That map included on one side, 2,000 words of basic facts on U.S. geography, population, politics, and history. I checked, and the facts were 15 years old. My Deputy updated them. Our exhibits staff illustrated the facts with color photos from our 100,000-photo file. Two of the chosen photos used for the exhibit, I took during my recent holiday in the U.S. That was all our photo editor picked out of 200 I submitted to her. No favoritism for the boss there.

The exhibit cost only $500 per copy to make in our photo shop. It produced the beautiful color photos in 3′ x 2′ format. The photos were heat transferred onto sturdy Styrofoam boards seven feet high and three feet wide.

A dozen boards, illustrated with photos and text on each side, stood up by themselves, zigzag. The individual boards were connected by flexible plastic bands. Each exhibit folded into two large cardboard packages. You simply pulled the exhibit out of the two big cardboard boxes in which we shipped it and stood it up on any flat surface.

Standing, it ran about 50 feet long and showed a total of 50 photos. They were big and beautiful in excellent color. I had the printed text for each photo run in both English and the local language side by side. That way the exhibit served also as an English teaching tool. It was by far our most effective and cheap exhibit.

I knew posts needed very easy set up for exhibits. Headquarters had sent out for the U.S. Bicentennial a beautiful photo exhibit, but it was the very devil of complexity to set up. As our new Embassy staffs had zero exhibit technical ability, I had asked the RPO exhibits staff to come up with a plan to make it easy to set up. They did.

We produced about 70 copies of the exhibit in 31 languages and shipped them to USIS posts and U.S. Embassies. They gave them to local city halls, museums, universities, secondary schools, etc. In several countries the local school systems trucked them around for months from town to town until they were worn out. In several East European capitals, they were opened as a special show at the City Hall by the U.S. Ambassador. In some countries, all the panels were shown and read out loud on local television, creating a mini-seminar on the United States. For people hungry for accurate, true information about the U.S., the exhibits were a major and inexpensive success. Easily and cheaply shipped by air, they were the best idea I had in Vienna.

Shipping was easy for that show, but sending heavy objects was often a nightmare. Crooked border guards demanding bribes were just the icing on the cake of incompetence and confusion in the remnants of communist centrally planned economies.

Embassy Budapest, not that far from Vienna, complained bitterly that the computers we had promised them a month earlier never arrived. We checked. They had been properly shipped and reached Budapest according to our meticulous shipping paper trails. No dice. Embassy Budapest said they never arrived. It was overwhelmed with work and asked us to find the badly needed computers. I sent our shipping expert. He went to the Budapest railroad shipping office where our paper trail ended. Nobody there knew which of the three Budapest rail warehouses might have the computers. He went to search each one, but found they had no working lights in their cavernous depths. Nobody would help him to search. He tried to buy a powerful flashlight to search by himself. None were for sale anywhere. The economy had collapsed.

We sent a computer expert with two big flashlights and extra batteries. Using them, they found the computers buried in the third warehouse, got them into a taxi, drove them to the Embassy and installed them.

In the Soviet Far East, the only airline to many cities was Lufthansa. Our final copies of material to be edited by the local translator rarely arrived via the chaotic national post offices. One staffer cleverly went to the Vienna airport and gave Lufthansa pilots a bottle of Johnny Walker to carry our envelopes to the Embassy for us after they landed. The RPO staff was excellent.

Our own U.S. State Department was part of our problems. It had a warehouse in Helsinki. It received and stored new furniture for new Embassies in ex-communist Europe. It shipped the furniture in its own sealed trucks (border guards could not hold up or successfully demand bribes from diplomatically sealed trucks). We had sent a big computer shipment to Estonia via that State warehouse. It never got to Estonia. My dozen cables and telephone calls to the State Department warehouse went unanswered. Exasperated, I took two Viennese experts (shipping and computers) with me to Helsinki.

We found the missing computers behind some State Department furniture in the warehouse. Welcome to the planned American economy. I helped lug them in their heavy diplomatically sealed canvas bags onto the ferry boat from Helsinki to Estonia. Once there, my guys installed them so the post could send email to Washington, for the dozens of problems that came up installing a new diplomatic post. The new computers also let them receive and distribute our daily U.S. government wireless file of U.S. news and official statements. Those were passed to local media.

I went with my two experts to all the Baltic capitals. They installed computers and taught the new local staff how to use computers and U.S. official administrative procedures. I wrote up with the local Public Affairs Officer orders for American books, magazines, and furniture for our new public libraries. I met with professors of English and hired one in each country to do our translations, initially for the U.S. Constitution and Declaration.

My Administrative expert trained the new local employees in how to set up and maintain records, how to order equipment, how to use the official U.S. Government accounting system, etc. My computer guy had brought lots of cables, connectors, etc., all needed and not available locally. He got the e-mail systems up and running and left behind spare parts.

Local telephones were literally almost useless back then. They often did not work. The Embassy relied on hugely expensive per minute satellite phones to talk to Vienna or Washington. The email system saved tons of money for the huge amount of administrative work that goes into creating a new post.

My experience in African posts with chaotic local government and services came in handy dealing with similar conditions in ex-Communist countries. Doing business was so hard mostly from plain incompetence and dysfunctional government services.

Even local electric power often went out. I offered posts cheap Japanese gasoline-driven power generators. They could power a computer and a couple light bulbs indefinitely to keep the office running in emergencies. The exhaust could easily be run outside so the generator could stay inside and unfrozen without the exhaust choking our staff. We had to buy everything from trucks to batteries for the posts, but it all helped.

The RPO staff did a great job dealing with the problems that came with a sea change in their target communist countries. And it was tiring.

Bob Baker is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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