The article appeared in The Toronto Star
November 2nd, 1986
GARMISCH, West Germany
Washington calls it a training ground for Sovietologists.
Moscow denounces it as “the school of spies.”
The United States Army Russian Institute—its official name—was quietly opened near here in 1947 and moved to this health resort town 22 years ago.
Today intelligence analysts and future ambassadors drop in for anything from a six-hour mini-course to a two-year program.
Their mission is to try and make sense of what Winston Churchill once called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”--the 15 republics, 62 nationalities and 136 languages that comprise the Soviet Union.
Each student is a specialist on the Soviet Union. “We use the word specialist, not expert,” says one recent graduate, “because we all specialize in various degrees of ignorance about the Soviets.”
When you enter Building 104 at the institute, you might as well be in Mother Russia. Vladimir Lenin and Leonid Brezhnev stare down from the revolutionary posters that adorn the corridor walls.
Soviet slogans are everywhere: “Forward to the Victory of Communism” and “Glory to the Heroic Armed Forces of the U.S.S.R.” and “Mother Wants You!” (the Soviet equivalent of an Uncle Sam poster).
All conversation among students and staff is Russian as are all notices and signs.
“You can't find the men's room unless you know Russian,” says Dr. Otto Pick, a Czechoslovakian emigre who lectures at the institute. “I've seen people running around in desperation.”
The first year of the two-year program includes courses in physical-military geography, Russian diplomatic history, party and government, Russian intellectual tradition, Marxist-Leninist philosophy, introduction to the Soviet national defence establishment, Russian military and thought and Soviet military readings.
Second-year students concentrate on the politics of east central Europe, the Soviet economy, Soviet foreign policy, the problems of contemporary Soviet society and Soviet military power.
The course handbook lists its objective as to “produce competent Soviet foreign area officers, proficient in the Russian language, who fully understand the U.S.S.R and in particular its military establishment, and who are capable of formulating sound politico-military estimates concerning the capabilities, limitations and potentials of the Soviet Union.”
Students receive 16 hours of classroom instruction each week and they must also participate in an extracurricular cultural program. There is a drama group that stages Soviet plays (in Russian), a cooking club that prepares ethnic dishes, a folk-dancing group and a choir.
Students unwind by watching old Russian movies (no subtitles) and by playing chess and Russian scrabble.
So exclusive is the school that in almost 40 years of operation there have been fewer than 700 graduates—but no dropouts.
“By the time you get here, you're beyond dropping out,” says one graduate.
Applicants are carefully selected—most are men and women from the army of State Department and, says graduate Maj. Sean Maxwell, “all those people from the gobbledygook of initials out of Washington D.C.
The marines, air force and navy sneak in one of their own whenever they get the chance.
“We're the only school of its kind,” says Col. Don Stovall, the institute's commander.
About a fifth of 60 current students are civilians from the intelligence community. “All of the foreign service officers that are assigned to Moscow come through this institute,” says Stovall.
Some graduates go directly to the Soviet Union as military attaches; others serve with U.S. Military liaison mission in Potsdam, East Germany, which runs observation patrols behind the Iron Curtain.
Maj. Arthur Nicolson, the young officer shot and killed by the Soviets in March 1985 while serving in East Germany was a graduate, as are White House Soviet advisers Mark Palmer and Tyrus Cobb, former ambassadors Robert Barry (Bulgaria) and William Leurs (Czechoslovakia), and Lt. Gen. William Odom, director of the National Security Agency.
The Russian Institute was created in May, 1947 in Oberammagau, a half-hour drive northwest of Garmisch. Originally attached to the Europe Command Intelligence School, its first class had just three students.
“After World War II we saw that the Soviet Union was going to play a big role in how our defence and foreign policy is devised,” says Stovall. “It was determined that we needed a group of experts who could serve as decision-makers in the ensuing years—who would not only understand the Soviet mind, but could also anticipate their reactions.
“If we could send out students to Leningrad University this place would not exist.”
The initial faculty members were Russians from displaced persons camps in Bavaria. For their protection, “Detachment R,” as the institute was originally called, operated under a cloak of secrecy.
Many of the instructors had defected from the Soviet Union, and, says Maxwell, “a few of them were under a death threat from the KGB.”
Today the institute has 19 staff instructors, 14 of whom were born and raised in the Soviet Union.
“Life can be painful for an emigre,” says Lev Yudovich, a Russian Jew who teaches the Soviet political system. “You can change your citizenship without too much difficulty. Escaping can be the easiest part. But the scars, worse for being self-inflicted, remain.”
Yudovich graduated in 1950 from the Moscow Law Institute, where he knew Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Professor Michael Checinski has been at the Institute since September 1984. He served 20 years in the Polish army and lectured at the Polish General Staff Academy before quietly leaving for the West.
A sometime television pundit, Checinski accurately predicted martial law in Poland four months before it was imposed. His subject is the Soviet military economy.
Not all emigres have stayed at the school. Former instructor Yuri Mickalovich Marim re-defected to the Soviet Union in 1968 after two years here. Thirty days after his return, Pravda and Red Star, the Soviet army newspaper, carried Marim's “expose” about the “spy school in Garmisch.”
“Yuri was never heard from after that,” Stovall says.
Until 1983, students visited the Soviet Union annually on group field trips. All requests for visas these days are refused, attributed to the decline in U.S.-Soviet relations.
“When we travelled there, we didn't try to hide anything,” says former student Maxwell. “People would ask me, 'Why do you speak Russian?' 'Well,' you say, 'I'm an intelligence officer.' They can't believe it!”
Before graduation from the two-year program, students are expected to prepare a major research paper, in Russian, based on information gleaned exclusively from the Soviet press.
No degree is awarded. Students simply receive a simple diploma with the institute's colorful crest and motto: “For a Better Future.”