Two hours south of the Canadian border, the roads approaching Norwich University wind around the breathtaking peaks and dreamy valleys of central Vermont. The institution is in Northfield, a New England town that brings to mind idyllic scenes from Norman Rockwell paintings. It is the kind of place where the Stars and Stripes hang from slanted flagpoles attached to the front walls of white clapboard homes. But passing through Norwich’s gates, a visitor steps into another reality. Outlandish decorations adorn the grounds: a Second World War tank in a comer of the school football stadium, a romanticized mural of a nuclear mushroom cloud in the cafeteria. Even more unsettling to the newcomer is the behavior of the staff and students. Everywhere a visitor walks, day or night, they fill the air with a peculiar buzz—the sound of Russian.
Norwich University in Northfield, Vt, is the oldest private military college in the United States. Each year, it offers an intensive seven-week immersion program in the Russian language that attracts liberal arts students, North American journalists being posted to Moscow and personnel from national security agencies. In 1987, Maclean’s Ontario Bureau Chief Paul Kaihla was a student at the Norwich Russian School. Five years later, he has returned to look at how the end of the Cold War transformed the campus. His account:
This juxtaposition caused severe anxiety when I arrived at Norwich as an innocent Canadian student five years ago. I was in a country, after
all, that had deployed enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world 40 times over in the defence of liberty during four Cold War decades. Yet here, one of America’s premiere military campuses had been turned into a virtual enclave of the Soviet Union—the enemy that was the primary target of most of the warheads. At Norwich, all things American were banished. The first act of the teachers—almost all of them Soviet expatriates—was to obliterate the newcomer’s civilian identity by assigning a Russian name. All of the buildings got one, too. Students were forbidden to speak anything but Russian on campus.
But it only took me a few days to realize that the Russian atmosphere in a patch of America made perfect Cold War sense. One of my first clues was that many of the male students had crew cuts, a distinctively unfashionable military look. During meals, they would hold discussions in intimate detail about the geography of Annapolis, Md., and Langley, Va.—respectively, headquarters of the U.S. Naval Academy and the CIA. In fact, it soon emerged, there was a busy collusion between the U.S. intelligence community and the Norwich Russian School. By the end of the program, it was common knowledge that a fascinating array of present and future spies was sitting alongside the ordinary language students: naval signal corps analysts, Sovietologists from the ultrasecret National Security Agency, recruits from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), the U.S. Air Force attaché for the American Embassy in Moscow and field interrogators from the U.S. Marine Corps.
As if their organization did not have enough spies already, CIA
officers came on campus to hold a public recruiting session. Explained a surly ex-CIA operative to a group of bemused students: ‘You have to ask yourself if you are prepared to put yourself in a situation to kill for your country, or be killed.”
But that was then. Five years later, the school—like the world—is a different place. The Soviet Union has disintegrated into 15 separate countries, and Norwich’s Russian School has ended the CIA recruiting sessions. A satirical sign indicative of the new world order is on the school director’s door: a poster of the U.S. presidential seal, with the logos of the CIA and the KGB on either side, punctuated by the caption, ‘Together at last—Now we’re Everywhere.”
Just as the former Soviet republics are struggling to adjust, the Russian School is floundering as well. Enrolment is down to 160 students from 300 three years ago. Part of the drop, staff members say, is a result of intelligence agencies slashing their budgets for Russian training. Irina Belodedova, one of the school’s teachers, says that in 1990, half of her class of a dozen students were Marines. This year, she has only one. Said the native of Kiev: “All those people fell off after Perestroika did its work.”
I crossed the campus common to see one traditionalist, Robert Rustad, a poker-faced first sergeant in Norwich’s ROTC program. The 21-year-old from Powell, Wyo., threw himself into Russian immersion in 1990. Rustad wanted to go into intelligence work. But after the breakup of the Soviet Union, he considered dropping his Russian studies altogether because he thought it would no longer enhance his career prospects. “The Cold War was still on when I started Russian, and the army liked my plans,”
Rustad said soberly. “Now things have changed so fast, I don’t know if there is anything for me.”
The Russian School did not originate as a training camp for spies.
Prof. Nicholas Pervushin, a former dean of the college, says that he and fellow Russian-born academics established the program at Norwich in 1968 to expand Russian language and cultural study in North America.
Pervushin is a story in himself. A cousin of the Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, he left the Soviet Union in 1923, after a telegram from the Bolshevik chief gained his release from a prison in the Russian city of Kazan (he landed there after criticizing Soviet economic policy).
Pervushin moved to Montreal in 1958 and taught Russian studies at the University of Montreal and at McGill University for 22 years. At 93, he still conducts a seminar at Norwich. ‘We came here because it was a military academy which had empty buildings that we could use,” explained Pervushin. “I don’t know anything about training spies.”
But the program’s excellent academic reputation soon attracted entrants from the military, many of them doing their elementary Russian studies at a defence department school in Monterey, Calif., and wanting an immersion setting for their advanced-level courses. That kind of clientele put Norwich at the centre of international intrigue during the past decade. In 1984 and 1985, Glenn Michael Souther enrolled in the school to upgrade his Russian skills. Unknown to his classmates, Souther was a former analyst of spy satellite data for the U.S. Navy who had become a Soviet agent After the FBI put a tail on him in 1986, Souther defected to Moscow, where he died in mysterious circumstances three years later.
When FBI agents arrived at Norwich to investigate the Souther case, one of the students that they interviewed was Paul Marr, a Russian School regular who is descended from the same Russian dynasty that produced novelist Leo Tolstoy. A former friend of Souther’s, Marr says
that while he does not agree with what he did, he also feels sorry for him. “He had a wife in Italy who apparently ratted on him about his Soviet connection,” said Marr. “He was unbalanced.”
But now few of the school’s students have military ties. Most of them are bright scions of wealthy East Coast families who take the immersion course between semesters at the top universities. Stuck together in the delirious trappings of a Vermont valley for a few intense weeks, they immediately begin forging relationships that inevitably lead to hours of sex on the vinyl-covered mattresses in their barrack dorms. In daylight, they discuss ambitions, such as working in Moscow for a large American corporation, or writing the definitive treatise on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. They also look askance at the few remaining national security types in the program.
Unwinding over a bottle of rye after 12 or 13 hours of study, fourthyear student David Richards, 30, shared his amusement about two classmates whom he suspects are from intelligence services in the Marine Corps and the FBI. “Sometimes they won’t know how to say the simplest thing in Russian,” Richards says with a laugh. “But then a military topic will come up and they’ll spout off a four-word hyphenated term. Their vocabulary relating to weaponry is astronomical.”
With Russia either trying to destroy or sell off much of its military hardware, why does the U.S. government send any intelligence officers to Norwich? A guest lecture by the former U.S. ambassador to the
Soviet Union provided the answer. A pudgy man in a rumpled suit Jack Matlock served in Moscow from 1987 to 1991. Asked by a student whether there was still a future for intelligence work in that part of the world, Matlock replied: “There is in that country about 20,000 nuclear warheads. It is vital for us to know where they are, and that they are being destroyed according to recent treaties, so we need people with training in Russian. We’ve had inspectors at the gates of each others’ missile facilities for the past two years for treaty verification, and on both sides, those people are from the intelligence community.”
That evening, I ran into David Richards, who groaned at the thought of a continuing stream of spies learning Russian. A doctoral student in Russian literature at Cornell University, Richards views the school’s espionage element dimly. “They’re not here to gain wisdom,” he says with mild disgust. “They’re here to fulfil whatever radical or sinister purpose our government has chosen for them.” Then again, that is what makes Norwich’s Russian School, in the heart of liberal New England, so unique.
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