Mikhail Reznikov on Working to Bring Democracy to Russia

Jun 10, 2011

When Krieble Institute representatives from the U.S. first visited Russia, it was "like a collision of civilizations," recalls Reznikov. He got involved in Russian politics in the heady days of 1989 and worked with the Institute to train people across Russia in the workings of democratic elections. 

The Carnegie Council's U.S. Global Engagement program gratefully acknowledges support for this project from the Alfred and Jane Ross Foundation and Donald M. Kendall.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the End of the Cold War Project at the Carnegie Council in New York. We are with Dr. Mikhail Reznikov. Mikhail, thank you.

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: I'm a former field representative for the Krieble Institute, the Free Congress Foundation in Moscow, and I coordinated the activities of field representatives of the Krieble Institute throughout the former Soviet Union.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Mikhail, welcome and thank you for being with me today.

It's appropriate that we are speaking about the Krieble Institute and its activities. I see you are proudly wearing your Krieble Institute tie, which I had not seen before. Very handsome. It obviously means that you remember your days with Krieble fondly, and very well.

The inspiration for this series is a book which you may know, by Arthur Matthews, called Agents of Influence, which was a term used to criticize Mr. Krieble and Mr. Weyrich back in the 1990s. But they regard it as a compliment to them and what they had done in the last days of the Soviet Union. We are here to talk to you about those days, obviously.

The first and obvious question for me is, how did you come into contact with Krieble and Weyrich? What was the nature of the first contact? When did that happen?

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: I started my political activity in 1989, with the first free election for the parliament of the Soviet Union. A lot of grassroots organizations and volunteers for independent candidates to the parliament participated in these elections. I was a friend of Arkady Murashev, who ran for office for election to this parliament.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And you ran his campaign. Is that correct?

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: Yes. I participated in his campaign. Then he invited me to one of the Krieble Institute press conferences in Russia in 1989. That's why I was acquainted.

Later, in 1991, I was invited, by recommendation of Arkady, to America to participate in the training of field representatives for the Krieble Institute.

DAVID SPEEDIE: From those early days, who else was involved? We mentioned before we came on camera John Exnicios, whom you knew in New Orleans.

Bill Pascoe, was he in Moscow at that time?

Yes, and Paul Ogle.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Paul Ogle, of course. They were here to set up the training sessions that would help the new democratic candidates.

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: Yes. The first visit was a huge event mostly because it was like a collision of civilizations, like Columbus, the first time going to America and meeting the Indians. I do not exaggerate. This is how it was felt here in Russia. We spoke different languages. We tried to share ideas. It was forbidden for citizens of the Soviet Union to speak to foreigners without control of the KGB. So, really, it was historic for me.

DAVID SPEEDIE: At that time, was there also contact with Russian expatriates, such as the NTS, the National Association of Russian Solidarity, the dissident group outside the Soviet Union? Did that take place? I know that prominent Europeans like Alexander Rahr came to Moscow at that time. Was there an international dimension to this, beyond just the Krieble Institute and the Americans?

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: Yes, several groups and personalities established a presence here. I remember Alexander Rahr coming here and communicating with him, and many other people.

DAVID SPEEDIE: George Miller from London? Do you remember him?


DAVID SPEEDIE: Did Rahr have a major influence on things? Was he a key figure?

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: No. He was a personal contact with Arkady Murashev, for example, and with some other people here.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Then you became a field representative, I think you said earlier, for the Free Congress Foundation.


DAVID SPEEDIE: So you were really close to Weyrich and Krieble.

After training in the spring of 1991, we returned from America. Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB at the time, in late June or the beginning of July, announced at the Congress of People's Deputies that American forces are preparing for something [inaudible]. So he hinted that he knows about—

DAVID SPEEDIE: I see. So there was already suspicion of what was going on.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Hence the term "agents of influence."


DAVID SPEEDIE: One thing I read—I can't remember where I read it—was that you were giving reports back to Weyrich from Moscow. I read somewhere that you were emailing reports. Was there email in those days?

We started with fax machines. They were given to every field representative to send—it was huge. But it was difficult because our telephone lines were not very good, and it took a lot of time just to get on line and send a message. At the end of 1991 it was suggested to use computers and email communication. So in the beginning of 1992, we started to establish a network of computers and started to exchange emails. We were pioneers of this in Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Back in those days with the fax machines, how many field representatives were there sending messages back? How many fax machines?

Tens, maybe 30. Each field representative who got training in America came back with a fax machine. Later my search was to buy computers for field representatives.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Fluid communication, yes.

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: At that time, computers were available in Russia, so it wasn't necessary to bring them from America.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You were obviously a very young man in 1989.

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: I am 53. Then I was younger.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Early 30s. Who did you regard as mentors in those days? Obviously, there were a lot of young guys: Murashev was young; other pioneers in the movement were young. But who did you regard as a mentor?

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: For us, Andrei Sakharov, of course. Also we had a lot of bright minds here in Russia—Afanasiev, Popov.


He is an academic and historian. Gavriil Popov.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Popov, yes. I'm seeing him [for an interview].

He was an economist and then he was the first freely elected mayor of Moscow. Yeltsin, to some extent. He was a leader of crowds and he was a brave man. That's why he got support not only of ordinary people, but of the intelligentsia.

So the times, they brought to the scene a lot of bright minds. Now we do not see them. They are suppressed and so on. But I hope that better times are coming, like it happened in America, for example, at the end of the 18th century. You got a huge amount of great people—George Washington, Jefferson, and so on—who were great thinkers and great politicians. How it happened nobody knows, but they arrived at the right time.

Krieble and Weyrich also arrived at the right time here. This is the same process.

DAVID SPEEDIE: That's quite a comparison. Do you believe it?

Why not?

DAVID SPEEDIE: Obviously, one of the things that was distinctive about the Krieble-Weyrich enterprise was that it reached well beyond Moscow and got into the regions of Russia. I assume it was very important to not just focus on Moscow itself. For example, did you come into contact then with the Sverdlovsk group, with, in addition to Yeltsin, Mr. Burbulis, Mr. Urmanov, and people of that caliber?

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: Sure. I toured all around Russia and to some former Soviet Union republics. In tons of places, I visited with them. Sometimes they penetrated in such deep places, where, for example, they visited the huts of peasants in the Tomsk region and they entered the houses where you could see a cow or a goat in the same building that peasants live in. So they penetrated in really deep, deep, deep Russia. They did not visit only capitals and elites.

DAVID SPEEDIE: So there was a real grassroots commitment to making change.

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: Absolutely. This was the aim. The aim was not to teach selfish politicians, but to teach ordinary people. At the conferences, they get across to them. About 200, 300 people, or even more sometimes, were coming to the conferences, and they were activists of the real grassroots organizations.

DAVID SPEEDIE: That raises an interesting question. Did you have philosophical conversations with Krieble and Weyrich, or was it strictly tactical, about organizing and how to conduct election campaigns? Did you speak about philosophical agreements on politics?

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: They were different, Bob and Paul.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In what way? That's interesting.

Paul was a generator of ideas. He was a very free thinking man, very bright, very smart. He was open to new ideas and to learn something new, because he recognized that this is a unique situation when a country is turning from the communist to the capitalist way of governing.

Bob Krieble was just a very nice, very bright person, with a very original way of thinking, as a businessman, and also with a very kind and open nature.

Of course, they were different, but both of them were very smart.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You mentioned Sakharov as an early mentor. Obviously he is someone who was very well known in the West. I do know some friends of his in the United States, people who worked with him, Roald Sagdeev, who was also a prominent physicist and colleague of Sakharov.

What happened with Sakharov? He was originally part of the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies? Was there a split or did he leave that group?

No. He died.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Just when he died, not before that.

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: Sakharov was not a very happy man. What do I mean? I mean that he was so suppressed by the government of the Soviet Union and he was so spit at by the mass media and so on. His wife Yelena Bonner and him were treated like traitors of the country. So he didn't have a very nice attention by Russian public. People did not like him. He was considered as a non-understandable intellectual and a protester. But later he was elected to the first parliament of Soviet Union, the Congress of People's Deputies, and people, if they had a chance to listen to him, he got tributes. People admired Sakharov. A taxi driver told about how great this man is and how lucky we are that we have such a great man. In December of 1998, he died, because he was sick.

DAVID SPEEDIE: His wife, Yelena Bonner, was more of a political figure, was she not? She was more of a political activist than Sakharov. Sakharov was the intellectual. Is she still involved?

I'm not sure. I think she lives in America right now. She is one of the best women I ever saw. I had the privilege to meet her several times in Krieble's house in Russia, where Arkady Murashev invited her. She was so bright. She was very tough concerning the KGB. She was a very brave and tough woman that wasn't afraid to speak truth.

DAVID SPEEDIE: So she was close to Krieble, too.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Mikhail, when did you move from the position of—well, I don't know if it's a question of when or if—from the position of reforming the system to changing the system completely? While you and your colleagues were working on your cause, obviously the U.S. administration president, Bush, was working with and supporting Gorbachev in hsi reforms. When did you decide that something more radical or basic, fundamental, was needed?

My feeling and the feeling of many other people was that Gorbachev was hitting us by words. A lot of words, good words, were said, but there were no matching improvements. More important, there were no major deeds, real changes in the economy—introduction of private ownership of land, for example. So there was no introduction of capitalism. Gorbachev was able to say A, but he wasn't able to say B and C.

That's why, in 1989, it became obvious that something should be changed.

DAVID SPEEDIE: This was something that presumably a group of you came together over. You were close to Murashev and Popov and others. There was a coming-together of ideas among people that the Gorbachev reforms were not sufficient.

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: It was ignited by the elections of 1989. Flashes of such global supporters for different candidates emerged throughout Russia. Then we had some sort of coalescence, when all these groups of supporters became the Democratic Russia Movement. So they united. This was a process.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You were part of the formation of the Democratic Party of Russia in the spring of 1990. Is that correct?

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: The Democratic Russia Movement.

DAVID SPEEDIE: After the election of 1989, with the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union, you were involved in many campaigns in 1990 for the Congress of People's Deputies of Russia. Is that right?


DAVID SPEEDIE: You coordinated many campaigns to those elections.

Yes. Another prominent candidate was Artem Tarasov. He was called the first Russian millionaire.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Is he still active?

He is so-so.

DAVID SPEEDIE: A businessman?

Yes, he's a businessman.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Then shortly after the elections of 1990 came the resolutions on Lithuania, which is sort of a landmark in terms of what would then happen.

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: We had a huge manifestation here in Moscow in support of the secession of the Lithuanian people, that they have a right to secede from Russia and that no one should be obliged to them. About 300,000 to 600,000 people marched over Moscow to the Kremlin. This was the biggest manifestation and meeting in Moscow.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Demonstration, yes.

I think you mentioned this before. Did you travel outside Russia with Weyrich on the various training—did you go to Belarus in 1994? Is that correct?

I went to Belarus. I went to Ukraine a lot of times. That's all.

DAVID SPEEDIE: How were you received in Ukraine, for example? Did you find the same desire for independence?

Sure. They are the same people. They have special features. For example, they have some sort of, call it nationalism, but in a good sense—national identification. They went through the process there. This was difficult, but also they were generally pro-democracy people, as well as in Belarus.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In reflecting on all this, do you think anything has been lost by the breakup of the Soviet Union, that Russia is now what it is?

No. It was an inevitable process. Russia was ripe for change because the people which concluded Russia were so different. For example, before the Great October Revolution in 1917, all Russia was also pregnant with dissociation. I read the speeches and the minutes of the state Duma of the time, and it is obvious that only a strong force could prevent dissociation of the Russian Empire. It happened, and only Stalin could gather everything back, like Hitler gathered Germany as the Third Reich.

You need some sort of totalitarian power to gather empires.

DAVID SPEEDIE: So as early as 1987, you were seeing and reading signs that breakup was coming.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Two, three years before things really began.

Let me ask you about your travel in the United States. You were there several times in the 1990s. First, let me ask you about Louisiana. I know that you were there with your friend John Exnicios. John Exnicios was obviously involved in developing a second party, a Republican presence, in Louisiana. Louisiana is regarded as a somewhat idiosyncratic state. It's very distinctive culturally. It's a wonderful place. I love it.

How did the elections in Louisiana inform what you were doing in Russia?

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: We didn't know how Americans elections are run. We considered that they run like in Louisiana. So this was American elections for us. Other elections we knew theoretically.

But we met grassroots people, and learned how the team meetings are conducted. We didn't see corruption. They didn't show us corruption.

DAVID SPEEDIE: They wouldn't, no.

So we considered this level of conducting elections to be much more interesting.

DAVID SPEEDIE: So there was a grassroots equivalent that was useful.

We never had such level of grassroots system as in the USA. So we have a great problem with the citizens' society.

DAVID SPEEDIE: This goes back to your description of Krieble going into huts in Tomsk and really trying to get to that level of grassroots organization, so there was a certain equivalence there of trying to build up a grassroots awareness.

Yes. The idea was to teach people how to conduct this activity on the lowest level possible.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Where does that stand, in your opinion, in Russia today? Is there a grassroots momentum or a grassroots commitment or awareness? Is that too generalist a question?

No. It is a very concrete and very essential problem here in Russia. Grassroots activity was nearly killed in the middle of the 1990s, unfortunately, because proportional election was introduced, where the parties are elected rather than people, like in America. People work for parties. But now we observe the emergence of several organizations of people for different issues—to protect the ecology, for example, or to play against the so-called migalki, when the officials and the elite use special signals on their cars. People try to self-organize just for finding lost children in forests.

DAVID SPEEDIE: So it's grassroots activity around a specific issue, whether it be ecological, environmental, human rights, public safety, or whatever.


DAVID SPEEDIE: I see. At a different level, in Washington, who did you meet with there? Who do you remember from the policy community in Washington?

The top level was Quayle. We didn't meet with Bush. But we met a lot of congressmen. I remember a bright congressman, Rohrabacher, from California. We met with people in the Heritage Foundation. Some of them are prominent. I can't recall right now. It was a lot of local authorities in Virginia, in New Orleans, and so on.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I know that Murashev met with some influentials on the National Policy Council, Richard Perle, John Bolton.

Murashev was a big guy. I was just—

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm sure you achieved your own purposes very well.

Mikhail, who are you close to today? Are you still involved in politics in any sense?

There is no politics now in Russia, unfortunately. Also I know a lot of people, to remember them, but I don't conduct any activity right now.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Mr. Murashev mentioned to me—he described it as the U.S.-Russian Movement for Rapprochement. I think it may also be called the Russian-American Friendship Society. Are you involved in that at all?


DAVID SPEEDIE: And there's the Russian Congress in March going to Washington, meeting with Mr. Lozansky, whom I assume you know.

Yes, sure.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Do you have any contact with him?


DAVID SPEEDIE: So you're a businessman.

I became a business and private guy.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Since you have become a private businessman, do you miss the fray, as we say, the battle, the political arena?

No. My desire was to do what I can do. I didn't have any political ambitions. My background was as a physicist. I was much more interested in physics than in politics. But times are coming sometimes in the history of countries when people should go forward and say the word. I always considered myself to be one of them. Those were times when a lot of engineers and people who are working in science and so on—

DAVID SPEEDIE: Many physicists.

Many physicists.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Sakharov, Murashev, yourself.

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: —went into politics. This was time. After each great advance, propulsion, there is a reaction. As I didn't have any political ambitions, I went to the spheres which are more interesting to me.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Looking back, it was a time of great turmoil, upheaval, and change. You said a few minutes ago something that reflects on the current situation in Russia. Do you feel that momentum has been completely lost? Do you still feel that what you did 20 years ago was worthwhile?

MIKHAIL REZNIKOV: Yes. History will show—for example, we had the French Revolution, a contradictional thing, but a revolution nevertheless, and then we had reaction, and then very tough, very long-term advance in France.

The same in England when they had the revolution there, Cromwell, and then they got reaction and then the balance. History teaches us that it is impossible just to have advance and advance and advance. Reaction is inevitable. So we should live through this.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Finally, just in your own words, what did the relationship with Krieble and Weyrich mean to you?

They were like fathers. This is from the heart. I loved them both. Krieble was a special man. For example, he invited us to Washington and he drove us, with his wife, in a Ford machine which was created in South Korea. This was a very, very cheap car, and he was a multimillionaire, without air conditioning and so on. It was funny.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Mikhail, thank you for your time. I greatly appreciate it. I wish you all the best.

Thank you very much.

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