#12 - JRL 7006
January 13, 2003
A Diplomat to the Corps
The Peace Corps' man in Moscow, Jeffrey Hay won't waste his words on the spying charges that have the Corps leaving Russia
By AISHA LABI
In Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, a U.S. aid worker in 1950s Saigon turns out to be a spy. The recent film version of the story hasn't come out yet in Russia, but Nikolai Patrushev, director of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, must be familiar with the plot. Last month he accused U.S. Peace Corps volunteers of illicitly "collecting information on the sociopolitical and economic situation in Russia," singling out one staffer for entering a closed zone on the Chinese border and a volunteer for trying to establish inappropriate contacts. Even in a world where Russia and the U.S. wage joint battle against terrorism, cold war suspicions die hard.
Patrushev's accusations grew into an international incident when all 27 American Peace Corps volunteers in Russia were essentially told to get out of the country. Caught in the storm is Jeffrey Hay, the Corps' acting country director for Russia, who was informed on the day after Christmas that Russia would have no further use for his services or those of his volunteers and 24 staffers (most of them Russian). Hay must now help the Corps volunteers scattered throughout Russia plan speedy departures.
The U.S. ambassador, Alexander Vershbow, is furious at the insinuations. Patrushev's comments, he says, "are outrageous, untrue and harmful to the work that Peace Corps volunteers are carrying on world-wide. We categorically reject allegations that Peace Corps volunteers have been engaged in spying." But in the midst of this verbal blizzard, Hay himself remains, well, the quiet American. He declines to denounce his now-inhospitable host country. "The way the Peace Corps works is that a host government invites us for the term they would like us to be there, and if they feel that it is no longer necessary to host the program, then that's fine," he says. "The Russian government has expressed appreciation for the work the Peace Corps has done and said that conditions in Russia have changed and that the need for the Peace Corps has changed."
Hay, 34, has been with the Peace Corps for nine of the past 11 years. He served as a volunteer in a small Hungarian village shortly after graduating from St. Michael's College in Vermont with a degree in literature (yes, he read The Quiet American). While there he became fluent in Hungarian and met his wife, also a Corps volunteer, with whom he has a three-month-old daughter. He served as a desk officer in Washington and an administrative officer in Mongolia before arriving in Moscow last year. When his predecessor left Russia last June, Hay became acting country director.
This is not his first brush with controversy. In August, 30 volunteers who'd been in Russia for a year were denied visa extensions. The Russian Education Ministry, which coordinates Corps' activities, "supported our requests for visas and passed them on, so it was a surprise when they were denied," says Hay. "We decided not to bring in a new group of volunteers."
Hay's mild words are clearly designed to ease tensions. And Corps director Gaddi Vasquez echoes his mellow view. "We're disappointed, but we respect a country's right to determine the merits of volunteer service," he says. "This is a situation we encounter from time to time. Last year we closed programs where economic development has grown sufficiently that the countries determined that a continuation would be unnecessary." But when those programs, in the Baltics, were phased out, no one was accused of espionage.
Hay refuses to dignify the spy charges by responding to them directly, stressing instead the accomplishments that over 700 Corps volunteers have made as teachers and mentors throughout Russia. But Patrushev, a friend of Vladimir Putin, is apparently not convinced. With little tradition of volunteerism in Russia, the one-time cold warrior may simply have trouble with the notion of idealistic young Americans coming to Russia to do good. Or maybe he's just been reading too much Graham Greene.
If Russia feels it's no longer necessary to host the program, then that's fine.
What's your reaction to the explanation that the Russian government is ending the Peace Corps agreement simply because there is no longer an economic need for the program?
I accept that. That's the way the Peace Corps works in every country. It's not up to us to decide what a country needs or doesn't need.
What about the spying allegations?
My reaction is to emphasize what Peace Corps and Peace Corps volunteers do, which is to come to a country for two years, learn the language and try to learn the culture. They go out to communities that have invited them and work in those communities, not only in a technical capacity but in a way that allows for an exchange of cultures.
But do you deny these specific allegations?
Again, all I can do is emphasize what Peace Corps does.
So you won't confirm or deny the allegations?
You won't even address them?
What legacy do you think the Peace Corps will leave in Russia?
Our volunteers have taught over 26,000 students, they've held thousands of seminars, taught teachers and students and helped develop resource and computer centers. Communities all over Russia welcomed volunteers into their homes and workplaces and helped create more open communication between our two countries.