Gennady Burbulis on the Dissolution of the USSR

February 8, 2011

Yeltsin speaking near the Council of Ministers building,
August 19, 1991. CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

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 in Moscow. My guest this afternoon is Mr. Gennady Burbulis.

Mr. Burbulis, thank you for being with us.

We are interested in two general topics. One is the history of your association with Mr. Yeltsin in Sverdlovsk, how that came about, leading up to his ascendancy to the presidency. Second is the impetus for our End of the Cold War Project, which is the book that was written by Mr. Arthur Matthews called Agents of Influence. It speaks of Robert Krieble and Paul Weyrich going to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, early 1990s, in that pivotal period, to offer training in political organization and political party formation.

Let's begin with your association with Mr. Yeltsin. Take us back to Sverdlovsk. Before you became his chief of staff, where did your association with him begin?

I had known Boris Yeltsin for many years, but it was not in person. He was the first secretary of the Sverdlovsk Regional Party Committee. In the totalitarian system, this position was the head of a huge territory. Anything that was happening in the Urals was under his control—what was happening in the minds and the souls of the people, in the economy, in agriculture, in social security. Everything was controlled by one person.

But Boris Yeltsin used to do it in his own personal way. That set him apart from the rest of the Soviet nomenklatura. He was the first of the party bosses to speak directly to the people in the street. He was the first one to start meeting with students, with the intelligentsia, spending hours with them to discuss various matters. He established himself as a representative of a new political trend.

At the same time there was very active housing construction in the region. Farms were being set up, including poultry farms. So the economy was quite vibrant. Apart from being a politician, he was also a very successful manager. He set a new example.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Communist Party. After that, Yeltsin was very quickly noticed and transferred to work in Moscow. Within a very short two years, he experienced a rise and fall while in Moscow. He wanted to do in Moscow what he successfully did in the Urals. But, finally, this created a conflict with the conservative faction in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and that resulted in the famous statement by Mr. Yeltsin, as a result of which he was removed from any authority.

The unique thing about Gorbachev and Yeltsin is that historically, if you were removed from a high position in the Communist Party, you were gone, and you were gone forever. Gorbachev did not send Yeltsin as an ambassador to a remote African country. He kept him as the minister of construction in the Moscow city government.

In 1989, when the first democratic election was announced under Gorbachev, Yeltsin made a triumph, making a great political comeback. It was that year that we met in person. This is how we got to know each other.

It was the election campaign of 1989. We used to come to Moscow with leaflets. We took them from the Urals to Moscow, and we helped to disseminate them in Moscow.

Boris Nikolayevich [Yesltin] came back to Sverdlovsk, his home city, to meet with the voters. We helped to arrange these meetings.

DAVID SPEEDIE: What were you doing at the time? What was your position? How exactly did you come into contact with Yeltsin?

I was deputy director for academic work, for research, of the old Union Institute for advanced training of non-ferrous metallurgy specialists. But at that time, we had already created in Sverdlovsk a large-scale democratic movement. It was the first discussion forum in the whole country, and I had the privilege of being the chairman of it. We developed it into a countrywide discussion platform.

So we first met in Sverdlovsk. Boris Nikolayevich arrived by private jet, because we were concerned that his meeting with the voters would be disrupted because there were forces that could actually prevent him from coming. His popularity at that time was huge. The election gave us the chance, as the postwar generation, and it gave a chance to Yeltsin, who actually made a triumphant comeback to his political life.

DAVID SPEEDIE: This leads to a question that I hadn't thought of asking, at least not quite in this way. Given your electoral success, I'm interested in how you made connection with Robert Krieble and Paul Weyrich. Why do you think you needed their advice or training, given the success that you seemed to be having?

GENNADY BURBULIS: We received a huge amount of support from our friends, Mr. Krieble and Mr. Weyrich. I would not say they were agents, but they certainly did have an enormous influence on our minds, on what we did. When we became deputies of the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union, they were the first foreigners to ever get access to this city. I was talking to the chairman of KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, to get them permits to visit the city.

We came to Sverdlovsk and we checked into the hotel. Then Weyrich went for a walk, and we missed that. He had a camera with him. He was actually taking shots of things that he saw in the streets, like tramways and the queues of people. He was detained by the police. I got a call from the police and I had to rescue him from detention.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Then Krieble got very ill. Is that correct?


DAVID SPEEDIE: But did they approach you or were you introduced to them by the Inter-Regional Group? In what way were they helpful? I'm still trying to get a sense of the way in which they helped you. You said they gave you tremendous support. What did that involve? Was it how to hold an election? Was it how to form a party? What specifically was their support about?

GENNADY BURBULIS: We came into contact with them via the Inter-Regional Deputies Group. I recall a first trip to America with my colleagues, Murashev, Poltoranin, and Stepashin, and I remember how happy we were when we were taking back to Russia a couple of Xerox machines that enabled us to actually print things on our own and disseminate materials. It was independence. It was a technical breakthrough.

Then they had the workshops and practical training in the regions and in Moscow. We developed a countrywide network of workshops and seminars on the fundamentals of democratic governance, election campaigns (preparation and actual implementation), and understanding the comprehensive situation in the country from the standpoint of politics, economics, the legal system, moral and other things that were not exactly obvious to the Russian population at that time.

DAVID SPEEDIE: When was this visit to the United States with Murashev and others? Who did you visit? Who were your hosts and who provided any training? Who do you remember from that time?

There was this concept of having a conference on the democratization of the Soviet Union and launching a dialogue between the Soviet Union and the West. We had the conference, which was organized by Paul Weyrich. It was attended by senators, members of Congress, academics, and analysts. We also had a meeting with the then-vice president of the United States, Dan Quayle. There were many roundtable discussions.

Now, I realize that our position was a little bit surprising for our U.S. colleagues when we insisted that the process of bringing democracy to the Soviet Union would be an irreversible and unavoidable process. They told us, "You are utopians. You are dreamers. The [Soviet] Empire is very robust and very cruel."

DAVID SPEEDIE: The Americans said this.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Then, if I'm also correct, you attended the Prague conference in 1990, which Krieble and Weyrich put together. Is that so?


DAVID SPEEDIE: Who else do you remember from there? Bill Pascoe was a member of the Weyrich-Krieble group. Anyone else you remember from the American side?

It was an unforgettable time. What happened after that—all the difficulties, all the trials and tribulations, the challenges that we had to face, the difficult situation—they have somehow overshadowed the excellent experience of working with our American colleagues. We were told that we shouldn't be going to the United States, we shouldn't be talking to these people because they are all CIA. Our response was that anything that we would do there, anything that we would say to them, would be a very good experience for any man who is capable of thinking. Since that time, I have been convinced that a dialogue is more useful than any suspicion or mistrust.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Did you know anything at all about the Krieble Institute, and Mr. Krieble and Mr. Weyrich before you met them? Did you know about how they had been engaged in liberation movements elsewhere?

We had some fragmented knowledge of the institution. But we knew that Mr. Krieble was investing his fortune, in an absolutely selfless way, into developing democratic education programs, because he was convinced that Central and Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union deserved a better fate.

Then, we became acquainted with each other and became friends. I saw a person who was probably a bit shy, even a bit indecisive, but he had a very strong idea in his mind.

DAVID SPEEDIE: This is Krieble?

Yes. He had a commitment to see this idea materialize. Weyrich was the thinker, the philosopher, and the manager behind the project. But Mr. Krieble was the driving force. He was convinced that freedom is an absolute value that should be available to all people in all countries.

DAVID SPEEDIE: When you came to the United States on the various occasions, did you get the sense that the guiding principles, the vision, the philosophy of Mr. Krieble was something that was shared by Americans generally? Did you see him as a typical American, or did you encounter different views, especially with regard to the developments in the Soviet Union?

Of course, I wouldn't call him an average, typical American. He was absolutely not arrogant. He did not have a mentor attitude towards people. He was not exporting democracy to the Soviet Union, but, rather, educating people to be free-minded. He realized that democracy is not a universal tool that is good for all peoples in all countries. Democracy is about educating free people who deserve to live a deserving life. That is how I remember Mr. Krieble.

DAVID SPEEDIE: After the 1990 election, you, Krieble, and Weyrich persuaded Mr. Yeltsin to come to the United States. Tell me about that visit.

Which trip, exactly?

DAVID SPEEDIE: I believe it was after the Sverdlovsk elections in June 1990.

GENNADY BURBULIS: I wasn't there, actually, but I know that it was a very good trip, and I know that Boris Nikolayevich was extremely impressed by what he had seen there. A person of 59, and for the first time in his life, he saw stores packed with goods and all kinds of food. He had the very long memories of his helicopter flight around the Statute of Liberty. That was an additional encouragement to him, the symbol of liberty.

Later he had some explaining to do to the Soviet Congress of the People's Deputies for his trip. But this trip proved to be an intoxicating breath of freedom for the new president of the new Russia, who actually led Russia through the reforms and to its future.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In this whole process that we have been discussing, from Yeltsin in the mid-1970s as the first secretary in the Ural region, to ascending to the presidency—and your insights are obviously valuable here—when did it become Mr. Yeltsin's conviction that the Soviet Union had to be broken up? What was to be gained from this? What was the moment of the break with the idea of the Soviet Union as a monolithic entity?

In actual fact, we never had an objective of breaking up the Soviet Union. Our objective was to reform it, and we were moving consistently towards this target. We were very seriously involved in what was known as the Novo-Ogarevo process, the process of developing the new union treaty.

As of August 20, we were ready completely to sign the new union treaty. But on the 19th of August, the putsch started, and the putschists introduced a curfew across the country, and we had no way back. We could not have signed the treaty in these conditions. It was a political Chernobyl of the Soviet Union, because it destroyed the Soviet Union. That is why, on the 8th of December of the same year, we signed the Belovezhskaya consensus [aka Belavezha Accords],  which signified the effective demise of the Soviet Union. That was the only way to do it.

Your project is known as the "End of the Cold War," right? This is a very good name. The world has yet to realize that when we made the public announcement on the 8th of December that the Soviet Union will disappear from the map of the world as a political and geopolitical entity, that that was the real end of the Cold War.

I would be really grateful to you if we could together reconsider the global significance of what was signed in Belovezhskaya.

I am a son of a Lithuanian immigrant. I was born in 1945 in the Urals. In 1991, together with President Yeltsin, I signed, as the second-highest-ranking official of the state, the Belovezhskaya agreements for Russia. This was, for the first time in the history of mankind, that an empire filled with nuclear weapons disintegrated in a peaceful manner.

There is no secret that what actually happened in Belovezhskaya was unexpected. It was not a secret to the White House. It was not a secret to President Bush. It was a secret to all these Sovietologists who spent decades analyzing "the Evil Empire," but never could fathom that this evil empire would disintegrate.

But most importantly, by signing these agreements, we managed to avoid a lot of bloodshed and fratricidal war for the Soviet legacy. We created a non-nuclear space, and Russia became the legal successor of the Soviet nuclear forces. Ukraine and Belarus voluntarily consented to the transfer of nukes to Russia. The language and concept of the Belovezhskaya agreements contained the fundamental principles of free democratic developments of the new independent state.

That is why I'm talking about the Belovezhskaya consensus. The totality of values, ideas, ideals that were enshrined in these agreements was an appeal not only to ourselves, but also to the Urals and to the whole world.

On the 1st of February 1992, President Bush and President Yeltsin signed the relevant bilateral agreements in Camp David.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In this regard, I must ask you this. There is a perception that there are two sides to the same coin. One is that with the end of the Soviet Union, an anticommunist feeling in the United States and the West was replaced by a pro-Russia—in other words, it was still anticommunist, but now pro-new Russia. Given the events of the 1990s, do you really think that this evolution took place?

I ask this because the current president of the United States saw that he had the necessity to do what he called the "reset button" with Russia relations. In other words, do you really believe that the promises of the new relationship were fulfilled?

GENNADY BURBULIS: We have seen two stages of this evolution. In the early 1990s, there was a consolidated support of all the democratic and free-market reforms. At the same time, we had to rely on ourself to resolve the number of problems that we inherited from the Soviet system.

There was a certain controversy in the minds of Western politicians. It was based on the misconception that the West had actually won the Cold War. I have spent the past 20 years trying to convince my university students, my analyst colleagues, and politicians from all over the world, that a cold war is a process with a zero-sum result. There are no winners. This wrong concept of winners and losers prevented us from implementing a constructive model of cooperation in the beginning of the 1990s. In the minds of very many people, Russia became a successor of the Soviet empire.

I mentioned the political Chernobyl. This is radiation, and pervasive; it's everywhere. But ironically the minds of our Western partners are also affected by this radiation. That is why the next stage of this relationship resulted in the freezing of the democratic process in Russia. Many Western politicians believe that the undeclared Cold War continued.

So the reset by President Obama is a belated, but very important, approach to following a bilateral relationship.

I believe that we have to do some serious rethinking of the significance of Belovezhskaya consensus, because global history was made there and it changed the course of the history of the world.

We are developing an all-encompassing program for the 20th anniversary, and I would be very grateful to you and to your colleagues at the Carnegie Council to participate in this problem that we call the Belovezhskaya consensus, the end of the Cold War. I stand ready to develop agendas for all kinds of events like workshops and roundtable discussions so that we could, together, give another thought to the significance of this consensus for the course of global events.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I look forward to learning more about this. I think what you're saying, though, is that there was a period of excessive expectation, or at least reaction, on both sides. Your Chernobyl image is very vivid. I am told from one of the reformers in the post-Soviet period that August 1991 was called "the great August capitalist revolution." Would you see it in those terms or is that an exaggeration?

GENNADY BURBULIS: Thank you very much. I will make proposals on this program, and I will be grateful for your feedback.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Very last question. I know your time is short. I've read that you are a man of action. Krieble said that every time he comes to Moscow, he sees Burbulis. You said at one point, "The time for speeches is past and it is time to govern."

Do you still feel involved in that way? Are you satisfied with the way things have come for Gennady Burbulis?

We have many problems in this country today, and the trend is dangerous and alarming.

The most difficult challenge is that the main achievement of Boris Yeltsin, the Constitution of 1993, is slowly but steadily being reshaped. We are facing a very difficult situation, and we must make sure that Russia continues to treasure human rights, free economy, and personal freedoms as absolute values.

My personal objective, and that of my colleagues and students, is to make sure that the experiments of the 1990s are reconsidered and translated into reality in 2011. I call this program a political, philosophical, economic and social program for the development of Russia, from the Belovezhskaya consensus to the Constitution, a consensus in the new contemporary Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you for your time, sir.

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