My years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze
One. Formative years. 1949-1985
I was born in 1949, the year when the first Soviet nuclear weapon was tested. Many other things happened that year: another splendidly decorated line of Moscow Metro—the subway—was commissioned, Joseph Stalin wrote articles on Marxism and linguistics, and Nikita Khrushchev was transferred from the Ukraine to Moscow. The year 1949 saw another of Stalin purges that destroyed the lives of many thousands and their families.
In August 1949 my grandmother was arrested as a former member of the “Trotsky-Zinoviev opposition.” It happened in our apartment in the little town near Moscow where we then lived. My mother later told me in some detail how it happened. The group of secret police who came to make the arrest searched the rooms thoroughly, going through every book and all the clothing. They even ordered Mother to take me from the bed in which I was sleeping and searched the bed for God-knows-what.
Grandma returned “from the North” in 1955. She was not among the first people released when Khrushchev opened the prison camps and exonerated most political prisoners. Many officials were in no hurry to review the fabricated cases of the 1930s and 1940s.
I remember Grandma's return vividly. Mother and I went to Moscow to Yaroslavl Station to meet her. We came early—or maybe the train was late—so we spent an hour or so riding the circle line of the Moscow Metro. The stations seemed huge and overbearing to me. They still do.
We returned to the room in the communal apartment where Mother and I lived after being expelled from Grandma's comfortable, old apartment following the arrest. Later we moved several times, and I remember all those rooms and apartments. Whenever I return to the little town where my mother still lives, I like sometimes to approach the houses in which our family lived in different times, more or less comfortably or in hardship.
Grandma was “rehabilitated,” which means that the accusations against her were dropped, but she did not resume her membership in the Communist Party. She did not speak of the reasons, but I suspect she was not particularly happy about the country's development and its government. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in 1962, she began to talk to me and my mother about camps and how people survived there.
She kept the faith in the ideals of her Communist youth, but she openly scoffed at the propaganda line that, despite the purges and years of imprisonment, most people continued to be staunch Communists and believed in the correctness of the party's policies. “You have to be stupid to believe that everything was basically all right while your own life and the lives of millions of people were ruined,” she used to say. She died in 1962—vaguely socialist in her heart but very unhappy about the party bureaucracy, strongly anti-Stalinist but also constantly exasperated at Khrushchev's boorishness and his numerous mistakes.
By the time Khrushchev was stripped of his posts and retired to his dacha after a party coup on October 14, 1964, I had developed an interest in politics—or what was called politics in the Soviet Union of that time. I read the newspapers regularly. I also read Novy Mir—the literary magazine edited by Alexander Tvardovsky that published not only Solzhenitsyn and other writers but also excellent articles on history, philosophy, and literary criticism, in which, mostly in veiled form, many Soviet dogmas and cliches were mercilessly destroyed.
I admired Khrushchev for what he did in breaking with the Stalinist past, even though only partially, and releasing millions from the prison camps. For that I was ready to forgive him his numerous mistakes and stupidities. But most people were not. So while I considered his removal an unfortunate setback for the country and a sign of an impending return to some form of Stalinism, most people around me were either indifferent or quite pleased.
They expected that there would now be “greater order.” They went about their business unaware that hope for change and for making the Soviet Union a normal country was being taken away from them.
Novy Mir continued to be published under Tvardovsky. It had numerous problems with the censors—sometimes the issues came several months too late—but it kept alive the flame of good writing and clear thinking until 1970. I was an avid reader. For me and many of my contemporaries it was a mind-forming experience. The magazine's closure, as well as the invasion of Czechoslovakia, was the definitive expression of the victory of Neo-Stalinism.
Millions of people who had breathed the air of intellectual freedom in the early 1960s had to make a choice as the last signs of that freedom disappeared. The great majority chose to conform. I don't think it was a difficult choice. The regime was not very harsh to those who did not fight it openly. And people had to go on living. They earned their bread, raised their children, and despised the party bureaucracy. For many, that was enough.
I was then a student at the Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. The tightening of ideological screws went on throughout the five years that I studied there, and the stupidity of the official ideology was not even funny. The mood in our discussions of political events and the country's prospects was mostly somber. Still, those were the good years of my life. I and my friends were young. We studied with genuine interest. We did not have much money, but we scraped enough together for parties with girls and a lot of drinking (vodka was cheap in those days). And we had the Beatles.
I am sure that the impact of the Beatles on the generation of young Soviets in the 1960s will one day be the object of studies. We knew their songs by heart. A typical group of young people would have someone playing the guitar surrounded by a group listening or singing along with varying proficiency. To the Beatles, even more than to my teacher of phonetics, I owe my accent. But I and my friends and contemporaries owe them something else too.
In the dusky years of the Brezhnev regime they were not only a source of musical relief. They helped us create a world of our own, a world different from the dull and senseless ideological liturgy that increasingly reminded one of Stalinism. Our generation chose their melodies—and also their freedom, their mistakes, their crises. I believe that only some of us in those years drew inspiration from Andrey Sakharov, for we had not yet matured enough to understand his vision. But the Beatles were our quiet way of rejecting “the system” while conforming to most of its demands.
In 1968 I decided that I would not be able to work for the government. I took the invasion of Czechoslovakia hard. I liked that country, I had friends there, and I was even learning the Czech language for fun and information from the lively Czech newspapers. I remember how I was struck by the cartoons of the country's leaders in those newspapers. I regarded such cartoons as a healthy thing, and yet I understood that in the Soviet Union of that time nothing of the kind was even conceivable. Of course, it was only one small example of how incompatible the evolution of Czechoslovakia was with the regime then existing in my country.
So the evolution was broken off. I soon understood that it was inevitable, but I could not accept it. Because I had decided not to try to enter government service, I made no effort to conceal my views, and that was probably noted by “competent bodies.” Some friends cautioned me against being too frank, but the frankness had no serious consequences—the rejection of the invasion was so widespread among students and the intelligentsia that only open protests were suppressed. But I was not the kind of person to demonstrate against the invasion in Red Square. In fact, I was developing an ambivalent attitude toward the dissident movement, which was just then beginning to gather momentum. I thought their effort was perhaps valiant but useless—it was only embittering the regime and helping the conservatives to justify any move to the right. I argued about it fiercely with some of my friends.
There was another matter on which I and my friends—and most of the dissidents and most Soviet citizens generally, including the country's leaders—differed. They all were afraid of China, while I thought the threat was exaggerated. The “Chinese danger” was then on everyone's mind. It is difficult to imagine today how much people were scared by the prospect of war with China. That fear was shared by Brezhnev, Solzhenitsyn and the man in the street. I thought it was enormously exaggerated. In terms of its military might or of its political or economic attractiveness, I did not see China as a dangerous adversary to my country. But most people disagreed with me. Fear of China often reached the point of hysteria. In retrospect I see only one positive by-product of that fear: it helped to push the leaders of the Soviet Union toward détente with the United States.
Détente was welcomed by everyone I knew. People had great hopes, which turned out to be naive. But the beginning was promising. The “enemy image” of the United States was gradually receding, and a kind of ideological thaw seemed to begin in 1972 or 1973. To many people it was barely perceptible, and in fact it never amounted to much. Still, many people began to believe then that a “convergence of the two systems” was possible, or that at least a less rigid and less harsh Soviet system could result from détente abroad.
In 1972 I graduated from the Institute. During my last year I had to start thinking about what I intended to do with my life—something I had avoided doing in the preceding years. There was not much choice. The “good careers” in my field were all in government, more precisely in the foreign ministry or the KGB. I was not attracted by those careers, and I do not think I would have had much chance if I had been. Those were really closed clubs that rarely admitted people who came out of nowhere. Family ties meant everything. I thought so then, and I later found that it was generally true.
I was a good student, not because I worked particularly hard but because I liked my studies, enjoyed reading, and learned quickly and easily. Only a couple of times did I have to make a real effort to pass an exam. On one occasion it was “economic geography of the United States,” another time it was something called “scientific atheism”—in fact, as taught by our professors, it was a brief course in the history of religions, which I enjoyed. My main interest continued to be languages. Both English and French fascinated me in endless ways. Translating, particularly good prose, was an adventure and often, when I felt I had hit on the best word or phrase, a real joy. I also started to work as a simultaneous interpreter, which at the time was regarded as something enormously difficult and almost mysterious. It also paid good money.
So I thought the best thing for me to do after graduating would be to stay in the Institute as a teacher. I knew that my own teachers would welcome me as a colleague. The job was, frankly, not particularly demanding. After all, you can teach successfully if your student is capable and interested; if not, no amount of effort will help. Most teachers were therefore a little cynical, but the atmosphere was good, and I was looking forward to joining the faculty. I knew that my salary would be low, but I would have time to work on the side and earn quite enough as a translator or interpreter.
Things turned out differently. Sometime during my last term at the Institute I was invited to the United Nations language-training course, where entrance exams were in progress. The exams consisted of translations from English and French and an interview with a group of U.N. officials who came for that purpose from New York. Passing the exams was no problem. It was the first year when a large group of students from my Institute became trainees at the U.N. course. Before that, few had been invited, and preference was given to students from the Institute of International Relations, an altogether different kind of place. Of the students at the Institute, few were “unconnected,” and the emphasis was on subjects that for lack of a better word we called ideological, not on languages.
The small group of aspiring simultaneous interpreters at the U.N. course in my year consisted entirely of graduates of my Institute. I soon found out that there was nothing mysterious about interpretation. It took a combination of three things: a good command of languages, some knowledge of the subject being discussed, and boldness—some would say, panache. At the time I did not know that many people in the business of interpretation relied on such boldness as the principal ingredient in their success.
After passing the final exams, most of us began to prepare to leave for New York or Geneva—most, but not me. I was not married, which made me not quite reliable in the eyes of “the system.” Signing the contract with the United Nations had to wait—the Soviet government would approve my appointment only after I married. The U.N. Secretariat was willing to wait, and I did not want to make such an important decision as marriage hastily. So I spent a year teaching and interpreting. By that time I had gained a rather good reputation. I also learned that competition among interpreters can sometimes be fierce and that, as in other professions, there are a lot of loose and often unfair talk, many inflated reputations, and a great deal that is focused on solely money.
For a person who entered the field as a well-trained but rather naive young man, finding out such things was something of a shock. I tried to stay away from the infighting and concentrate on professional improvement. When I came to New York in November 1974 I was confident that I could succeed in my field and that I would enjoy my work.
I spent five years at the United Nations. Those years—from 1974 to the end of 1979—were not the best for the organization. The member states regarded it as mostly irrelevant and sometimes harmful to their interests. Morale among the staff was low, and the spirit of international civil service seemed gone forever. The prestige of the Soviet Union was not high. The Soviets working in the Secretariat were bound by numerous constraints. We often felt that our dignity was affected but that we could not do much about it.
Still, I do not recall those years as bad. And it is not just that memory always selects the better parts of the past. I remember that time as the years when I grew as a professional. I lived and worked in a city that many find difficult to understand and impossible to like.
And I became a family man. Having married Lyudmila a few months before coming to New York, I went through all the problems and joys of building a family in a foreign environment. It was not easy, and the marriage eventually ended in divorce. But I still keep—like old snapshots—the memories of our good moments. In August 1978 my son Nikolay was born at Lenox Hill Hospital on Lexington Avenue.
I made quite a few friends among my countrymen and among New Yorkers and co-workers at the United Nations. I watched the world of international diplomacy. I thought about my country, wondering about its future.
The workload at the United Nations seemed light to me, and the meetings that I interpreted were often boring and even appeared silly. But I did not complain. First, there were quite a few meetings of the Security Council, and some of the General Assembly, that were exciting and professionally challenging. Second, I tried to handle even dull assignments as jobs to be done properly. Many of my colleagues disagreed and were openly cynical about most of the work they were doing.
Interpreters are a funny lot. Most are talented people with a good mind, an ability to grasp things quickly, and a broad knowledge of many subjects and issues. One really must know a great deal, at least superficially, to pass muster as a U.N. interpreter. Very soon one begins to feel that, knowing and understanding so much, one could do more important things. Much of what must be interpreted begins to sound silly, and one develops a condescending attitude to diplomats, government ministers, and even heads of state.
I quickly saw that this attitude was a trap. Interpretation is, after all, a craft, and wide-ranging knowledge is not a great merit in and of itself. I saw that my colleagues who were frozen in the attitude of cynical condescension toward just about everything were not interesting persons themselves, and indeed suffered from a kind of superiority complex sometimes bordering on a psychological disorder. Anyway, the United Nations of the time was easy to dismiss, and even to hate, for its bloated bureaucracy and seemingly pointless rituals, but I found it more interesting to watch and to learn.
The U.N. Diplomatic Scene
The diplomats who headed the U.N. missions in those years were a diverse group. I remember some of them as very colorful and strong individuals. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one of the most intelligent and probably the most colorful of all. He liked to take a swipe at Soviet ideology, and most of the time he had a point. Of course, he was not much of a conciliator and therefore not much of a diplomat, but that skill was not in great demand at a time when the United Nations was regarded as above all an ideological battleground.
When I came to New York the Soviet ambassador was Yakov Malik, a veteran in a seemingly perpetual state of anger and bitterness evenly distributed toward friend and foe alike. Listening to his U.N. speeches, and particularly to him talking to the Soviet community at some gathering, one would find it difficult to believe that détente had replaced the Cold War. China was the number one enemy, but the United States was no friend, to say the least, and don't expect anything good from France, Britain, Japan, etc. I wondered how our country expected to survive in a world like that—with no real friends, and enemies practically everywhere.
In 1976 Malik was replaced by Oleg Troyanovsky, a very different kind of man. He was the son of the first Soviet ambassador to the United States, and he was a diplomat in everything he did and said. Everyone admired his manners, his English, and the spirit of conciliation and consensus that he exuded. He was extremely cautious, and I don't think he ever tried to make waves, to significantly affect the policies of the country he represented. But he certainly represented the Soviet Union with dignity and probably never did anything to embarrass it or to aggravate the problems it frequently inflicted on itself. Compared with Malik, Troyanovsky was a man of a different generation, and I was beginning to think that simple generational change could perhaps save my country.
Between Anger and Indifference
We were all worried about the country's future. Returning to the Soviet Union on home leave, I was struck not even by the obvious inferiority of the standard of living compared with America (that I could explain away in many ways, and I did) but by the fact that there were no obvious sources of growth and social energy. People were cynically looking for ways to earn as much money as they could with as little effort as possible. Nothing worked. No one cared. General Secretary Brezhnev, whom I tried to respect for being less of a Stalinist and apparently more humane than some of his Politburo colleagues, was passing into senility and quickly becoming the laughingstock for everyone. Most people thought it great fun; I found it quite demoralizing.
I was smart enough to understand that the root of all our problems was in the economy. The economic system of “developed socialism” was so obviously inefficient that even its short-term viability seemed doubtful to me. In my youth I read in Novy Mir some excellent articles on economic reform that openly called for creating a market economy in the Soviet Union. I knew enough about Lenin's “new economic policy” (NEP) to see the similarity between those market economy models and the NEP, and between them and the economic systems in the “normal” countries of the West. But the economic reform of 1965, which I thought could be the beginning of slow movement toward some form of market economy, was dead and buried by the mid-1970s. The country's malaise and the people's pervasive cynicism, which were even more evident on my short trips home, stemmed from the inability of Brezhnev's leadership to contemplate any economic reform. But the windfall of the oil money saved the system. It dragged on and on even in its senility—ugly unpleasant, not too dangerous for the world or for its own people, but lacking a rationale and a future.
I saw what was happening to the people as a result of that. Most were trapped in a narrow corridor between anger and indifference. Many lost all hope. Some could not grasp what was happening. Others were cynically making a career in the system while hating it (those were the people I found difficult to understand). All often went through crises and shocks.
The defection of Arkady Shevchenko, who was a senior Soviet official in the U.N. Secretariat with the rank of under-secretary general, was a real shock to most of us. I don't know what happened to him and why. He presented himself in interviews and books as an ideologically committed opponent of the Soviet leaders and then of the Soviet system itself. Recently he talked to some reporters from our country, putting out the same line. I think that this is quite unlikely. He was not respected among the Soviet community in New York for any intellectual or diplomatic achievements. He was known as a heavy drinker, and most people believed that his meteoric career was due to his connections and his friendship with the son of Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko. He probably compromised himself in some way (I don't think he knew many secrets he could pass on), and then, suspecting the KGB had found out, thought it best to defect.
Whatever the explanation, the impact of Shevchenko's defection on the morale of Soviets in New York—and I suspect in other places too—was severe. People saw it as a sign of how rotten things were, and they were right.
In the 1970s many Soviet writers and artists left the country for the West. Some went quietly and legally, others defected. However they did it, the country was losing much of its creative talent. They too were losing a great deal, for in those years emigrating from the Soviet Union in most cases meant leaving it forever—the authorities closed the door to former Soviet citizens. Some of them made statements full of bitterness not only against the regime but also, it seemed to me, against their country. I disliked that. But in our discussions of the new wave of emigration with my friends and family, I never condemned those who were leaving. It is natural for people to seek a better and freer life. How they do it is their own business. This was the view of many of my friends too.
Seeking a Challenge
My five years in New York flew by rapidly. For a man in his twenties the city is a great adventure. I did not think much about my own future—I felt that somehow everything would work out fine. I thought vaguely of continuing for some time as a teacher at the Institute of Foreign Languages, working on the side as interpreter and one day maybe returning to the United Nations for another five-year contract. The system worked in an odd way: it accepted that you can go to work there on long-term assignments again and again, but it did not accept the idea of a lifetime contract. You had to return to the Soviet Union, work there for some time, and apply again. Maybe I should be thankful for that, for if lifetime appointments had been permitted for Soviet citizens then as they were later, in the years of perestroika, I probably would have decided to stay on in New York, worked quietly for many years in the Secretariat, raised my family and saved money for a nice house in the suburbs. It was not a bad prospect, but what actually happened to me was much more interesting and rewarding—morally if not financially.
My last General Assembly session was coming to an end, and we were packing in preparation for leaving. I cannot say we had much to pack. We spent a lot on theaters and entertainment, and we liked to offer guests some Russian hospitality and a table full of food. I put together quite a good library and was proud of my stereo system. That was about all.
My colleagues who were also leaving and I threw a party for our friends at the Secretariat. The occasion was somewhat sad, but everyone seemed to be in good spirits. We were discussing political events, and all agreed that there was a feeling of unease in the air. No one, of course, knew what was in store, and we wanted to believe that some good things would be happening too. The life ahead looked like a continuation, not a totally new experience.
On the plane to Moscow my one-year-old son slept most of the time. I was finally beginning to think seriously about my future. We were returning to a country where I had never worked for a long time and did not even have an apartment of my own. I had no doubt that I would be able to earn a comfortable living, but I suspected that my work would not be challenging enough, and that worried me. The prospects looked so-so. But I was willing to set aside those worries for some time in order first to take a rest and settle down.
Soviet Troops Enter Afghanistan
I arrived home in the Soviet Union on December 20, 1979. A few days later Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. I learned of the invasion from an announcement on television—which was, as always in such cases, cryptic and buried deep in the news program. The next day, I turned on the radio to listen to shortwave Western stations. The Voice of America was broadcasting live the U.N. Security Council meeting at which Afghanistan was being discussed. I heard the voice of one of my friends interpreting someone's sharply worded statement denouncing the invasion. From that and from the editorial commentaries, I quickly understood that things had just taken a bad turn.
I want to give a frank and unvarnished account of my feelings at the time of the invasion. Today everyone is portraying himself as a “principled opponent” of that action from the very outset, but I believe that they are less than sincere. As I remember, many people in the Soviet Union, including some of my friends, reacted at best with indifference. Some believed nothing terrible was happening, and some, for no particular reason, even supported the invasion. Few accepted the government's arguments; most thought that no explanation was needed, that if something was necessary, let them do it.
As I recall my own reaction and the reaction of most of the people I knew, one thing stands out: I and many others believed that because this invasion was not in Europe the consequences would not be too severe and that the world would sooner or later “forgive” or just forget the whole thing. It was, of course, wishful thinking. We worried about the reaction of the West and about the implications of Afghanistan for U.S.-Soviet relations, but we did not think too much about the death and devastation this war would bring. We did not think much about the sufferings of the Afghan people. And it is this, rather than any other mistaken view or erroneous assessment, that I regret today.
Of course, I felt that the Soviet Union had been dragged by one of its satellites into something pointless and dangerous. After similar events in Angola and Cambodia, one had to wonder whether the country was in control of its own behavior or being manipulated by others. It seemed downright humiliating. Whose bidding would we have to do next? Where would the next crisis be—Western Sahara, Chad, or Sri Lanka—and when would it all end?
I wanted to rationalize the events for myself. Unlike eleven years earlier in Czechoslovakia, the government of Afghanistan had indeed asked for Soviet troops to come in—but it did not ask to be overthrown in the process. So the rationalizations were not convincing. I had one hope: that the whole thing might end quickly. After all, it is always possible “to declare victory and go.” Years later, when I knew much more about the Afghan war, I became convinced that even in 1982 or 1983 that was a real possibility. The war was of low intensity at the time, and a couple of sharp words to the Afghan leaders—“We have done what we could to help you, now it's up to you to sink or swim”—would have quickly made them talk to the opposition and reach some agreement. Of course, Yury Andropov, Dmitry Ustinov, and Andrey Gromyko, who made the decision to send the troops in and easily sold it to the almost senile Brezhnev, were committed to going all the way and probably never even thought of just withdrawing. It fell to Gorbachev to undo their mistake in much more difficult circumstances, when the United States was giving enormous assistance to the mujaheddin and the war was at its most intense point.
There was another angle on the Afghan events, which emerged in my discussions with colleagues in 1981 when I was working in the foreign ministry. It was the time of the crisis in Poland, which was in some respects similar to the preinvasion developments in Czechoslovakia. The possibility of another Soviet invasion was therefore very much in the air and much debated. Soviet diplomats in Vienna, where I was working in the summer of that year at conventional arms reduction talks, discussed it too. Most concluded it would not happen because we were bogged down in Afghanistan and, some said, because Afghanistan had made it quite clear how pointless invasions were. All agreed that “without that thing in Afghanistan” the decision to send troops to Poland would have been made without much hesitation.
I was told later that in 1980 and 1981 the same group in the Politburo was considering the possibility of invading Poland and “setting things in order” there. I cannot imagine how they hoped to accomplish such an impossible feat, but they indicated to Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish leader, in no uncertain terms that they were ready to do it, which practically forced him to declare the state of siege and ban Solidarity. By doing that, he saved his country from something much worse.
In January 1980 I did not know many things and understood very little. I found what was happening distasteful, but I have to admit that I did not react to Afghanistan as emotionally as I had reacted eleven years before to the suppression of the Prague spring. I had become much more of a conformist, and I was thinking more about other things.
A Job at the Foreign Ministry
Soon after the New Year holiday, I got a call from a former colleague with whom I had studied at the U.N. course and who was now working in the foreign ministry. He told me that the translation department of the foreign ministry was expanding and that I would be offered an appointment there. He strongly recommended that I jump at the opportunity, and he did not have to spend much time persuading me. By then I knew that practical work as translator and interpreter attracted me much more than teaching. There was, of course, the moral problem. I was beginning work for the government, and I knew that would mean sacrificing some of my freedom and independence. But in a way, in the Soviet Union of the time everyone was working for the government or for some state organization—the state monopoly was total. I believed I was doing it not as a party official or a propaganda hack but as a professional working in a field that was inherently dedicated to reaching mutual understanding rather than fomenting conflict. So for me it was an acceptable compromise.
In March 1980 I for the first time entered the forbidding building at Smolenskaya Square as an employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I did not feel particularly important. I did not have any far-reaching plans. I intended to take it from day to day, settling down in my new position and gradually taking care of my personal problems, of which housing seemed to be the principal one. I was ready to accept for some time a rather dull and uneventful life. Indeed, lowering one's expectations can be a useful tactic, for in those first years my life indeed turned out to be quite dull and uneventful.
The translation department of the foreign ministry was taking on people with U.N. experience. Until then it used to be a small operation catering to the high-ranking officials of the ministry and of the Soviet government in general. When I joined the department, providing translators and interpreters for short-term and long-term assignments at the United Nations was a new task, only just beginning. The group I joined was small, close-knit, and a little supercilious about everyone and everything, in the way longtime interpreters can be—skeptical but most of the time not arrogant or aggressive. All the stories, anecdotes, and jokes were about the big bosses of the past and present. In most of those stories, the big shots did not look very good. They were depicted as haughty, often ill-informed, and sometimes downright incompetent. The leaders of foreign countries did not fare much better. In all the stories, the interpreter stood out as a towering presence—always calm, ingenious, and ready to smooth things over and correct the mistakes and stupidities of others. I heard those stories many times and saw how new dramatic details would be added, but I believe the stories were basically true. Nevertheless, I soon lost interest in that kind of talk—you can only take so much of it without yawning.
My first assignments were not too challenging, and I had plenty of time to do other things. I tried to understand how the foreign ministry worked and to develop my own views of the issues. Following the invasion of Afghanistan, international relations were in a deep freeze, and no one knew how long that would continue. And that is just about all I remember of the year 1980.
Geneva Arms Control Talks
In 1981 I had several interesting assignments, including the conventional arms reduction talks in Vienna and what were later called the INF (intermediate-range nuclear forces) talks in Geneva. The INF negotiations left a profound imprint on my mind—I was there from day one until they broke off in December 1983. Working in the Soviet delegation was a new experience for me, quite different from anything I had gone through before. I was able to get an inside view of how things worked at arms control negotiations. I met and sometimes developed relationships with people of the kind I rarely associated with before—Soviet and U.S. diplomats, military and intelligence officials, and my colleagues, the interpreters working on the U.S. delegation. I also took serious interest in the abstruse and often frustrating details of arms control.
The story of the INF talks is well known, and there is no need to tell it here. When the talks started, most of us believed that the Soviet position was quite defensible. After all, we had to face all those intermediate-range weapons of NATO countries, including British and French missiles and the so-called forward-based systems—that is, U.S. aircraft with nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, which were not counted against the strategic arms ceilings. Equality and equal security, as many on the Soviet side sincerely believed, required that we have a counterweight to all those nuclear weapons, and the SS-20 appeared to be an appropriate system for that purpose. It looked like a plausible position, and certainly in the first months of the negotiations I did not hear anyone in the delegation questioning it.
The delegation was headed by Yuly Kvitsinsky, a man of great charm and ability. His knowledge of the issues was broad and profound, and he was extremely intelligent and erudite, ready to discuss just about anything from classical music to outer space. He was different from most Soviet officials I had known, and everyone on the delegation admired and respected him. The Americans, led by Ambassador Paul Nitze, also seemed to like him and to be ready to do business with him. But the positions of the two sides were so far apart that it was not at all clear how they could be brought closer together without one side caving in.
Kvitsinsky had a sharp tongue. At one of the first meetings of the delegations he called the U.S. proposal for “a zero option” (the Soviet Union destroying its INF missiles and the United States forgoing the deployment of similar ones) a hole in the doughnut. I was lucky to be able to translate it without an embarrassing pause or without replacing the phrase with something only vaguely descriptive. Later he put me on the spot a few more times with proverbs or colloquial phrases that are unusual in diplomatic negotiations. I am grateful to him, because those lessons in inventive interpretation taught me never to panic. This is not the only thing an interpreter must learn, but it is one of the most important.
For two years I was the interpreter and note-taker at meetings between Kvitsinsky and Nitze. The negotiations, although doomed by the unwillingness of the Reagan and Brezhnev (later Andropov) administrations to consider seriously any alternative approaches that differed from their initial positions, were grinding on as a kind of ritual. It was often quite depressing—the same people facing each other, the same positions and arguments being recited for the umpteenth time, the same dull “working lunches” and cocktails.
Both chief negotiators, however, had class, and even though from time to time some irritation developed between members of their delegations, they never allowed it to degenerate into undiplomatic exchanges or mutually aggressive behavior. Because for reasons beyond the delegations' control the two countries were on the threshold of a resumed Cold War, preserving civility during the negotiations, and reasonably good contacts outside the formal talks, was quite an achievement.
I watched Paul Nitze with a mixture of wonder and respect. I wondered whether he was quite comfortable with the official U.S. position and its total rigidity (it later turned out that he was not), and I respected him for his competence, his grasp of every detail, and his precision in thought and language. He was always ready to tick off, say, “the seven arguments for the non-inclusion of sea-launched cruise missiles in the strategic arms ceilings” or the technical characteristics of the large phased-array radar. He indicated many times that he was unhappy about many provisions of the SALT-1 and SALT-2 treaties, considering them too much to the advantage of the Soviet Union. But he also found ways to indicate that he was willing to consider a compromise.
Like Kvitsinsky, Nitze also had a sharp tongue, and he knew how to use tough language. I remember how he said to Kvitsinsky, during the discussion of the Soviet demand that U.S. forward-based systems be included in the count of INF weapons on the U.S. side, “This horse has already been sold twice. You have already got much too high a price for it. You will not be able to do it again. Please convey that to Moscow.” Nitze believed that not including U.S. medium-range aircraft based in Europe in the SALT ceilings had not been a Soviet concession but had been paid for in both SALT-1 and SALT-2 by U.S. concessions to the Soviet Union on such issues as Soviet heavy missiles and the Backfire bomber. It was a plausible though not totally convincing argument, but hearing it expressed in such stark terms was somewhat jolting. I felt that Nitze sometimes wanted to project a very tough image, suggesting that a deal cut with such a tough negotiator would stick and would have no problem with ratification in the U.S. Senate.
Nitze really wanted to cut a deal. He said to Kvitsinsky at one of their first meetings: “You are a young man. You will have other negotiations. But for me this is the last one. So I am not here to go through the motions. I want a fair agreement.” I believed Nitze, and I think Kvitsinsky believed him too. Nitze wanted his career to culminate in a crowning achievement, and that was why in June 1982 he took that famous “walk in the woods” with Yuly Kvitsinsky near Saint-Cergue, a few miles from Geneva.
I was not present at that first behind-the-scenes talk and learned about its substance only in September, when the delegations returned to Geneva after the summer recess. The idea of the “walk in the woods” deal was simple. Nitze thought, and Kvitsinsky indicated that he agreed, that the Soviet Union's greatest concern was the ballistic Pershing-2 missiles, not the slow-flying cruise missiles. So, for nondeployment of the Pershing missiles the Soviet Union would have to agree to substantially cut the number of its SS-20s in Europe and freeze their deployment in Asia.
The Soviet leaders at that time should have understood that it was the best possible deal for them. Why they refused even to consider it I can only guess. Two possible explanations come to mind. First, they might have thought they would lose face; after all, the agreement would mean that the United States would still be deploying some missiles in Europe while the Soviet Union would be cutting the number of its SS-20s and actually destroying them. (I am sure, however, that our propaganda could have found a way to orchestrate such a deal properly.) Second, our leaders might have still hoped that the antimissile movement in Western Europe would make any U.S. deployment impossible and therefore that there would be no need for Soviet concessions. If that was the reason for rejecting the “walk in the woods” idea, it was the height of narrow-mindedness.
I have to admit that my own enthusiasm for the “walk in the woods” idea was not great, because by that time I was beginning to see the advantages of the “zero option” for my country. That realization did not come at once, but I was gradually allowing myself to be persuaded.
We in the Soviet delegation often discussed the progress of the talks and the merits of the positions of each side. That was rather unusual at the time, for people did not feel that they could do so frankly. But Kvitsinsky's delegation was different. The atmosphere was more relaxed than it was in Moscow at the time, as I remember, and people trusted one another more. My recollection is that this was true mostly of foreign ministry people in the delegation. We found it both difficult and not prudent to talk to the military, although there were different kinds of people among the military in our delegation.
In our group of interpreters we referred to the military genetically as “the colonels.” Most were quite competent in their field, with a good command of numbers, technical data, and details of previous negotiations. There were notable exceptions, though. Sometimes the mistakes of one colonel (soon promoted to the rank of general) were so obvious and embarrassing that we even had to change what he said in translation. He also tended to let his emotions get out of control—more in the company of Soviets than of Americans. But most of our military were not like that. They were basically normal and even nice people. Even so, something prevented me from trying to talk candidly to them, and whenever they spoke in an informal setting it was not about anything important.
But with the foreign ministry people—and particularly my colleagues, the interpreters—we could talk things out. We knew the arguments of both sides almost by heart. I can't say I was impressed by every American argument or totally turned off by the Soviet position. Far from that. But on one point the Americans were, I felt, 100 percent right: the Soviet INF position, at least initially, meant that the Soviet Union wanted equality with all its potential adversaries—the United States, Britain, France, and China—combined. I felt that, besides being wrong in principle, this was also totally unnecessary in the overkill world of nuclear weapons.
Another point I made to myself and to those of my friends with whom I talked frankly was that, unlike the United States, the Soviet Union was not able to place INF missiles anywhere close enough to U.S. territory. The United States had its allies in Europe, and the Soviet Union had already been burned trying to deploy a previous generation of its INF missiles in Cuba and would not try again. Thus, basically, a situation with zero INF missiles was desirable for my country. The trick was how to get there after all the financial, technological, and propaganda investment in the old position. Obviously, the Brezhnev and Andropov leadership was not willing even to contemplate this.
So the talks dragged on as the Americans prepared for bringing the first Pershing and cruise missiles to Europe. During the summer of 1983 it was decided in Moscow that once the United States began deployment in Europe we would break off the negotiations. The Europeans were worried about that prospect, so we believed that even talk of breaking off might make them push the United States to somehow modify its position, maybe returning to the “walk in the woods” idea, which, I heard then, had begun to look attractive to some people in Moscow, including the increasingly influential Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev. But the Americans and the Europeans were firm in their intention to begin the deployment.
The mood in our delegation was somber. I felt that at the last moment some dramatic move by the Soviet Union—such as deactivating a large number of SS-20s—could influence the European governments. But even if someone had proposed anything of the kind, it would have had no chance of being considered in the last months of the Andropov government. The general secretary himself was dying. Some knew and others suspected it. The intelligence people on the U.S. delegation were openly asking questions about his health. The overall atmosphere was a little bizarre.
In the end, things took the worst possible turn. The delegation had come up with what seemed to be an elegant way of withdrawing from the negotiations. Kvitsinsky prepared and cleared with Moscow a statement saying that because the Americans were beginning deployment of their missiles and the overall strategic situation was therefore changing radically, the Soviet Union would have to reconsider its position in a fundamental way. The Soviet delegation was thus declaring that the current round of talks was over and that it would not set a date for resumption of the talks.
At the last meeting, in December 1983, Ambassador Kvitsinsky read that statement to Nitze, and I dutifully translated it. Nitze expressed the appropriate regret. As we were leaving the U.S. delegation headquarters, Kvitsinsky and I were met by a throng of reporters, who knew that something dramatic was happening. The ambassador repeated what he had told Nitze. Without saying so, we felt that we had left the door open—just a little.
The next day we packed our bags. Kvitsinsky gave a party for his people. As we were having cocktails, we watched the evening news program from Moscow. The announcer read a blunt statement by Andropov regarding the deployment of American INF missiles in Europe: no diplomatic language, no openings left. U.S. deployment, the statement said, made it impossible for the Soviet side to continue the talks; talks could resume only when the U.S. missiles were withdrawn from Europe. It was, of course, a totally unrealistic demand—and a little later it was announced that the Soviet Union was breaking off START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) too, for the same reason.
As we listened to the Andropov statement, no one said a word. We left the room in almost total silence, and I felt that most of us were unpleasantly surprised, and some even appalled, by the statement's crudeness. Andropov seemed to be a reasonable man, and many people pinned great hopes on him as a leader. I wondered why he had signed such a statement. Did they bring the paper to him when he was in a bad mood, or was this new approach his own idea? Had he given the military a “carte blanche”? Was he so ill that he was unaware of what was happening? I did not know then, and I don't know now.
Apathy and Discontent After Andropov's Death
I returned to Moscow in early December. The mood in the city was gloomy, and apathy was in the air. The hope that many people felt in 1982 when Brezhnev died and Andropov became the country's leader had almost evaporated. The propaganda campaign against the deployment of U.S. missiles had created an almost prewar atmosphere in the country. People were depressed about the downing of a civilian Korean airliner by Soviet air defense a few months before and the worldwide condemnation of the government's behavior following that tragedy.
Yury Andropov died in February 1984. He was still well regarded by most people, and there was genuine sadness, punctuated by everyone's distaste for the man who was chosen to replace him as general secretary: Brezhnev's crony Konstantin Chernenko. There was nothing one could like about that man—he was boorish, colorless, and sometimes seemed almost illiterate because he read his speeches with great difficulty. But to me it did not make much difference, for I was no great fan of Andropov either.
My reservations were not so much about the man Andropov as about his policies. As a person, he was not unattractive. He seemed to have a good mind, and he was concerned about the country's future and willing to try to do something to change things for the better. And yet he belonged to the generation whose time had passed before he became the country's leader.
Andropov had hinted that there would be changes in the way the country was run, but he began by insisting on the need for order and discipline. The idea may not have been totally wrong to start with, but the way lower-ranking officials went about implementing it was crazy. For example, customers in stores during working hours were rounded up and had their documents checked, in an effort to combat employee absenteeism, and office workers in Moscow were punished for being ten minutes late for work. The government announced a campaign to fight corruption and bribery, but there was no indication that it understood that a nonmarket economy in which everything is distributed from above made large-scale corruption inevitable. The war in Afghanistan continued and intensified. Sakharov was still in exile in Gorky, and dissidents were persecuted or forced to leave the country.
I was not enthusiastic about the dissidents. As a group they seemed too disparate. Some were Western-oriented and seemed genuinely committed to the ideas of human rights and democracy. But it seemed to me that they were too ready to appeal to the West for help, which was often counterproductive, strengthening the hand of conservatives in the Central Committee. I also disliked the nationalists, who were becoming increasingly numerous among the dissidents—both the Russian nationalists, like mathematician Igor Shafarevich, and the non-Russian nationalists, whose grievances were real but expressed in what I felt was a dangerously aggressive way.
The country seemed outwardly calm, but there was much discontent below the surface. In Moscow the intelligentsia—a curious mixture that included, among others, real intellectuals and rather simpleminded office workers—gathered in the kitchens of their small apartments to vent their feelings of malaise and discontent. I did not often go to such gatherings, for the endless discussions seemed unproductive and pointless to me. They went on and on in circles, and there was little that people really disagreed about, but everyone was making his point in a forceful and sometimes aggressive manner. They were often drinking vodka, and voices were soon raised; sometimes it nearly came to blows. It depressed me even more than the frustrating everyday life outside those kitchens. One thing was clear: the system under which the country was operating was outdated, and the ideology on which it was based not even worth discussing. It was a waste of time.
What could one do? My family had by that time fallen apart, victim to the numerous problems associated with our relocation from New York to Moscow and my frequent absences (lower-ranking staff of Soviet delegations were not then allowed to take their families to Geneva). My professional life had begun to bore me. I read a lot, went to theaters and concerts, and generally concentrated on myself. This is what the Russian middle class always does in times of reaction or social malaise. I never read as much Chekhov and Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Graham Greene, Simenon and Maurois, and I never listened to as much good music as at that time. It was not lost.
Stockholm Arms Control Talks, 1984
In the fall of 1984 I got a new assignment. I went to Stockholm as interpreter in the Soviet delegation to the negotiations on confidence and security-building measures in Europe. It was then the only East-West arms-control negotiation still under way—not interrupted, for some curious reason, but with gloomy prospects all the same. The delegation was small, and I was the only interpreter.
The Soviet Union's initial position in these talks—which were among all European countries, the United States, and Canada—could only be described as bizarre. Having agreed earlier in Madrid on the mandate of the Stockholm talks, which included such confidence-building measures as advance notification of military exercises and troop movements, and inviting observers to the exercises, Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko opened the talks in January 1984 with a position calling for, among other things, a treaty on the nonuse of force in Europe, a ban on the first use of nuclear weapons, and the prohibition of chemical weapons.
I was told by friends in the delegation that Gromyko had blasted the proposal foreign ministry officials had prepared based on the Madrid mandate as something completely “technical,” not fit for political negotiations, and had insisted on throwing in some old proposals that had nothing to do with the agreed subject matter of the talks.
This position was difficult if not impossible to defend. The only argument that Oleg Grinevsky, the head of the Soviet delegation, could produce was that nothing in the Madrid mandate ruled out discussion of such questions. But he was evidently ill at ease repeating that argument, and he frequently complained to me and others that the whole thing was rotten. I often felt sorry for him. As a professional diplomat, he felt his mission was to seek agreement and to report honestly to Moscow that the position he was instructed to put forward made agreement impossible. But the mood in the Moscow leadership, we all felt, was one of irritation with the very idea of negotiations with the West.
As always, I studied the subject matter and the vocabulary of the talks carefully. That might seem pointless, a waste of time, since the negotiations were obviously going nowhere, but I had learned long ago to approach anything I did seriously, as if it actually mattered and something truly hinged on my understanding of the issues and my performance as interpreter. I discussed the talks with Grinevsky, who was surprisingly frank, and other people and came to some conclusions.
It was obvious that our position had to change, but no one knew whether doing so would become politically feasible any time soon. But the U.S. position too had some weak points, which were criticized not only by us but also by the Europeans, who were quite sympathetic to Grinevsky's plight.
They believed that the implausibility of the Soviet position only made it easier for the Americans to refuse, for example, to discuss any constraints on the scale of their European maneuvers, which every autumn brought tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to Europe. These huge exercises of military power made the Europeans uncomfortable, and I suspected that even the American chief delegate at the talks, Ambassador James Goodby, a pleasant and reasonable man, was not happy about his government's refusal to discuss any limitation. In any case, no one expected a serious discussion, under the circumstances. The delegates were just going through the motions of negotiating.
Chernenko's Passing and Gorbachev's Election
The news from home was discouraging. In the embassy we could watch Soviet television, which often showed an increasingly ill Chernenko at some ceremony or meeting with a foreign official. It was clear that he would not live long. The U.S. delegation's interpreter, Bill Krimer, a veteran of U.S.-Soviet negotiations whom I had met at the INF talks, once asked me about Gorbachev, suggesting that he would be the next Soviet leader.
Gorbachev had impressed Western officials and public during his trip to London at the end of 1984. I could not tell Bill Krimer much about him—we did not know much about our leaders then. There was a vague feeling among many of us that it would be good if Gorbachev became general secretary. The country was tired of old leaders who kept dying. But what kind of leader would he be? And what kind of leader did the country want? Different people had different answers.
I remembered reading a speech by Gorbachev at some conference on “ideological work” in fall 1984. The subject was depressing. “Ideology” had become a dirty word for most people. But repetition of the same old dogmas and rhetorical cliches (which we called “the Talmud”) that no one I knew believed was continuing in countless articles and reports. Thousands and thousands of people made their living in that field, and even now, when everything seems to have changed, many still do, in a chameleon-like way.
I would not say that Gorbachev's 1984 speech was that much different from the standard prevailing at the time, but many people saw it as at least an attempt to take a new look at some stereotypes, without undermining the foundations of ideological dogma, and welcomed the more lively language suggesting a somewhat different kind of Party man.
In early March 1985 television showed a totally disabled Chernenko being congratulated on his election to the Supreme Soviet and presented with a bouquet of flowers, which probably survived him. He died a few days later. This was not unexpected, and there was little mourning. Another state funeral would take place, and a new general secretary would be elected. No one in the delegation doubted that it would be Mikhail Gorbachev.
To mark Chernenko's passing, a meeting was held at the Soviet embassy. Boris Pankin, then ambassador to Sweden, presided. Grinevsky made an appropriate speech, mentioning Chernenko's contribution to the European security process. (In the mid-1970s Gromyko, who had a vested interest in the success of the Helsinki process, was able to get the increasingly influential Chernenko to support his position in the Politburo against Mikhail Suslov, who objected to many provisions in the Helsinki Final Act concerning human rights and information.)
The atmosphere at the meeting was one of complete indifference—so different from the meeting in Geneva in November 1982 a little more than two years earlier, when Brezhnev died. That death too had been expected, but he was the country's top leader for so long, and everyone, regardless of how they felt about him, was so used to the old man that there was at least a feeling of sadness in the air, as well as concern for what the future might bring. But Chernenko was the third leader of the country to die in less than thirty months.
This truly was the beginning of a new and unknown period for all of us. The current round of the Stockholm talks was to end soon, and I was returning to Moscow. At a reception in the embassy an American reporter I knew asked me whether I expected to return for the next round. I said that I didn't. I don't know why I said that. But indeed I did not return when the Stockholm talks resumed. The next few months changed my life.