Stories from a Former Foreign Service Officer: Thomas Graham

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Thomas Graham sits in his office space in New York City.

by Stephanie Leontiev 

In 1957 when Russia launched the first satellite to enter orbit kicking off the Space Race, Thomas Graham was six years old and sitting in a family friend’s living room staring up in awe at a Sputnik balloon replica as it floated to the ceiling. The Sputnik replica was a silver, helium-filled sphere with four sticks coming out of it, as he describes it. Graham watched the balloon in amazement and recalls the adults in the room discussing it as if it were the satellite Soviet Sputnik itself.

As Graham sits in his New York City office space recounting the memory, his face lights up and he unfolds his hands to gesture as if reaching for the balloon to say, “the balloon piqued my interest in the Soviet Union, and by the time I was nine I was reading all the books in my school library about the Soviet Union and Communism.” For the U.S. and Soviet Union, the launching of Sputnik triggered the Space Race. For young Thomas Graham, it sparked a life-long fascination. 

As a high school student in Princeton, New Jersey, Graham studied Russian as a second language to later follow in his instructor’s footsteps and participate in one of the first exchange programs in Moscow. The program offered two areas of study: journalism and diplomacy. Graham chose the route of diplomacy only to later personify this role.

Graham looks away, memories playing across his facial features, before explaining how this life-changing experience at Moscow State University began. He recalls how, “the Soviets put us on the same floor with the Vietnamese, conscious of the fact that we had just fought a war to make sure we had people that would remind us of the dastardly things that the Americans had done.” Despite being on enemy territory, he acclimated, made friends, and even met a fellow American lady who would become his wife.

Although detached from his high school back home in New Jersey, Graham appreciated the ability to truly connect with Soviet citizens by witnessing their values and beliefs: a humorously striking one including Soviet citizens leaving work for 3-4 hours to detoxify in a steam room known as a “banja”. Graham chuckles and shakes his head. He then looks up-serious- and says, “Perhaps the only thing that was really shocking was how people really had this pent up hunger—I guess is the appropriate word–to meet with Americans, to talk about what was going on, and their willingness to talk about what was happening in Soviet society at that time.” Graham says this in regards to the fact that the two nations were engaged in a Cold War and both parties had increasing interest in one another.

He praises his youth as having been “good preparation” for coming back in the late Soviet Period as an official Foreign Service Officer. After majoring in Russian Studies at Yale University and then receiving a masters in Political Science from Harvard, Graham became a Foreign Service Officer in 1984. With an initial tour of duty in Oslo, Norway, he went directly to Moscow starting the spring of 1987 to the summer of 1990 during a period of some of the most tangible tension between the U.S. and Russia, or as Graham would put it: “one of the most exciting times.”

Graham actively worked at the American Embassy in Moscow aiding to crucial moments such as President Reagan’s visit and meeting with his counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. Graham remarks that this spectacle would instill a sense of reassurance for the Russian people that it was “okay” to interact with Americans, such as himself.

When asked, “How did your perspective change from when you were a student studying abroad in Russia to when you were serving as a Foreign Service Officer,” Graham unfolds his hands and straightens his shoulders. He elaborates that in the 1990s, his work moved off of the streets of the city where he was able to interact with individual citizens and into the offices where diplomats were not advised to speak to others outside of their professional boundaries. He began to establish contacts at the Kremlin, elsewhere in the government, with the original oligarchs, newspaper journalists, think tanks etc. Graham worked hands-on during a period of some of the most suspenseful undertakings in history such as the fall of the Soviet Union. He recalls that, “we on the ground in Moscow and from our travels across the country entertained the possibility and advised Washington that this is an eventuality that they should take seriously.”

Focusing on domestic politics between the U.S. and Russia under the Bush administration, Graham can speak endlessly illustrating his earlier two tours in Moscow, the time in between when he worked on Russian and Soviet affairs on the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State and as a policy assistant in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, among other countless memories.

Participating in the Congress of Peoples Deputies, the first semi-parliamentary body that was nominated by somewhat free elections, Graham represented the United States as an active participant for two weeks while many watched broadcasts from their television sets. “Every session morning and evening would have some sort of dramatic element to it,” he says.

The issues then are not so different from the issues now. Graham recalls a Georgian deputy who talked with “big emotion” about the Soviet actions in putting down a demonstration in Tbilisi. This echoes the recent emotional remarks from the Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili who criticized Russia for Georgia’s suffering of an embargo, a war, an invasion, and an occupation–all since 2006. “You got a sense of the tension and raw emotions that were exposed in Soviet Society and you get a better understanding of why it’s been so difficult since that time to bring the country together and deal with the past—come to terms with the past and move forward to a somewhat different future,” Graham says. As of late, the biggest issue between the U.S. and Russia has been the civil war in Syria.

Now, Graham works for Kissinger Associates as the Manager of Russian and Eurasian Affairs. When asked what work goes on within these walls that we were sitting in and chatting, Graham insists to remain silent. “We cannot discuss our clients, what we do, and who we do it for.” Graham still acts as a liaison in communications between the two superpowers, although in “official” privacy, he still dedicates his time to foreign affairs.

Graham continues to comment for various news agencies within the U.S. and Russia. From commenting in Voice of America publications to Russia’s “Expert” newspaper, Graham remains a public figure in the media sphere, but also one whom continues to inspire many.

Having met Graham in 2000 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) upon taking the position as the director of the Russia Eurasia Program (now at CSIS), Andrew Kuchins recalls when his admiration for Graham’s work started: “It was striking to me then reading [Graham’s} report [on U.S.-Russia relations in 1999] that I felt like ‘wow, I feel like I wrote this report myself. This is very, very, very, like-minded thinking.”

Every now and then, Graham delves into academic institutions where he shares his experience and acquired knowledge through lectures and teaching. Graham acts as a Senior Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs where he periodically gives lectures. He also is active in the Global Yale program where he is an interviewee.

Andrew Weiss, who worked with Graham at the CEIP as well and is the current Vice President of Russian and Eurasian studies remarks, “I have never met a more dedicated student of Russian politics and history than Tom during my career.  My relationship with him dates back to the early 1990s when I was fresh out of graduate school and working in the Pentagon.  Even then he encouraged my enthusiasm for this important subject and took me seriously — despite plenty of indications that maybe he ought not to.”

Truly invested in and passionate about his work, Thomas Graham remembers a moment in the 1990s when “there was a tremendous amount of hope [pause] in part because people were speaking things that they knew to be true, that they were speaking publicly for the first time in their lives, and you could feel that emotion as well—that they were free for the first time in their lives” as he gestures with his hands mid air as if feeling for something in between his fore-fingers and his thumbs. There are many more stories to be told.

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