Alexandr Urmanov on Democratic Elections and Campaigning for Yeltsin

February 8, 2011

Boris Yeltsin, August 22, 1991. CREDIT: www.kremlin.ru

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. Our guest today is Dr. Alexandr Urmanov.

Mr. Urmanov, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for this project.

By way of introduction, let me say that we're interested, really, in two things. The first is your association with President Yeltsin, going back to the early days in Sverdlovsk, but also the relationship with Paul Weyrich and Robert Krieble.

The inspiration for our project is the book that was written by Mr. Arthur Matthews called Agents of Influence. You are aware of this book.

Let me begin by asking you, for the benefit of an audience who may not know the history of this, how you and President Yeltsin and Mr. Burbulis, the three of you, came together. I know that President Yeltsin was the first secretary in Sverdlovsk, going back to the mid-1970s. Give me a little bit of the history of your association.


ALEXANDR URMANOV:
[via interpreter] I wasn't acquainted with Mr. Yeltsin when he was the first secretary of the regional party committee. I was academic director. There was an organization called the Council of Young Scientists, and I was the chairman of that association.

There was a thing that was called obligatory political education. People were assembled together and they sat for an hour and listened to very boring stories about the political situation. Since it was obligatory, women were taking their knitting with them and men were reading, and it was a total waste of time. Gennady Burbulis was heading the philosophy department and he was the head of the Social Sciences Club. He proposed that, instead of this shameful waste of time, people should probably set up a discussion.

Since people who attended these obligatory education sessions were quite educated and they had academic degrees—they came from all over the city, not just from our university—we had a very interesting forum for discussion.

With the coming of perestroika, this discussion forum became a citywide organization. People from all over the city came there and they discussed all the vibrant political topics. Gennady became the head of this discussion. Since he gained some popularity already and won the more or less free elections of the people's delegates of the Soviet Union, he decided to participate in the election, and he became a deputy.

DAVID SPEEDIE: What year was this?


ALEXANDR URMANOV:
He asked me to participate in his election campaign.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In what year, though?

ALEXANDR URMANOV:
End of 1989.

Free elections was a totally new area for us. Previously people had to come to the polling station and ticked a box with the only candidate. Then we had, suddenly, two candidates, and we had to choose between them. The other candidate was also a democratic public figure. It was really a democratic competition between two public figures.

DAVID SPEEDIE: This must have been when Mr. Yeltsin came into association with you, in the late 1980s, 1989?


ALEXANDR URMANOV:
By that time, Yeltsin had already moved to Moscow and had served for some time as the head of the Moscow Party Committee. By that time, the scandalous story happened when he made his famous statement at the Central Committee of the Communist Party and was removed from power. So he participated in the elections in Moscow. But we, as his fellows, were very interested in the progress of the elections, and we were very compassionate with him.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Again for the benefit of our audience, what was the statement that the government had trouble with?


ALEXANDR URMANOV: At one of the plenary meetings of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin made a statement in which he provided a very strong critique of the reforms that were going on. He said they were less than efficient, less than optimal, less than quick. He criticized everything. He was ostracized by the party leadership and was removed from power.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm interested in the chronology of when the idea came about that the Soviet Union had to be split apart; in other words, that the Gorbachev agenda was not sufficient. Yeltsin made the famous statement, "Take as much independence as you can digest." That was very famous in the West. Why was it thought to be necessary for the Soviet Union to be split? What do you think was lost and gained by that decision?


ALEXANDR URMANOV: This statement that you are mentioning happened much later. But to complete the history, I will just say a couple of words.

Gennady Burbulis became a people's deputy. I met him. I was an activist of the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies. As an activist, I met Mr. Yeltsin. It was at the time when the management bodies of the Congress of People's Deputies were elected, and Mr. Yeltsin was nominated for a post there.

The political situation at that time was quite tense. I participated in the elaboration of political solutions.

Later came the elections of the people's deputies of the Russian Socialist Republic. It happened in the spring of 1990. At that time, Mr. Yeltsin was running for a post in Yekaterinburg, which was known as Sverdlovsk at that time. I was head of his election campaign. Ironically, I was appointed to this position by five Communist Party committees, from three universities and two plants.

When Mr. Yeltsin became the people's deputy for the Russian Federation, there was a Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation and there was a very hard struggle for him to be elected chairman of that committee. We participated very actively to facilitate Mr. Yeltsin's ascension to power.

At that point in time, there was no question about breaking up the Soviet Union. But when Yeltsin became chairman, we started slowly to think about the future of the Soviet Union, about the future of Russia, about Russia's relations with the neighboring countries, which were part of the Soviet Union at that time. The process was slowly set in motion.

DAVID SPEEDIE: This is where the thinking began to take shape that the Soviet Union had to be split and there was more to be gained than to be lost by doing that.


ALEXANDR URMANOV: Shortly after Mr. Yeltsin's election, the declaration of sovereignty of the Russian Federation was approved. It was on June 12, 1991.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Can I switch now to your relationship with Mr. Krieble and Mr. Weyrich? Clearly we are in the timeframe, 1989-90, when they first came to Russia with their training exercises. How did you meet Krieble and Weyrich, the Krieble Institute, and the whole training process?

Then, of course, your other success was getting them to come, not just to Moscow, but into the regions, to the Urals. How did all that come about?


ALEXANDR URMANOV:
Krieble and Weyrich came at the invitation of the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies. They were holding seminars on election techniques. I participated in those seminars as an activist of the group. That's where I actually met them. This is exactly why I was appointed head of Mr. Yeltsin's election campaign, because I spent some very short time attending these training courses. I was considered an election specialist.

DAVID SPEEDIE: But then they came also to the Urals after Moscow, at your invitation, yes?


ALEXANDR URMANOV: It happened a little bit later. They came at our invitation. It was quite difficult to organize the visit because Sverdlovsk was a city that was closed to any expats, and they were probably the first people from outside the Soviet Union to visit the city.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And this was because they had identified Yeltsin as a person of promise for a post-Soviet Russia? Do you think that Krieble and Weyrich recognized this or were there other factors in their coming to Sverdlovsk?

ALEXANDR URMANOV: Actually, they were traveling to many regions, trying to share knowledge about what a real democratic election should be. They visited Sverdlovsk first, but at that point in time, the issue of the disintegration of the Soviet Union was not topical. In fact, it was not the focus of attention until the very last day.

DAVID SPEEDIE: From your point of view, how did the Interregional Group of Deputies come into contact with Weyrich and Krieble? Who issued the invitation? Did Weyrich and Krieble approach the group or did it go the other way; did the Interregional Group approach Weyrich and Krieble? How did this association come about?


ALEXANDR URMANOV:
I can't give you the names of specific contacts, but I know that they were invited by people from diplomatic and academic circles. These people invited them to come to Russia and create these seminars. You should ask Mr. Burbulis about that, and he will tell.

Under communism, there were two institutions. One was called the Higher Party School and the other was the same institution but for economics only. So they came this economic institution, the Higher School of Economics, you might say.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Again, I'm interested in linkage here. Were there any either intermediary or extended contacts with, for example, the National Alliance of Russian Solidarists, who were operating abroad? There were clearly a number of anticommunist forces who were interested in developments in the Soviet Union. Did you have any contact with that group, for example?


ALEXANDR URMANOV: I wouldn't say that we had too much contact with them, because they were not that popular and they were not that big in size, numbers.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Popular with whom, sir? Popular within Russia, within the Soviet Union?


ALEXANDR URMANOV:
Not among the political activists in the Soviet Union.

DAVID SPEEDIE: There were other groups in the United States who claimed to have some influence in developments at that time. There was a group at Harvard called the Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project, Professor Graham Allison. There was RAND Corporation in California. Did you have any contact with these, either from a political or economic development or political party arrangement? I'm trying to get the cast of characters complete here.


ALEXANDR URMANOV:
We skipped some of the span of time in the history. In the spring of 1991, I traveled to the United States on the invitation of Krieble and Weyrich to attend a two-month course. At that period of time exactly, we had many contacts with various NGOs and political organizations in the United States, including the RAND Corporation. We had a meeting then in the neighboring room with the American Enterprise Foundation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Two months was a long time to be in training. What was the purpose of that? What did you learn? What was the focus? That's an extended period of training or absorption.


ALEXANDR URMANOV: Generally speaking, the objective was to get acquainted with liberal values and the system of governance in the United States. So we visited the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court. We generally studied the political setup in the United States.

Most of us had been prohibited from traveling abroad previously. I used to spend some time working in the German Democratic Republic, but it doesn't count as being abroad. So it was our first trip into the real abroad.

But I must confess, I couldn't complete my training program, because I had to leave the U.S.A. because I was appointed the director of the Yeltsin presidential campaign, for president of Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE: So you were called back for the elections.

In this seven-week period, do you remember any particular individual figures in this whole process that were significant? Do you have any strong memories of individuals that you came into contact with in the seven weeks in the United States?


ALEXANDR URMANOV:
By training, I'm a physicist, and previously I was in Helsinki, where I met with Ted Taylor, the father of the U.S. A-bomb. That was, of course, a tremendous experience for me. The first thing he told me was that we are both political physicists. So we not only discussed physics, but also politics, including all kinds of disarmament problems.

I made a lot of acquaintances amongst U.S. political activists, probably not that famous. But these acquaintances, this interaction with them, made a deep impact on my vision of the world.

I remember who actually brought Krieble and Weyrich to the Soviet Union. It was Arkady Murashev, the secretary of the Inter-Regional Deputies Group.

DAVID SPEEDIE: One last question about the seven weeks you spent in the United States. Do you remember who was leading the training? Was it a particular think tank? Was it Heritage, AEI [American Enterprise Institute]? Who were the people involved in the seminars, the training sessions, themselves?

ALEXANDR URMANOV: They had very many speakers, five or six every day. They were talking about the governance system in the United States, about the election techniques, about politics, and many other matters. So it was five or six people every day.

DAVID SPEEDIE: But no particular individuals come to mind as memorable?


ALEXANDR URMANOV:
Actually, there was another visit to the United States, through the Heritage Foundation. But it was more of a research nature rather than training. I met many people there, including Dimitri Simes and many other people, including from the former Soviet republics. That was a very memorable experience.

During my first trip to the U.S., I was there with my wife, and she stayed at the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Through her, I made my acquaintance with James Billington.

DAVID SPEEDIE: James Billington of the Librarian of Congress.

The obvious question is, did you feel that the training in the U.S.—and then you were called back to run an election campaign—did it help in the election? Did you find this to be a useful, timely exercise?


ALEXANDR URMANOV: Actually, we were giving a lot of advice and recommendations about election techniques. But at that time we were not used to having a set compilation of techniques. We were trying to be creative. We were trying to reinvent the wheel.

Later, we started to implement them, and we realized that they are really useful, and very technological. We were using these techniques, but we failed at that time to realize how fundamental they were.

Jumping into the future, into today's time, I can say that these techniques are not used in Russia, because these techniques were focused at convincing the voters to make their choice. But in this country, it was not needed anymore.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm sorry, I'm not quite following you. Elaborate on that a little bit. Why are the techniques not suited to modern political campaigns?


ALEXANDR URMANOV: Today it's not important to convince voters about their choice. It is important to agree on how to make a contract with the election campaign staff. But nobody cares about the voters anymore.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Does that come across as a somewhat cynical view of politics, or is it just reality?


ALEXANDR URMANOV: It's a reality that we live with. After the first election, there was a large community of election specialists. But there is not one of them left anymore. They have all moved to other areas of activity. They aren't needed.

There is an organization called the Free Society of Election Experts. I served as its president. It was the professional association of these people. I know most of these people. Many of them have emigrated to Latin America, others to the former Soviet states. But there is no one left in Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In terms of current efforts to build on what may have happened 20 years ago, I've learned of a group called the U.S.-Russia Movement for Rapprochement. Do you know of this organization?


ALEXANDR URMANOV: In Russia today, it's known as the Russian-American Friendship Society. The word "rapprochement" is a little bit different. But I know about this initiative. It's quite recent. The participants include Mr. Savostiyanov and Mr. Murashev, and I was invited to be a member of this society. But it didn't work out somehow. But I will join them later.

DAVID SPEEDIE: If I may, just looking back, then, 20 years ago, I think it's a direct quote from Arthur Matthews' book that "the Krieble Institute brochures boast that Yeltsin's victory in the 1991 presidential elections was directly due to the lessons that Alexandr Urmanov, Yeltsin's campaign manager, had learned during the Krieble training."

I think that's a direct quote. Is that a fair assessment? Looking back on the relationship with the Krieble Institute and Krieble and Weyrich, in your own words, what does it mean to you then and now?


ALEXANDR URMANOV:
Speaking in lofty language, I would say that they opened the door for me. I came from a city that was closed to the outside world and I came from a profession that was classified. But mostly, the achievements were the understanding of democratic values.

I ceased to be a physicist about 15 years ago. My current profession is that of a translator from the legal language to the Russian language, because I work in the Russian Duma. My current job is to bring home to people what various laws and various initiatives of Parliament mean to them, what the actual language means. My current position is as an adviser to the state.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Now that you are in a more ministerial position, do you miss the election campaign excitement, the kinds of things you were involved in 20 years ago? Are you happy with what you are doing now?


ALEXANDR URMANOV: Of course, I miss the euphoria, all the enthusiasm that we had 20 years ago. Then again, I was 20 years younger.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I do apologize, Mr. Urmanov. There is something I ought to have asked you at the beginning. I apologize for not always being sequential in terms of time here. I read somewhere of informal discussion groups or informal seminars in Sverdlovsk in the early 1980s. Was Weyrich involved in any of these? What were these? What was the nature of your involvement in them? What did these informal seminars consist of? Did these foresee the later sessions with Weyrich and Krieble in any way?

ALEXANDR URMANOV:
These discussions were mostly about everyday life problems, what was going on, what was happening. Formally, we were studying mostly Western philosophy. But it was a great platform for an informal discussion of what was going on.

DAVID SPEEDIE: So in a sense, it laid the foundation for later discussions that you had that set certain events in motion in the later 1980s and 1990s. You see this as a gradual process.


ALEXANDR URMANOV: It was a very gradual process, when people, with time, get more and more disillusioned and dissatisfied with a situation. Some people discussed it in their kitchens, but we managed to bring it into a more formal setting.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Is it fair to call it an antidote to the obligatory political education?


ALEXANDR URMANOV: There was a lot of sarcasm in society about this obligatory political education. But, in fact, it was the opposition. It became a catalyst for thinking, for discussion.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you for your time. We have covered a lot of ground. I hope you feel it has been well spent. Thank you.


ALEXANDR URMANOV:
Thank you.
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