MIDDLEBURY — John R. Beyrle logged thousands of miles over three decades before and during his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Russia. And it was a journey that came full circle on Aug. 17 at Middlebury College, where Beyrle delivered the commencement address for the conclusion of the Middlebury Language Schools’ 98th summer session.
Beyrle, 58, studied Russian during the summer of 1975 at the Middlebury Russian School, and he credited that experience for helping lead him toward a career in foreign diplomacy.
He had been studying French and German in high school and intended to continue that course at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. But he was advised to “take a harder language,” and one of his professors convinced him to study Russian — which he did for three years. This gave him a grounding in Russian, but he knew he needed something a little more intense. That’s what led him to the Middlebury Russian School.
“I was exposed to the rigors of learning a language here that I had not encountered during my undergraduate studies,” Beyrle said during a sit-down interview with the Addison Independent. That commitment included eight hours of study in the classroom followed by additional research during the evenings.
“Language study is not a hobby; it’s a discipline,” Beyrle said.
A language foundation solidified in Middlebury led Beyrle to work in the then-Soviet Union as a guide for American exhibitions traveling throughout the USSR on cultural exchange agreements.
“What I found there was quite a surprise,” Beyrle said. “I found something that was even more fascinating to me than Slavic linguistics, and that was the real political paradox of the USSR. A country that had put the first man in space but couldn’t provide basic necessities like toilet paper and fresh fruits for its citizens. This was a real puzzle for me.”
A puzzle he decided to try and solve for himself.
“Along the way, I met people in the U.S. embassy and decided that embassy work and diplomacy work would probably work for me,” Beyrle said. “I took the Foreign Service test, passed it, and lo and behold was sent to Moscow for my first tour in 1983.”
It was a fortuitous assignment, Beyrle said, as new Foreign Service workers are usually sent to locations “they know nothing about, to broaden you a little bit.”
After serving a tour as a political and consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1983-1985, Beyrle served a two-year stint as a political officer in Bulgaria. His resume also includes stints as a member of the U.S. delegation to the Conventional Forces in Europe negotiations in Vienna (1990-1993) and as counselor for political end economic affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Prague.
His Washington assignments included service as Acting Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for the New Independent States; Director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council (1993–1995); staff officer to Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker; and foreign policy adviser to the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991 left 15 independent Republics and a dramatically different geopolitical landscape. Beyrle saw and lived that change firsthand upon his assignment as deputy chief of mission back at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, in 2002, then as ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2008-2012. Helping to prepare him for that top job — to which he was appointed by former U.S. President George W. Bush — was an assignment as U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria (2008-2008).
Beyrle noted he was appointed as a career diplomat, as opposed to a being a political appointee. As such, President Barack Obama kept him in the position when he took office on January of 2009. The U.S. Senate confirmed his appointments as ambassador.
Beyrle retired from Foreign Service in July after an eventful career during which he saw important changes sweep across Eastern Europe. And there was no bigger change than the fall of the Soviet Union. There were signs that then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was charting a different path for USSR, but no one had an inkling that a collapse of the system was in the offing, Beyrle recalled.
“For most of us in the field, it was completely unexpected,” Beyrle said. “I thought I might live to see the day when communism would begin to crumble, but I certainly didn’t expect it to happen at the speed with which it happened ... and I certainly didn’t expect it to be as relatively peaceful and bloodless as it turned out to be.”
That collapse, he said, opened up “tremendous political and geo-strategic opportunities for us, the Western Europeans and for the Eastern Europeans to get from under the domination of the Soviet Union. It really led to a chance for Europe to finally become whole and much more free. It is a transition that is obviously going to take a while to play itself out fully.”
He noted Russia has already made the transition from U.S. antagonist to a partner, and even and ally, in many respects. Among other things, Beyrle helped reset the Russian-American relationship and was instrumental in the signing of the START-2 arms control treaty. He also took part in the formation of new agreements on the peaceful use of nuclear energy and reduced visa restrictions for American and Russian travelers.
Full-blown capitalism has helped create a very wealthy class of Russians, while others have not fared as well.
“The fact that the system went from a complete command economy to a pretty fair approximation of market capitalism in the space of 10,15 years is in itself pretty remarkable,” he said. “The joke that Russians like to tell is, “Everything that the communists and our Soviet masters told us about the Soviet Union was a lie, but everything they told us about capitalism is true.’ In other words, capitalism sometimes brings about pain, adjustments that aren’t easy to adjust to. It’s been a hard adaptation.”
Fifteen years ago, according to Beyrle, 25 or 30 percent of Russians were living below the poverty level. That number is currently down to under 20 percent, he said. Incomes of Russian citizens are also up, largely due to the surging price of abundant Russian oil. A middle class has emerged in Russia — something the country has historically never had, according to Beyrle.
“But it takes a long time for these institutions to solidify,” Beyrle said. “That’s why we see the kind of tensions and turmoil in Russia right now, because it is still adapting to the realities of both a changing economic picture and a political system that is pushing for more space, pluralism.”
Some of the recent protests have centered on female punk rocker being sentenced to two years in jail for hooliganism. Their crime was performing a song critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a Russian Orthodox Church.
“Personally, I think that for what is really a minor act of non-violent civil disobedience, to even talk about putting anyone in jail at all is I think a little excessive,” Beyrle said. “I think it’s unfortunate.”
Beyrle, during his tenure, took part in many meetings with Putin.
“I found him to be a very precise, very disciplined man who knows very clearly what it is he wants for Russia,” Beyrle said.
Putin will face some big challenges during the next few years — largely on the economic front, Beyrle predicted. During the past decade, Putin presided over a big uptick in Russians’ personal incomes. Incomes almost tripled during that time, again due to the rising price of oil, Beyrle noted.
“Many Russians ascribe the credit to him for that, expecting him to again do this during his second term as president,” Beyrle said. “But to be able to pull that rabbit out of the hat again will be very, very tough for him. Even if the price of oil stays level at $100 a barrel — where it isn’t right now — Russia will have both a current accounts deficit and a budget deficit from two years from right now. That’s a very difficult situation given there were a lot of promises made to reform the pension system, to pay more to the military, to invest in infrastructure, health care and education. The money has to come from somewhere.”
Beyrle now lives outside Washington, D.C., and serves on the board of the U.S.-Russia Foundation and does some part-time consulting for companies operating in Eastern Europe.
He has enjoyed his long ride in international diplomacy.
“It takes a lot of hard work and some luck — and being at the right place at the right time,” Beyrle said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]