MOSCOW — In a breakup message for our era, the fraught U.S.-Russian relationship took a wistful turn when a cohort of expelled U.S. diplomats released an emotional farewell video.
Set to the tunes of a country music band from North Carolina, the video features eight of the 60 Americans kicked out of Russia in the latest tit for tat between Moscow and the West. The escalation began last month when a former Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned on British soil with a Soviet-designed nerve agent. Britain and its allies expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the poisoning, the first known use of such a chemical weapon in Europe since World War II. Moscow flatly denies involvement in the poisoning and has suggested that British intelligence was involved.
The U.S. diplomats’ departing words — released Friday night in a nearly 12-minute video titled, in Russian, “Thoughts for the Road” — are laced with disappointment and sorrow but also optimism about maintaining a good relationship with Russia. Several talk of their love for Russia, cemented over a lifetime learning its language, literature and history.
Diplomats working on the Middle East, political affairs and the commercial sectors speak in the video, in Russian and English. Maria Olson, who was the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Moscow, held up a book of Russian fairy tales given to her by a Russian journalist, recalling how she grew up reading Russian literature — in translation — with her father in rural Michigan.
In response to expulsions by the West, Russia ejected a similar number of diplomats belonging to at least 20 countries and closed the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg. In the past week, Western embassies in Moscow held farewell gatherings for departing colleagues. The ousted diplomats are considered personae non gratae by the Russian government, meaning they are banned from visiting Russia for a certain period — a heartache for those who have devoted so much of their professional lives to the country.
On Friday, three large buses collected the exiting Americans from the embassy in central Moscow, along with their families, including the occasional family pet. “Today, 60 of America’s finest public servants departed Embassy Moscow too soon,” U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. said, adding that stabilizing the U.S.-Russia relationship is “a task now more important than ever before.”
The Americans’ conspicuous adieu came in stark contrast to that of their expelled Russian counterparts. The Russian Embassy in Washington tweeted a photo of its ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, solemnly staring at a plane full of departing Russian diplomats on a U.S. runway; his hands were clasped behind his back, which faces the camera.