Cover image for After the collapse : Russia seeks its place as a great power
After the collapse : Russia seeks its place as a great power
Simes, Dimitri K.
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Publication Information:
New York, NY : Simon & Schuster, [1999]

Physical Description:
272 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
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Central Library DK510.763 .S57 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Explores a country struggling with economic crises while pursuing an assertive foreign policy and analyses the relationship between Russia and the U.S.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Simes, a Russian expatriate, combines the insights of the native-born with political analysis to profile Russia's current political trends. He covers the Russian economic depression and its political fallout as background for his principal topic, the U.S. government's policies toward Russia. Critical of personality-oriented policies pursued both toward Gorbachev and then Yeltsin, Simes argues for an unsentimental approach, regularly chiding U.S. tendencies to urge upon the Russians an Americanized democracy and capitalism ill-adapted to Russian conditions. Also, he faults Washington policymakers for overlooking the defects of Russia's democracy as long as their favored guy is in the Kremlin. His censures extend to recent accommodations made to Russian concerns in foreign affairs (e.g., regarding NATO), as Simes insists U.S. national interests should prevail over a disinclination to offend Russia. His perspective sounds Nixonian--and indeed Simes advised Nixon on his trips to Russia in his last years. Simes' work provides readers with a capable view of the cast of reformers, oligarchs, and criminals ruling Russia today. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Richard Nixon still speaks. Simes, who was the former president's Russia adviser and is now president of the Nixon Center, traveled with Nixon to Russia in 1991, when the ex-president met with Gorbachev and, according to this account, came away firmly convinced that "it's really all over for the Soviet Union." As he analyzes the state of postcommunist Russia, Simes fills his book, particularly the first part, with Nixon's observations and thoughts, comparing Nixon's prescience and savvy with what he believes are the clumsy actions taken by the Clinton administration, which he argues has bungled its role in Russia's transition. It is in the second part of the book, when discussing such issues as Russia's new foreign policy and the problems the U.S. faces in addressing them, that Simes's narrative strengthens. He criticizes Clinton's allegiance to the unpopular Yeltsin, which he believes will retard the development of democracy in Russia. He also argues that the successive bailouts of this thoroughly corrupt nation are destined to fail. Most importantly, Simes cautions readers that it would be a mistake to view Russia's loss of great power status as anything but temporary and that U.S. policy makers need to be firm while also retaining an awareness that U.S. and Russian interests are bound to differ in many areas. While not comprehensive, this examination highlights the most serious present failures in Russia and articulates informed concern for the beleaguered country's future. Agent, John Brockman. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This book by Russian expert Simes, an adviser to former President Nixon, was originally named Collapse and Comeback, but recent events narrated here made the title change necessary. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Beginning of the End Any informed discussion of Russia's future must begin with an analysis of Russia's rebirth from the guttering flame of the Soviet Union. That event -- the collapse of the empire from within -- was unprecedented. Throughout history -- from Rome to Napoleonic France to modern Britain -- the ends of empires have come in the wake of devastating military defeats, protracted struggles of subject peoples for independence, or a combination of both. But neither of these conditions affected the Soviet Union. Although it paid dearly in both financial and moral terms for the war in Afghanistan, the USSR did not suffer a crushing blow similar to those that destroyed two other major continental empires -- the German and Austro-Hungarian -- after World War I. Similarly, while nationalist protest sprouted in Central Europe and, to a lesser extent, inside the Soviet Union itself, the USSR did not give in after decades of pressure from often armed popular resistance movements as did the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese empires. And in any event, the limited disruptions that occurred were not of such scale as to be unmanageable for a brutal regime in Moscow. In some ways, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire -- which became simultaneously militarily overextended and economically and technologically backward -- seems most similar. But even the Ottoman Empire lasted for centuries as "the sick man of Europe" and was finally eliminated only after being on the losing side in World War I. The Ottoman model cannot explain the instantaneous, comprehensive scope of the disintegration of the USSR. By the early 1980s, the Soviet Union was severely overextended geopolitically. The nuclear arms race with the United States and the USSR's simultaneous commitment to build a conventional force capable of defeating any possible coalition of enemies -- meaning the rest of the world -- was a major strain. President Ronald Reagan's significant military buildup and his assertive support for guerrilla movements fighting pro-Soviet governments only served to increase the pressure on Moscow. Further, Soviet prestige was dealt a significant blow by growing discontent in Central Europe, most visibly manifest in the rise of the independent Polish trade union Solidarity. Significantly, in 1982 -- the year of Brezhnev's death -- the Kremlin finally abandoned its historical claim that the "international correlation of forces" was continuously changing in favor of international communism. This acknowledgment of the USSR's changing circumstances did not occur automatically. It happened to a large extent as the result of long-term pressure from the West and particularly the United States, which stood up to Soviet expansionist ambitions under several administrations. Ronald Reagan deserves particular credit, of course, for the fact that Moscow's "new thinking" developed on his watch. The combination of American support for anti-Communist insurgents from Afghanistan to Nicaragua, steady increases in the U.S. defense budget, and the successful deployment of American intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe -- notwithstanding a major Soviet "peace offensive" -- demonstrated to the Kremlin that the USSR had to deal with an adversary of renewed determination and power. The Strategic Defense Initiative, known popularly as "Star Wars," also played an important role in precipitating the new thinking. While the Soviet military command insisted that Moscow would find a reliable and cost-effective response to any U.S. missile defense system, the USSR's top generals also recognized that the SDI project was an umbrella under which America would likely develop a broad range of new and sophisticated technologies that the Soviet Union could not hope to match. Gorbachev's military advisor, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev -- a former chief of the General Staff himself -- admitted as much to me in a conversation in New York in 1990. He argued that while SDI was unlikely to achieve its stated goal of serving as an impenetrable barrier against nuclear attack, it was nevertheless a full-scale military-technical offensive planned simultaneously to overcome Moscow militarily and ruin the USSR financially. The increasing costs of expansionism -- and the decreasing chances for success in pursuing it -- certainly entered into the USSR's foreign policy calculations. In the absence of Ronald Reagan's policies, Gorbachev's new thinking would certainly have emerged much more slowly, if at all. Nevertheless, it is a gross exaggeration to claim that President Reagan's foreign policy was the sole, or even the principal, reason for the Soviet collapse. Reagan himself would never have said so. In an important revelation, his former National Security Council aide responsible for Soviet matters, Stephen Sestanovich -- currently serving as ambassador-at-large to the newly independent states -- explained how President Reagan reached the conclusion that the Soviet Union had ceased to be a threat because Mikhail Gorbachev no longer believed in Marxism-Leninism. While this is an oversimplification, Reagan was essentially correct: change was imminent in the USSR once it produced a Communist Party general secretary who questioned fundamental aspects of the Soviet system. Short of war, external challenges were insufficient to force the sudden abandonment of the USSR's global efforts, the liberation of Central Europe, and the disintegration of the Union itself without a profound philosophical change in Moscow. There were many intermediate paths for the Soviet superpower; the empire could have been sustained in a modified form for a number of years, if not decades. Similarly, internal events within the Soviet Union did not cause its sudden demise. Although the already-inefficient centrally planned Soviet economy was increasingly strained by the absence of strong guidance from the top -- as evident in the USSR's growing social problems, especially expanding alcohol abuse and declining life expectancy -- the economy did not appear to have reached the breaking point. The Soviet Union was surely experiencing a deep systemic crisis. Nevertheless, as demonstrated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a systemic crisis need not lead to revolution or defeat -- it could lead to reform and rebirth. The USSR remained a military superpower with enormous natural resources, a well-educated labor force, and a ruling elite that -- despite its weakness at the highest levels -- incorporated some of the best and brightest in its society. The USSR would not have collapsed with such ease if the system had not become terribly rotten at its core. Still, the collapse could have taken many different forms and been extended over several years. When it came, the demise of the Soviet Union was as a result of what Lenin would have called a "subjective factor" -- the total inability of the ruling class to continue to rule as it had; and, ultimately, "betrayal" by a considerable segment of that ruling class, which turned against both the system and the empire. When it came, no Russian or foreign analyst had anticipated the Soviet implosion. Some, like the diplomat and scholar George Kennan, predicted early on that if Moscow's expansionist ambitions were properly contained, a domestic transformation would eventually follow. Toward the more hard-line end of the political spectrum, analysts like Richard Pipes -- a Harvard professor and later a senior NSC staffer for President Ronald Reagan -- denied any possibility of significant reform, but argued instead that the Soviet regime could be brought to collapse if the United States could squeeze Moscow hard enough. In the United States and in the USSR alike, no official or dissident -- even among those most persuaded of the urgent need for reform -- had a clue what was to happen. No one knew that when Mikhail S. Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985 the clock was already ticking -- and that the USSR had only six years left. Although I was no different from other American analysts in failing to predict the dramatic death of the Soviet empire, I fully expected meaningful change in the USSR after the Brezhnev succession had run its course. This sense that the system could not last was based in no small part on personal experiences and impressions gathered during my own early life in the Soviet Union. Born and educated in the USSR, I worked for some time at the influential Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow, where I had firsthand exposure to the Soviet elite. As I traveled widely in the Soviet Union on lecture tours, I was also able to see life outside of Moscow's "beltway." By the time I left the Soviet Union for the United States in January of 1973, I thought the Soviet totalitarian system was ugly, overbearing, and inefficient. I believed that it would continue losing ground to the West, and that the gap between East and West would create real pressure for change. Since the very same Soviet leadership had already rejected Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin's proposals for significant economic reform in the 1960s, whatever change did occur would have to be incremental. By the early 1970s -- under simultaneous pressure from economic realities and effective U.S. diplomacy -- the first minor shifts could be seen. First, contrary to their previous pattern, the Soviet leadership was willing to sign strategic arms control agreements, which at a minimum allowed for more rational joint management of nuclear competition and in some cases even resulted in real restrictions. Second -- and with a more immediate and personal impact for me -- the USSR began to allow substantial emigration by Jews and others. While not a major development, this latter change in Soviet behavior demonstrated one important fact -- that, at least at the margins, Brezhnev and his colleagues were prepared to give in to U.S. efforts to influence Soviet domestic policies. Neither decision was an easy one for the Politburo; agreement was reached only after intense debate in which Brezhnev eventually became the decisive voice in favor of flexibility. As a young foreign affairs researcher, I was not close to the very top of the Soviet establishment, but I had enough access to the second echelon of the Soviet elite to have a general sense of the thinking in high places on world matters. For example, late in 1971, I attended a small meeting chaired by Yevgeny M. Primakov, the current Russian prime minister, and then a deputy director of IMEMO known for his strong ties to the Communist Party Central Committee. I was able to participate in the meeting because I was the acting secretary of the institute's editorial council. Since the group was small, Primakov felt comfortable going beyond official clichés. He spoke with contempt of those who predicted Soviet victory in peaceful competition with capitalism and added that the West had managed to adjust to scientific and technological progress and was able to offer enough benefits to the masses to make revolution extremely unlikely in major industrial nations. Although he did not make the point directly, it was clear that he believed that reform was necessary to avoid facing a serious risk of falling behind the West. But the fear of falling behind was soon replaced by a new optimism in foreign policy after the American fiasco in Vietnam, which greatly emboldened the Soviet government. Soon thereafter, President Jimmy Carter's highly vocal diplomacy on human rights issues -- which contrasted sharply with the quiet diplomacy practiced by Nixon and President Gerald Ford to affect Soviet domestic affairs -- reduced the incentives for good behavior. As a result, the Kremlin had the impression that, on one hand, there was no real penalty for fishing in the world's troubled waters and, on the other hand, there was no genuine reward for moderate conduct. Naturally, there were local causes for Moscow's direct and proxy interventions in Angola, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. But the Soviets were also learning increasingly to disregard U.S. concerns to the point just short of risking outright confrontation. In addition, the failing health of Brezhnev and other top Politburo members became a barrier to change. With age and sickness, the Soviet leadership gradually lost the sense of reality that had tempered its conservatism in the past. According to his security aide, Vladimir Medvedev, Leonid Brezhnev was in his later years regularly under the influence of sleeping pills, which he took in excess for chronic insomnia. More and more frequently, the Soviet leader was literally unable to comprehend events around him. In Prague in 1981, Brezhnev finished a speech and began reading the prepared text to the audience for a second time. When Czech leader Gustav Husák completed his own presentation by addressing the guest of honor in Russian, Brezhnev loudly complained that his interpreter was not providing any translation. In Baku in 1982, the ailing leader stood at the podium in an obvious state of confusion when he could not find several pages of his remarks. The deliberate process of policy formulation in Moscow came virtually to a halt. According to Brezhnev's foreign policy advisor, Andrei Aleksandrov-Agentov, weekly Politburo meetings that had lasted several hours now took no longer than forty-five minutes. "Everybody could see that Brezhnev was thinking about only one thing: how he could put an end to the session and leave to rest in [his hunting lodge] in Zavidovo," Aleksandrov-Agentov wrote in his memoirs. With the tone in the Kremlin being set by a group of aging invalids, younger members were unable to make a case for reforms. Not only could such an attempt get them thrown out of the ruling hierarchy, it would also be an exercise in futility. The principals would have difficulty comprehending what their younger associates were discussing -- and would have been completely unable to act on the basis of their recommendations. Despite its internal problems, the Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and a global force-projection capability; it was certainly not a "paper tiger." I could not imagine that the process of reform would, rather than strengthening the Soviet Union, become unstoppable and destroy it altogether. I -- and virtually every other Soviet-watcher or insider -- was operating under a series of assumptions about how the reform process would occur after Brezhnev left the political scene. Those assumptions led us to believe that reform in the USSR could take place, but that, as in China, it would eventually stop short of fundamental change in the structure of the state. Every assumption in this chain of reasoning was ultimately vindicated by events -- except the last one. The initial assumption was that reform in the Soviet system could only come from the top. There were, of course, distinguished and courageous leaders among Soviet dissidents -- most notably Andrei Sakharov -- and dissidents enjoyed a great deal of sympathy in the West. Inside the Soviet Union, however, they had little popular support. This was largely a function of the pervasive totalitarian apparatus of the Soviet regime, which left little room for anything not sanctioned by the state and effectively stifled any grassroots efforts at change. However, Soviet dissidents also failed to establish broad public appeal because of their preoccupation with human rights over the bread-and-butter economic issues that most interested ordinary people. Also, in the worst tradition of Russia's educated intelligentsia (with the notable exception of the Bolsheviks), dissidents generally had weak organizational skills and little willingness to compromise or build alliances. Thus, despite winning prestige as freedom fighters after the collapse of the Soviet Union, most dissidents -- again, with the exception of Sakharov -- failed to transform their stature into a real role in the newly open political process. In contrast, nationalist movements in the non-Russian Soviet republics often had capable leaders able to strike a chord among their peoples. This potentially explosive force was defused by the combined power of Moscow's totalitarian machinery and local Communist elites, who were given considerable autonomy from the center -- including the freedom to engage in a wide range of corrupt practices -- in return for helping to keep their ethnic brothers under control. Thus, in the absence of strong opposition or the pressures of an open society, meaningful change in the Soviet Union could be initiated only by the leadership. The second assumption followed logically: because anyone who came to power in the Soviet Union would be a product of decades of life in the Communist elite, any future leader or group of leaders might want to reform the system but would not be prepared to abolish it. Despite their possible dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs, Brezhnev's successors were expected to be reformers, not revolutionaries. Everything known about the younger generation of Soviet leaders suggested that they would not be willing to go beyond limited and carefully calibrated reforms designed to enhance rather than destroy the regime. Given the state of the ruling group at the end of the Brezhnev era -- when individual leaders looked like walking zombies, large-scale corruption was a way of life, and talent, even in service to the system, was viewed with suspicion -- it was easy to imagine how even incremental changes in the system could postpone the Soviet Union's gradual slide into the abyss. Many argued that reform could develop its own momentum, that a "half-pregnant" partly marketized economy could be unsustainable, and that liberalization of political controls could have far-reaching consequences -- particularly among nationalist movements, which could even demand independence from the USSR. It was widely assumed, however, that the regime had both the resources (the Communist Party, the KGB, the media, and a docile population) and the will to retrench if and when reform seemed to go too far. The flaw in this line of thinking was the underestimation of the "human factor," or more precisely, of the complexity of Gorbachev's personality. No one anticipated that a leader would come to power who knew the rules of the Communist Party apparat and could use them with tactical genius to outmaneuver his opponents while simultaneously not understanding the fundamentals of the system that created him -- and which he was expected to defend and strengthen. In the spring of 1992, I visited Mikhail Gorbachev in the offices of the private foundation bearing his name. Gorbachev, who had just been removed from power, was understandably still bitter over his unceremonious exit from the Kremlin -- orchestrated by Russian president Boris N. Yeltsin -- and charged that the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian presidents had no right to abolish the USSR. He argued that once peoples of the dissolved Soviet Union realized what had happened, they would find a way to reestablish the Union. Gorbachev was also clearly implying that once this happened, he could be offered the opportunity to lead his country once again. I asked him how he could have expected to preserve the Soviet Union while systematically undermining its very foundations: pervasive political controls, the dominance of the highly centralized Party apparatus, the ubiquitous security services with their multimillion-strong army of secret informers, and the state monopoly on the media. "You are describing everything that went wrong with our system," he replied, adding "we have admitted to and worked hard to correct the mistakes of the past. But you cannot reduce the Party to these crimes and errors. And if not for the [August 1991] coup attempt, we would have seen the signing of the Union Treaty and the creation of a new, voluntary federation of sovereign states." When I related this conversation to Nixon several days later in the United States, he was not surprised. "Gorbachev belongs to the past," he said. "And he is still incredibly naïve about what Soviet communism was all about. It's remarkable that a statesman can be so smart and so blind at the same time. But one point is clear -- Gorbachev has failed to learn his lesson and continues to live in a world of illusion. Because of that, he has no future -- not as a president, and not even as a voice in Russian politics," Nixon observed. In conversations with a range of Gorbachev's former associates, I frequently tried to understand how a man of his background and intellect could fail to see that what he portrayed as obstacles to the development of socialism were in fact the essential foundation of the Soviet system. No one was able to give me a satisfactory answer to this question. And, of course, if other members of the Politburo had remotely suspected what Gorbachev intended to do to the regime before he came to power, he would have been instantly expelled from the leadership and could never have been elected as the Party's general secretary. Two-and-a-half years after Gorbachev became Party leader, his more conservative colleagues still could not imagine how far he would later be willing to go in dismantling the political system. "I could not see in my worst nightmare that what we would have to defend, to fight for, would be not just the concept of perestroika adopted in 1985 but the most sacred concepts -- socialism, the Soviet government, and the Communist Party," wrote Yegor K. Ligachev, a former close ally who later became Gorbachev's leading conservative opponent in the Politburo. When Ligachev visited Washington as a private citizen in late 1991, I asked him why he and other conservative Party leaders did not stop the general secretary when they still had a comfortable majority in the Politburo. "He never told us what he was really up to," Ligachev explained. "Every time I said to him that he was making too many concessions to the radical forces, he would say, 'Yegor, I am on your side, but as the general secretary I have to have a broader view and have to talk to these people in their own language. Everything will be fine in the end.' How could it occur to me that the general secretary of the Communist Party was secretly an anti-Communist?" Even at the beginning of the Gorbachev era, the willingness -- indeed, the determination -- to introduce major change in the Soviet Union was hardly limited to the general secretary and his close advisors. Nor is there any reason to believe that Gorbachev did not take at least the basics of Communist ideology at face value. In addition to Gorbachev's numerous public statements, several authoritative private accounts suggest that he was fully committed to the tenets of Communist theory. In her own book published on the eve of the August 1991 coup attempt -- well after Boris Yeltsin's dramatic break with the Party -- Raisa Gorbacheva still opted to portray her husband as an ideal Communist. She went so far as to claim that her own father was favorably influenced by his ideologically correct son-in-law, despite long-standing reservations about the regime as a result of his family's suffering during the Stalinist purges. "Faith in the Party came to my father from Mikhail Sergeevich, my husband," she wrote. "Despite the difference in age, [Mikhail Sergeevich] became a model Communist for [my father] symbolizing truth and justice." Aleksandr N. Yakovlev, a former Soviet ambassador to Canada who served on the Politburo with Gorbachev, confirms this view of Gorbachev. Yakovlev, perhaps Gorbachev's strongest ally in the reform process, or even his alter ego, was lionized to a greater extent than Gorbachev himself by Moscow's liberal intellectuals. He was also more deeply hated by perestroika's conservative critics, some of whom, like then KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, raised suspicions that he was manipulating the general secretary on behalf of the CIA. I asked Yakovlev what he thought of Ligachev's allegations: "Nonsense," he said. "Initially Gorbachev was the greatest true believer of us all. And even at the end of his days in office, he would sometimes become angry with me for saying something too critical about Marxism-Leninism. Subjectively, he never meant to do anything against the Party." Gorbachev despised Boris Yeltsin after Yeltsin openly challenged him at the October 1987 Party Central Committee Plenum. Nevertheless, after discharging Yeltsin from the Politburo, the general secretary stopped short of ending his political career altogether -- a step easily within his power. Instead, he gave his humiliated critic a cabinet-level appointment and the opportunity to remain in Moscow, which Yeltsin eventually transformed into a spectacular comeback. When nationalist forces began to gain momentum in the Baltic republics and elsewhere, Gorbachev attempted to persuade them, to outmaneuver them, and to harass them, but never to destroy them with the overwhelming and brutal force that was still very much at his disposal. Even in the bloody interethnic conflicts in the Caucasus region and Central Asia -- when he could have easily justified doing whatever was necessary to stop ongoing violence -- the Soviet president just could not quite draw the line. Despite pressure from many of his colleagues on the Politburo, Gorbachev could not bring himself to apply the full weight of the Soviet Union's repressive machinery. There could be no better illustration than Gorbachev of the fact that honorable instincts are not always a prescription for effective leadership -- particularly in times of great transition. Until October 1987, I could observe these developments only from the outside. While the authorities had allowed me to leave my native country, even legal emigration was widely seen as the moral equivalent of treason at the time. Thus, those who left the USSR as I did assumed that after our departure Soviet borders would be closed to us permanently. Gorbachev's perestroika brought me an element of hope. His brave talk about democratization -- as uncertain as I was about what it really meant -- tempted me to test how far the new openness would go. Would the Soviet Union issue me a visa? On my first attempt, the answer was no. In the spring of 1987, Moscow rejected an application from the CBS television network to take me to Moscow as a consultant for a planned documentary about the changes underway in the USSR. Disappointed but undeterred, I made a second attempt several months later -- this time through the State Department -- seeking to travel to Moscow with Secretary of State George Shultz as a part of his press entourage (at the time, I wrote a syndicated column distributed by the Los Angeles Times). Accordingly, the State Department included my name on the application list for Soviet visas with the rest of the press group. Nevertheless, the visa was denied again. Fortunately for me, the Reagan administration was not known for easily taking no for an answer from the Soviets. The day before the press plane was scheduled to depart, I received a telephone call from Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost. "On instructions from Shultz, I phoned [Soviet Ambassador Yuri] Dubynin yesterday and explained to him that denying a visa to someone who is supposed to travel with the Secretary of State is of considerable concern to the U.S. government and asked for his help," he said. "Minutes ago Dubynin informed me that your visa has been approved. Congratulations." I was extremely grateful to Armacost and also very proud of the U.S. government, which was prepared to spend political capital with another superpower to do what was right on behalf of a private individual. Most of all, however, I was excited to have an opportunity to see Moscow once again with my own eyes. Luck had it that, because of fog in Moscow, the Shultz party had to travel to Moscow by train from Helsinki, which reduced our time in the Soviet capital to just thirty-six hours. Nevertheless, I was able to talk to a variety of old friends, ranging from a Jewish refusenik to a translator of American literature, a police colonel, and even a Central Committee official. All were struck by my sudden appearance in the city; it was almost as if had I returned from the dead. I was similarly struck with the knowledge that none of them was afraid to meet with me -- despite the fact that each knew full well that I could be under surveillance by the KGB. Yet more striking, however, was their sense of excitement about perestroika and the new and unprecedented feelings they shared of having the opportunity to become the masters of their own destinies. As I spoke with them well into the night, I saw firsthand what Gorbachev meant in his soon-to-be-infamous statement "Protsess poshel" -- "The process is under way." Once I returned to Washington, I called Nixon and gave him a full account of my experiences. "So," the former president said, "Gorbachev is beginning to unleash the real potential of the Russian people. Then there may be more to perestroika than I thought. But I wonder how he's going to keep it under wraps. You know what I mean?" Nixon added that he would call President Ronald Reagan and share my impressions with him. Meanwhile, I had a long meeting with President Reagan's top aide on the Soviet Union, Fritz Ermarth. A person of great creativity and intuition, Fritz instantly understood the significance of my observations and volunteered to share them with key people in the administration. After I published an article in the Washington Post emphasizing that there could be more to Gorbachev's reforms than many of us originally thought, I was asked to brief Senators Bob Dole and George Mitchell. Somewhat later, I had a brief conversation with President Reagan himself, who said that if the Soviet people could indeed be free to have an impact on their government, "things would get just fine" between the two countries. In December 1987, Gorbachev came to Washington for a summit with Reagan. The two leaders signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), thereby eliminating the entire category of intermediate-range nuclear weapons. There also were reports of movement on other issues, including the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). Despite this visible progress, the most remarkable impression for me, as an outsider, was the spirit of the summit. Washington, of course, was overrun with "Gorby-mania" -- which probably reflected America's celebrity-oriented culture more than anything else. But there was more to the summit than superficial excitement. For those who were involved in the undertaking in one way or another -- government officials, journalists (I was asked by NBC News to serve as a consultant and commentator during the event), and businesspeople -- it was hard not to be moved by an inexplicable feeling that history was in the making. Meanwhile, at the state dinner for Gorbachev at the White House, I was fortunate enough to encounter another perspective on the Soviet reform process. Seated between Barbara Bush and Aleksandr Yakovlev for several hours, I was able to discuss the changes underway in the USSR with Yakovlev, who was viewed as Gorbachev's closest confidant at the time in the Soviet Union. At first, the Politburo member was somewhat uncomfortable at being seated next to one who, until only very recently, could have been viewed as a dangerous outcast. Gradually, however, he warmed up to the discussion and we switched our conversation from English to Russian. Nothing Yakovlev told me was particularly remarkable -- all of his statements about the Soviet Union's need for democratization and new thinking in foreign policy were very much in the public domain. Nevertheless, the way he talked -- like a normal human being rather than an arrogant party boss -- was refreshing. I was even more impressed when he said, "You should not judge us too severely. We do not mind to be criticized. It actually helps us to hear opinions from afar. But if you want to have an impact, do not talk as if we are enemies, as if our every defeat is a success for you. We have to get out of this cycle of the United States and the Soviet Union acting like two scorpions." This was quite different from the way in which Soviet officials defended Moscow's policies in the past. After my exposure to ordinary people in Moscow and Aleksandr Yakovlev and his colleagues in Washington, I began to feel strongly that the Soviet reforms were serious and real. I was not certain how far they would go -- or exactly in which direction -- but there was no doubt that the train had left the station and that there was probably no return. Shortly after the summit, I hosted a meeting of a small group of leading Soviet specialists -- from both inside and outside the administration -- at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. At the meeting, there was an emerging consensus regarding the far-reaching nature of the Soviet transformation, but there was also real concern that Gorbachev and his allies were encountering increasing opposition from Party conservatives that put the future of perestroika into question. Still, no one in the group seriously entertained the possibility that the death of the Soviet Union was only four years away. Five thousand miles away, in Moscow, that possibility had also likely not yet occurred to the man who would soon play a key role in the last act of the Soviet drama. When I met that man two years later, during his first trip to Washington, future Russian president Boris Yeltsin spoke only of the need for radical reform in the Soviet Union -- something he argued Mikhail Gorbachev could not bring about. He did not yet suggest dissolving the USSR or even replacing the Union with a loose confederation. Nevertheless, while no one in Moscow or Washington realized it, the powerful centrifugal forces released by perestroika would soon dramatically affect the Soviet state. Copyright © 1999 Dimitri K. Simes. All rights reserved.

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