Logo

Thomas E. Graham on the End of the Cold War and Beyond

June 27, 2011

Boris Yeltsin in Moscow 1989.
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:  Tom, you were literally there in the momentous years of 1987 to 1990, in the political section of the embassy.  Let's begin by asking your thoughts on the relationship between Yeltsin and Gorbachev, clearly the two pivotal figures of the time.  In particular, when did Yeltsin decide that Gorbachev was perhaps not going far enough and he struck out on his own, so to speak?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 From the very beginning, it was clear that we were dealing with two very different personalities, and there was always some tension between the two men.  Gorbachev had served at the highest levels of the Soviet government at that point, had traveled abroad—for a Soviet, much more cosmopolitan.  Yeltsin had come directly from the provinces and had worked in Sverdlovsk for many, many years, a construction engineer by education, I believe, certainly by what he was doing out in Sverdlovsk, and also much more of a populist, a person who felt quite comfortable dealing with the crowds, in Sverdlovsk, but when he came to Moscow as well.  Remember that Yeltsin used to travel on the buses in Moscow, made a point of being out with the people, something that Gorbachev always felt uncomfortable with.  So as I said, from the very beginning, some tension between the two men.

I think Yeltsin began to have doubts about Gorbachev's ability to push forward reform from almost the time that I arrived in Moscow.  Yeltsin always wanted to go a little bit faster, not wanting to pay as much attention to the conservative forces inside the Communist Party at that point.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Were you surprised, when the split finally came and Gorbachev essentially fired Yeltsin, that he did not, as one interviewee put it, banish him as ambassador to some remote country, but actually kept him in Moscow—in a fairly obscure post, I think.  But Yeltsin was still kept in Moscow, yes?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 That's correct.  We saw the tension building.  There always were a lot of rumors in Moscow, from the beginning of 1988, I think, on, about the tension, about a potential split.  As you know, it came to a head over how to deal with the question of the celebration of the anniversary of the October Revolution, where Yeltsin wanted to go much farther in criticizing some of the things that the Communist Party had done over the past 70 years and Gorbachev was prepared to do in that environment. 

Certainly we were surprised that Yeltsin wasn't simply banished from Moscow.  This would have been the way it would have been done earlier in the Soviet period.  Certainly Brezhnev, Khrushchev, or Stalin would not have kept someone like that in Moscow.  It was an obscure position [Russian word], again connected with construction, but it is something that gave Yeltsin an office, a place to sit in Moscow and kept him involved in the political game.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Was this basically misplaced generosity on Gorbachev's part or did he underestimate Yeltsin at this point?  I wouldn't have thought so.

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 I don't think so.  I don't think it was misplaced generosity.  It was simply that Gorbachev wanted to do things in a different way, and this was a way of, I think, being critical of Yeltsin, stripping him of much of his power, but not totally humiliating him.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Since our topic obviously is the end of the Cold War, different people have flagged different milestones, as it were, of when the Cold War ended.  Give us a few of your thoughts on some of the key events, indicators, along the way that really meant that the Cold War was coming to an end.

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 I think one of the main indicators, certainly for us in Moscow, was President Reagan's trip to Moscow in the spring of 1988, if I remember correctly.  He spent a number of days in Moscow, went to a number of different sites, including the headquarters of the Orthodox Church.  He had a meeting with people over at the Writers' Union, the leading intellectuals, strolled with Gorbachev around Red Square—a lot of interaction with Soviet people at that time.

This was really a critical development in the relationship.  It had a very positive impact on what we were doing in Moscow at that time.  Anybody who served in the Moscow embassy, say, from the time the Soviets invaded Afghanistan until about 1988, would tell you that it was very difficult to make contact with Soviets.  We had our dissident contacts.  There were official contacts that would talk to us.  But having a broad range of Soviet citizens from various walks of life was very difficult to do.

One of the main positive consequences of Reagan's visit from the standpoint of a political officer at the U.S. embassy was that it opened up Russian and Soviet society for us—a lot more contact.  You could still keep your dissident contacts, but you found that, for example, journalists at Pravda, the Izvestia, were more open to you and were prepared to go beyond what were the standard Soviet talking points.  We even had contacts in things like Party Life at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, the higher party school.  So it began to open up.  It allowed us to get a much better sense of what was going on in the Soviet Union and where things were tending at that point.

Again, from the standpoint of the relationship, certainly that was critical.  And if that wasn't effectively the end of the Cold War, certainly it was clear at that time that we were approaching the end of the Cold War.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  You just mentioned contact with dissidents in the late 1980s into 1990.  One group that was clearly quite influential was the so-called Inter-Regional Group of Deputies within the People's Congress and so on and so forth.  What do you recall about the rise of this group in the late 1980s into 1990, leading to the pivotal elections, of course, in 1990?  What are your thoughts about the IRG?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 For us, they weren't the dissidents at that point.  The dissidents were people who were connected with—Andrei Sakharov eventually became part of this, but he was someone who was clearly outside the system, very critical, had been in exile.  Other dissidents had served years in labor camps.  In fact, in the mid-1980s, one of Gorbachev's initial steps in reform, or signaling the desire for political reform, was allowing some of these dissidents to come out of the labor camps and back into Moscow, in 1985, 1986, and 1987.

That's separate from a group of individuals who in many cases were still members of the Communist Party, who believed that the party itself had to reform, that there had to be a political liberalization, an economic liberalization, if this country was going to flourish.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Gorbachev's own philosophy, of course.

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 That was Gorbachev's own philosophy, and Gorbachev, through a lot of his actions in 1986 and 1987, gave these individuals a platform within the party, but certainly within what would pass for Soviet intellectual discussion at that point.  You look at the journals, the editors, some of the "thick journals," where people like Kotalectych [phonetic] were made editors-in-chief, someone who had a sort of liberal reformist inclination within the party, that opened these up to a much broader political debate.

The Inter-Regional Group really comes into being as a consequence of the elections to the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union in 1989.  This was a big event for the country.  It was an event that we at the embassy followed very, very closely.  I remember one of my jobs at the embassy at that point was, in a sense, coordinating coverage of the election campaign itself.  We had a lot of people traveling outside of Moscow to the various Union Republics, oblasts within Russia proper.  We sent out at least two dozen or more teams on Election Day to monitor the process of voting, to get a sense of the mood of the population.

You will remember that one of the great surprises, I think, of the elections—which were, for Soviet times, incredibly open, incredibly free—was the number of Communist Party leaders who lost, even when they ran unopposed, because in order to win at that time, you had to get over 50 percent of the vote. 

So you had the Congress of People's Deputies.  Then those individuals who were more pro-reform, more liberal, decided that they needed to get themselves better organized.  They did some of this during the Congress itself.  But I remember attending some of the first sessions as an observer in Moscow as they tried to pull together this group, decide on what a common platform would be, who the leaders of this movement would be.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Just to be clear, Sakharov and, through Sakharov, I think, Yelena Bonner were associated with the Inter-Regional Group.  As I gathered in my conversations, there were really two agendas here, two parts to the agenda.  One was to sort of break away from the Moscow hegemony.  It was the rise of the regions, obviously Yeltsin's group in Sverdlovsk and so on and so forth.  But the other part of the agenda seemed to be to undermine the Communist Party.  At least it certainly seemed to me that way.

THOMAS GRAHAM
:  Oh, absolutely.  One of the things that united these individuals from across the Soviet Union at that point was repealing Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which codified the Communist Party as the guiding party, the leading political force in the Soviet Union.  They wanted a more pluralistic political system.  But almost all the members of the Inter-Regional Group were themselves Communists at that time.  So it was a revolt, a rebellion, within the Communist Party.  It was not clear what the results were going to be at that time, but certainly a set of individuals that wanted to prepare the constitutional groundwork, the political groundwork for genuine pluralism within the Soviet Union.

Andrei Sakharov was clearly part of this.  This is what he had stood for as a dissident before Gorbachev's time, when he came back from Gorky.  He developed his contacts with other people, like Popov, Sobchak, those, I think, when he came back from Gorky.  These would not have been necessarily his interlocutors before he was exiled to Gorky.

Another interesting aspect of this is where Yeltsin fit into all of this, because by inclination and by his own political experience, this wasn't necessarily his group of politicians, the type of people that he would have chosen to spend a great deal of his time with.  But I think the Inter-Regional Deputies Group, at least the individuals that played the lead role in forming it, saw Yeltsin as a popular figure, someone that, if they could bring him into the group, would give them much greater political weight, more influence, a larger platform in which to articulate their views to a much broader segment of Soviet society at that time.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  In the end, of course, the Inter-Regional Group, as perhaps is not totally uncommon with opposition groups of this kind, was much more effective in recognizing what they were against than in what, as you said, the joint platform would be.  They never really were able to come upon a truly common cause, after the first flourish.

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 Absolutely.  They knew they were against the Communist Party's monopoly of politics and power in the Soviet Union. 

I think you also need to remember that events were moving quite quickly in the Soviet Union at that point.  We thought, in the spring of 1989, that these elections to the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union were a major political event, which indeed it was.  But the next year, the spring of 1990, saw the elections to be rough equivalents of parliaments of the 15 constituent republics at that time, the biggest one, obviously, being Russia.

That also began to pull the Inter-Regional Party Group in different directions, because the opposition forces in the elections of the republican legislatures were by and large nationalists, people who wanted to, at a minimum, gain greater autonomy for their republics within the Soviet Union.  Certainly those who were running for election in the Baltic countries were talking about regaining their independence.  There was a little bit of that in Ukraine; Georgia at that time as well. 

So it was very difficult to hold together a group when a significant number of members or potential members basically want to break up the Soviet Union.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Let me throw out just a few names of people who were prominent in this time, and if you could, just a quick reaction, response, thoughts.  You mentioned Gavriil Popov, clearly a key figure and something of a leader, mayor of Moscow for a couple of years.  What is your recollection of Popov?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 Someone who was at the forefront of pushing for this type of change within the Soviet Union, clearly an intellectual, an economist, who understood that the Soviet Union needed to move away from a planned economy to a much more open-market economy, someone who had played a significant role in training other economists as well, a younger generation of economists.

But again, what’s really interesting about this period—as I said, things did move very rapidly.  Looking back at it, it's interesting in retrospect to see how quickly these people faded from the political scene.  Popov was a major political figure for about 18 months, two years, and then disappeared.  Almost everyone else that we associated with the Inter-Regional Party Group that was prominent at that time basically faded away from politics after the Soviet Union broke up.  They didn't become major forces in shaping the early years of post-Soviet Russia.  Certainly, looking back at this from 20 years now, it's hard to see what impact they had on anything, any significant political development within the post-Soviet space.

Now, this is a little bit different if you go out to the Union Republics, the Baltics, where those people were important in informing governments, regaining independence.  But within Russia and the Russian Federation, it is, I think, incredible in retrospect how quickly events moved beyond where these individuals were.

Mura—you give me the name.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Murashev.

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 Murashev.  I keep thinking of an oligarch now.  But the police—he was there for a year, did something, disappeared, hasn't played a—

DAVID SPEEDIE:  He was the next name I was going to give you, along with Yevgeny Savostiyanov, both appointed by Popov.  I keep coming back to your "things were moving so quickly."  Murashev, head of the police in Moscow, Savostiyanov, head of KGB—neither had a pedigree of any kind to indicate them for this job, other than presumably being favorites of Popov.

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 Absolutely, absolutely.  One of the problems was that they didn't have this type of experience.  They were put in charge of organizations that, at a minimum, had some sort of institutional memory, institutional structure, and they were there to reform it in some way.  A very difficult thing to do in a very short period of time.

The other factor here is that, as I said, if you look at the Inter-Regional Party Group, there really was a difference between Yeltsin and Popov, in political pedigree, in the way they thought of problems and what needed to be done.  Yeltsin really is a party creature, and he brought with him a lot of his people from Sverdlovsk.  Popov is an intellectual.  He was trying to insert himself into the political process, driven more by ideas of what he thought should be done, but not necessarily the type of person who is effective, either as an agitator or certainly as someone who needs to run something as big as the city of Moscow, which I think is why he left as quickly as he did.

What you saw, particularly after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, was those people around Yeltsin who had actually had experience in the Communist Party apparat, in fact claiming the dominant role in governing, administering the Russian Federation, and people like Popov, more intellectually oriented, gradually being pushed out of the political process, so that by 1995, they were not playing much of a role at all, and if they were replaced by any individual, you see them by these young economists, the Chubaises, the Gaidars, who not only had some solid academic background, but were also more interested in the actual process of governing, administering, getting things done in Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  I mentioned Gaidar to Popov, and I picked up that there had been an early sort of protégé relationship, but this had gone somewhat pear-shaped, as it were, after a while, that there was a schism between the two.  Is this simply because of Gaidar's rise and Popov's decline or was there something more?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 I think that's probably—again, I think you had a difference between people who were comfortable with ideas, like Popov, but weren't comfortable with the actual day-to-day governance or administration—Gaidar and the younger reformers around them, so-called, at that point wanted positions in the government to get something done and, in many ways, weren't the type of people that you associated with the intelligentsia.  Popov is clearly a member of the intelligentsia.  Sakharov is clearly a member of the intelligentsia.  The Chubaises, the Gaidars are a different breed.  I think many of the people who were from the intelligentsia saw them as somewhat coarser than they were, in part because they did get involved in the political process, in the administration, in trying to make things happen in post-Soviet Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Just two more names.  You mentioned Yeltsin's entourage, as it were.  Two of the key people, I think, were Burbulis and Urmanov, his campaign manager for the federal elections.  Any recollections of these gentlemen?

THOMAS GRAHAM
:  Urmanov, almost none.  I don't remember the name coming up, certainly, when I was at the embassy.  But then again, I left in July of 1990, before he may have made some impact. 

Burbulis clearly was someone that was pro-Russian and was pushing Yeltsin to, I think, assume a platform of more autonomy, eventually independence for Russia, and certainly was a force, after the August Putsch in 1991, to move as rapidly as possible to a breakup of the Soviet Union.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  And, of course, he held a cabinet position of some kind.

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 State secretary.  But again, another person who quickly faded.  He didn't play a major role in Yeltsin’s administration after the breakup of the Soviet Union—eventually to Duma, the Federation Council, but hardly a major political player in Russia for the past 20 years.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  One final word on this very interesting topic—it did strike me when I was in Moscow talking to people like Popov, Burbulis, Murashev, Savostiyanov, all clearly intelligent men, all clearly important figures at that time, and yet all have essentially faded from any kind of role on the public stage, though businesspeople.  Popov is head, of course, of the International University.  You just think that events, management, different demands of daily governance sort of moved them aside?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 I think that's part of it.  But, as I say, it really is remarkable how quickly events moved in the late 1980s, early 1990s.  Many of the people who rose to prominence politically in this period from 1987 to 1990 were the so-called shestidesiatniki, Gorbachev himself in many ways.  The people who had grown up, had come of political age, in the 1960s, at the time of Khrushchev's reform had, in a sense, internalized that, thought this was the way the country needed to go forward, and then were deeply disappointed by the more reactionary policies that pursued during the Brezhnev period.  And they felt this was their moment.  Even someone like Yevtushenko became a deputy—a lot of writers, very passionate speeches, certainly the Congress of People's Deputies.

Three or four years later, the country had moved on, it was a different place.  The ideas of the 1960s, those initial ideas that Gorbachev came in with in 1985, were seen as inadequate to the challenge the country was facing going forward, particularly after the Soviet Union itself broke up, and they were replaced by, by and large, younger men with slightly more radical ideas, but also, as I said, a certain will to power that these individuals didn't have.

Chubais really, I think, personifies this—a young, well-educated, politically tough individual, who wasn't afraid to exercise power, and realized that exercising power also meant that certain people got hurt in the process.  He was prepared to do that for what he thought were appropriate policies for Russia.

One other interesting, I think, idea here is that if you look at the shestidesiatniki, this really was an intellectual class.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  What’s the literal translation of that—sorry—for our audience?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 Shestidesiatniki, men from the 1960s, or people from the 1960s, however you want to put it.  But most of them were men at that point.

They were democratic in their thinking, but the market reforms that came in in 1991 actually undermined their economic base.  The teachers, the doctors, the professors faced much more difficult economic times than those sort of scrappy people who had been black marketeers during the Soviet period.  Some people had worked within the Communist Party apparatus who actually saw the opportunity, seized it, enriched themselves, and became the face of post-Soviet Russia in the leadership, the so-called oligarchs, later on.  These people who thought of themselves as the great democrats, the humanists, the positive face of the Soviet period, I think economically were simply destroyed as a significant factor in post-Soviet Russian politics.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Again on this fascinating topic of kind of act two of the post-Soviet—the radical reforms of the mid-1990s, you mentioned Gaidar, Chubais, two of the key figures, obviously.  Obviously this was a traumatic time in many ways for Russia.  I remember being there, and shock therapy was described as "all shock, no therapy."  It certainly led to some diminishing of good feeling toward the West, the United States in particular.  What do you think the legacy of that period is, now thinking 15, 16 years on, the radical economic reforms?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 What I should say is it's too soon to tell.  It's an ambivalent type of legacy at this point.  In part, much of what you see on the economic side in Russia today is an outgrowth of those steps that were taken in the immediate post-Soviet period, privatization in particular, but policies that were intended to take the state out of the economy to the greatest extent possible, substitute market mechanisms, begin to put in place some of the institutions of a market economy—stock markets, real banks, and so forth—which Russia today is building on.  It's in a sense a necessary step.  No matter how people might judge the particular events of 1990, I think if you look at this intellectually and you look at the trajectory of Russia over time, if you hadn't had some of these steps in 1990, you probably wouldn't have had the growth that you had in 2000 and subsequent years.  So they were building on an institutional legacy.

Clearly I think the problem was, from the standpoint of the democratic development of Russia, that most of these policies were pursued in a very authoritarian fashion.  But because this was identified as democracy, because that's the rhetoric that Yeltsin and his subordinates used in talking about that period, because that's the rhetoric that the United States and most West European countries use in talking about that period, democracy as a concept got a very, very bad reputation at that point, which is one of the reasons that Putin, in 2000 and after, was able to consolidate his position, but also to introduce a set of reforms that, certainly from our standpoint, are seen as much more authoritarian than some of the political policies that you saw pursued by Yeltsin himself.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  In, I believe, 1989, something very interesting happens.  A group of individuals, Americans, under the rubric of the Free Congress Foundation, Robert Krieble, Paul Weyrich, and others, come to Moscow.  They are invited by the Inter-Regional Group.  They are welcomed by Popov, who at that point was, in fact, only affiliated, I think, with the Soviet Academy of Sciences.  What, if anything, was on the embassy's radar about this visit, its impact and consequences?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 Zero, as far as I remember.  I don't remember hearing anything significant about Krieble during the time I was in Moscow.  The name may have floated by at some point, but certainly in the political section—what the ambassador might have known about this I don't know at this point, but it was not a factor.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  You would think that the political section would have heard had there been something significant.

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 And it's not something we picked up in dealing with these people.

In any event, I don't remember the name at all.  Certainly, if it had been something significant, something that we were thinking about, something that we were interested in, the political factions would have been following this and I am sure that I would have heard something about it.  But I have no recollection of Krieble at all during this period.

To some extent, it's not unusual.  The U.S. government at that point was not in the mood or in the position nor did it have a policy to support what we did in the 1990s, democratic reform in Russia, in a very direct way.  We didn't have a set of assistance programs.  After all, this is the Soviet Union.  This is not what you did.  Certainly the U.S. government wasn't going to go to Gorbachev and suggest that they bring in IRI [International Republican Institute] and NDI [National Democratic Institute] at that time to teach the Soviets how to do politics.  We were much more focused on what was happening inside the Soviet Union itself.  I think most of us at the embassy at that time saw these processes being driven by Soviets, particularly Russians, Gorbachev himself in his policies pursuing an opening-up of the political system.

But we had a range of contacts across the political spectrum, inside Moscow, across the Soviet Union, at that time that also suggested that the driving force behind this was the Soviets themselves and that they weren't, to a large extent, looking outside for ideas on how to move this process forward.

Finally, from our standpoint sort of looking at this, the Russians didn't need to learn how to do party building.  The problem was that they had been doing party building in one way or another for 70 years.  Most of them were Communist Party members.  So how you organized, how you went out and got people to vote for you was not something that they seemed to need a great deal of training in at that point.  Even if you look at the—what's remarkable, again, about the late 1980s is the amount of self-organization that went on.  We knew that there were dozens of these so-called [Russian words], informal groups, that were forming in Moscow to discuss various aspects, some of it politics, some of it social—this, that, and the other thing.  We wanted contacts with these, but most of these groups did not want contact with us.  They said, "This is an internal Soviet development.  If we have contact with the American embassy, it's going to discredit us.  It will only make it much more difficult to do what we want."

In 1987-1988, we had very little contact with this.  As I said, after Reagan's visit, this began to open up, so we did have some.  But these people weren't coming to us asking us for, necessarily, advice.  There may be certain books and other things that they would want, which they didn't have easy access to in the Soviet Union.  But they weren't looking to the United States, in a sense, to help them with the nuts and bolts of organizing themselves.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Yet I believe it was in 1990 or early 1991 that a leading Communist Party official criticized severely Weyrich and Krieble as "agents of influence," and this led, actually, to a somewhat self-congratulatory book about the experience in the Soviet Union at that time.  I think it was Murashev who said that Krieble was like a father to him.  So clearly—again, maybe back to your point about events moving quickly, and these people moving rather quickly from the scene—but for a moment in time, it seemed as though they had some—

THOMAS GRAHAM
:  Perhaps.  Again, I don't know how much influence they might have had on specific individuals, to what extent their ideas were picked up and used in a significant way during the late Soviet period or the early post-Soviet period.  That a Communist Party leader would pick up on this is not unusual.  Certainly the KGB would have known about their presence in the country.  It was a Western institution.  How broad the universe was that a Communist Party leader could pick from in order to demonstrate that there was Western influence or that these were agents of influence—that's another question as well.

I don't get the impression that there were lots of Western agencies running around on the ground in Moscow trying to help these people, in part because events were moving quickly.  There was much more reaction to what was happening.  But many of these individuals knew what they wanted to do and how they wanted to get it done.

We were much more interested in working on the ground, perhaps keeping the United States and other Western governments informed of what was going on, because they thought that general support was important for developments inside Russia, but not looking for the direct hands-on type of assistance that we saw in the 1990s.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Let's turn back the tide of history for a moment.  The 1991 August Coup never happens, Yeltsin does not have his moment on the tank, that iconic moment, and Gorbachev is allowed to pursue his agenda on reform, glasnost, perestroika, and so on.  What do you think might have happened?  How would that have played out, had Gorbachev, who is still alive—just turned 80—how would things have been different, do you think?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 First of all, there was a fundamental contradiction in what Gorbachev was trying to do; that is, liberalize a system, open up a political process in a country that really didn't have a unifying set of ideas.  You had 15 constituent republics, many other autonomous regions scattered across the Soviet Union.  Once nationalism became a major political force, there was no way you could democratize the system, open it up, without undermining the Soviet Union as a country.

Now, I think with Gorbachev in charge, if he had been able to pursue his agenda, what you would have seen is not the dramatic breakup, 15 Union Republics spinning off at one moment in late 1991.  You would have seen a more effective commonwealth of independent states at that point, a decentralization, a federalization and a confederalization of the Soviet Union.  But even under those circumstances, the Baltic states would have left.  I think the Caucasus states probably would have left.

The big question, I think, for the Soviet Union at that time was, if your goal was to reform the Soviet Union both politically and economically, did you really want the deadweight of the Central Asian states, which were intellectually, politically, and culturally in a different space at that point?

DAVID SPEEDIE:  And opposed to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 And opposed to the breakup of the Soviet Union.  They were the last people to declare sovereignty during the Soviet period itself.

So I think you would have had a slower process that I think would have led to the effective breakup of the Soviet Union.  I think you would have had—some of this would have depended on how a Gorbachev government would have reacted to that, but I think you would have laid the groundwork for the institutions for a genuinely democratic society.  That didn't happen under Yeltsin.  What you saw in the 1990s really was a crumbling of the state apparatus.

I think if you look back at this, the freest and fairest elections in Russia were probably in the late Soviet period, in terms of political competition, people being energized, out and voting, a real contest over ideas and policies.  From 1989, 1990 on, what you see is a slow, steady narrowing of the political space, until you get a party of power that dominates and so forth.

Gorbachev was going about this in a different way.  I think you would have seen the breakup of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union into rival political groupings that would have given, I think, a more solid foundation for a multiparty system, in part because with the breakup would have come, in a sense, not only individuals, but buildings, material that you needed as the foundation for parties.

On the economic side, I think it's more difficult to judge, in part because you did have to get the state out, you did have to find a way to privatize.  How you would have done this in a way that would have been both effective and equitable I think is a major political challenge, and we don't really know the answers to that.

So I think you would have had a smaller Soviet Union.  It wouldn’t have been called the Soviet Union—some of the republics would have seceded—but I think something that looks today like a somewhat more integrated commonwealth of independent states.  I think you would have had more genuine political pluralism if Gorbachev had stayed in power, as the economy, I think, would have had some severe problems in the 1990s without a very radical program of privatization and introduction of genuine market institutions.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  At one point there, until perhaps that very last comment, I thought you were suggesting that a more gradualist—this might have been a consummation to be wished and better for Russia than the—

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 Look, you can't play history over again.  But I think Gorbachev had a more humanist vision of what he wanted to do and was much more concerned about the conservative forces in Soviet society and how to manage them as he went forward.

But it was interesting.  If you look at the evolution of Gorbachev's own thinking, it becomes more radical as he begins to understand the depths of the problem that he faces in the Soviet period because of the way the party itself was structured, because of the way it interfered in the economic decision.  He started out, I think, thinking that the Soviet Union had an economic problem and concluded that it was fundamentally a political problem.

But I think, by his own sort of nature, he was much more gradualist in the way he wanted to approach these things, balancing forces but trying to eventually steer things in an appropriate direction.

Yeltsin was always much more come-in-and-shake-things-up, much more interested in exercising power in a very forceful way than Gorbachev was.  That, I think, led to the conflict between the two men—a different sense of how you move the political process forward. 

Yeltsin, certainly in the 1990s, was not averse to hollowing out the state structures that, I think, in the end undermined some of the democratic openings of the late Soviet/early post-Soviet period, created a situation in which a return to more authoritarian policies, in fact, was a necessary step in order to prevent the breakup of the Russian Federation itself, to get some control over the political processes again.  In a sense, we are living with the consequences of that up to the present day.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Do you think it's perhaps regrettable that Putin wasn't the first president of Russia, before Yeltsin?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 What I think is regrettable is that you didn't get a change in 1996.  Yeltsin, again, played a historical role in destroying the Communist system.  By 1996, it becomes clear, I think, that the appropriate state institutions aren't being built, and instead, they are being hollowed out, that some of the economic reforms are undermining the confidence of the population as a whole in the reform movement, in the movement toward a more open society, in a foreign policy that is more attuned to U.S. interests and Western interests.  If there had been a genuinely free and fair election in 1996, I'm not sure Yeltsin would have won.  I don't necessarily think that would have been a bad outcome for Russia at that point.

I know that the most likely winner of the election would have been Zyuganov

DAVID SPEEDIE:  A Communist, yes.

THOMAS GRAHAM
:  But he wouldn't have won overwhelmingly.  The point is that there were a lot of political forces that had to be managed at that time.  Zyuganov and, I think, the people around him, in a sense, weren't like Putin and the people around Putin in 2000 that knew how to wield power, and do it in a ruthless fashion.  The reason Yeltsin got reelected was because the people around him wanted to wield power and knew how to do it in a ruthless fashion.

My sense is that Zyuganov would not have been able to pursue the program laid out by the Communist Party, that he would have had to compromise, and that he almost certainly would have been a one-term president as well, because the Communist Party, I think it would have become clear, didn't have the ideas to move the country, to deal with the crisis that the country was in, and it didn't have the types of political leaders that would have gained broad support within society, had the type of charisma that you needed at that point to get people to move in the direction to support the types of policies that they would need to put an end to the economic decline and rebuild the state.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Twenty years on, we have kind of an odd situation, it seems to me.  You spoke at a Council-sponsored event about the need to develop a strategic relationship, a strategic partnership with Russia, even as Russia is receding somewhat in terms of a place of importance on the administration's foreign policy agenda.

At the same time, we have an event like the World Russia Forum, run by Edward Lozansky.  I think you are involved to some extent with this.  But it doesn't seem to be a very substantive entity or enterprise.  Murashev and Savostiyanov are involved.

What is the state of the relationship?  I realize there's potentially a long answer to that question.  But here are these guys who were involved in 1980 sort of resurfacing, to some extent, in something called the new U.S.-Russia rapprochement.  Is there a need for rapprochement?  What is the state of affairs generally?

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 I've long held the position that there is a need in Russia for an American lobby, a need in the United States for a Russian lobby.  The challenge has always been to build those lobbies out of forces that are closer to the mainstream.  I think the problem that you have in this country is that most people who say they are supportive of this and are visible tend to be marginal political figures.  That doesn't help build the type of constituency that you need.  The same thing is true on the Russian side.

I think there is, as I said, a need for an American lobby, but if it's built around people whose political time has, in a sense, passed, that isn't going to provide the foundation—

DAVID SPEEDIE:  Naming no names.

THOMAS GRAHAM
:  I'm not naming any names.  But you can’t bring people back from the 1980s and do this at this point.  It has to be those people who are in the process of forming Russian politics at this point or forming the Russian economy at this point.

If you look at Right Cause, if they were to establish themselves as an effective political force with a solid faction in an ex-state Duma and then be a political force that supports closer relations with the United States, that would be positive.  Then you can begin to build an American lobby around that.

Similarly in the United States, you need to have people who are in the mainstream of the Democratic and Republican Parties in their foreign-policy thinking form the foundation of that.

Some of this might happen over the next couple of years, because clearly we are going through a process now of rethinking America's role in the world, as a consequence not only of 9/11, but I think, more importantly, of the economic crisis—the mounting deficit and debt problems that we have that are going to compel us to have a much more focused, prioritized foreign policy than we have had in the past.

So, one, you don't have constituencies at this point.  That's a question for the future, and as I said, it needs to be mainstream forces that do it as opposed to people on the fringe if it's going to be effective.

As I have said, I think what is interesting about the current period is that both the United States and Russia, in a sense, are facing novel situations, situations that they haven't faced as major global actors or world powers in their entire history.  For us, it really is the emergence of a genuinely multipolar international system.  The Cold War wasn't multipolar; it was bipolar, and we had a number of allies in Europe and elsewhere around the globe who clearly deferred to us on strategic questions.  For that, the United States basically tried to stay out of global politics, to the extent that it could, and not get involved in wars in Europe or in Asia unless there was an urgent necessity to do so, as there was in the First World War and the Second World War.

Now it's hard to see China playing second fiddle to the United States, for example, India.  Countries that are emerging are beginning to establish some weight in international affairs, but clearly come at global affairs with a different set of values, a different set of conceptions about how global politics is supposed to be played than the United States has had.

So we are really facing multiple powers, maybe none of them as powerful as the United States across the full dimension of power, but yet players that we have to treat in a way that's different from the way we have treated our European allies in the Cold War up to this point.

So a multipolar world, a more focused foreign policy.  The great challenge for the United States as the leading international actor is forming a new global equilibrium, taking a role in shaping that around the globe.

Russia's novel situation is that it is no longer the dynamic core of Eurasia.  For, I think, the first time in the past 300 years, it finds itself surrounded by countries and regions that are more dynamic than it is, in various ways—clearly, the Chinese, economically, politically, commercially.  If you look to the south, there is ferment now that you see unfolding in the Middle East but you have seen in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Iran earlier.  Whether this is a positive force or not is an open question.  Yet there is a vitality there, a movement that you sense that you don't sense inside Russia at this point.

Europe, I think, looks a bit more complicated now than it would have a couple of years ago because of the crisis that they are facing.  But there still is a sense of a European project that in practice excludes the Russians.  The Russians are beginning to develop something like that when they think about the former Soviet space, but it's not really as compelling an argument as people in Moscow would like to think.

If you look at Central Asia or Ukraine now, in Central Asia you will see a growing Chinese presence, certainly commercial—you see a lot of money there—Ukraine hasn't, after the election of Yanukovych, decided that it's going to cut its ties with Europe and reorient itself in Russia.  I think the population wants to drift towards Europe, in part because, despite the current problems, the economic situation, the lifestyle in Europe is much more appealing than the lifestyle in Russia for a lot of Ukrainians.

So the Russians have this problem of how they re-create their own dynamism, which I think requires modernization.  I think it requires an opening-up of the political system.  But then also how do you begin to build necessary structures of stability, economic integration along your entire border?  You are not going to be able to re-create the Soviet Union.

So you are going to find that there are a lot of subregions—Northeast Asia, Central, South Asia, the Caucasus in Europe—where you are going to have to, if not pursue ultimately a different goal, then pursue it with a different set of actors.

The United States is the only country that is active in all of these regions along the Russian border.

So at a minimum, each country will find itself dealing with the other country as it tries to pursue its strategic objectives in building these institutions of security, this new global political order.  The question, I think, naturally emerges:  Is this a time for the two countries to put the Cold War behind them finally, to see that neither country poses the greatest threat to the other, that there actually is a common interest in dealing with these unsettled situations along the Russian border?

This provides a foundation for thinking strategically in common terms, which is remarkably different from the way we have pursued our policies over the past 20 years—a big question that requires political leadership in both countries.  I'm not sure we are there.  But I do believe that as both countries begin to think through what the real challenges are over the next 20 years, this is natural landing point for both of them, and it's something that the expert communities in both countries should be playing, I think, a much larger role in developing and pursuing at this point.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  What might truly be seen as the end of the Cold War.

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 Absolutely.  The Cold War did end 20 years ago in a real sense.  Psychologically, it has dominated perceptions of both the United States and Russia since then, in somewhat different ways. 

The United States, at least up through the Bush Administration, was trying to think of a way you could sort of re-create the Cold War environment, not necessarily with Russia as an enemy, but some sort of existential enemy out there.  International terrorism is what the Bush Administration focused on.  It doesn’t work as an existential threat, certainly not on the global scale.  Other countries just don't think of it in the same terms.  And there was always that residual anti-Russia feeling in the American political [inaudible] that grew out of the Cold War that was never dealt with adequately.

On the Russian side, it was a desire to sort of re-create their standing in the world, and the way you could do that most easily was by playing off the United States as an enemy, in part because that was natural.  The United States was the most active player in world affairs.  But interestingly enough, it was also far enough away that you didn't risk getting yourself into a real difficult situation, the way you might if you tried to play off the Chinese.

But now, if you look at this from the standpoint of Russia's own national interests, America's own national interests, it's hard to make a convincing case that the United States poses the greatest threat to Russia's national interests going forward or that Russia, given its current situation, poses the greatest threat to the United States going forward.  I just don't think there is an intellectually compelling argument for either of those possibilities.

It's a much more complicated world.  Creating balances is on the agenda.  There are emerging powers that have to be dealt with in an effective way if we are going to have stability and prosperity, and create the global conditions you need for a much more open political environment.

So that's what I think we ought to be focused on now, as I said, finally putting an end to the Cold War psychologically and strategically for the two countries.

DAVID SPEEDIE:  On that positive and strategic note, thanks, Tom, very much.

THOMAS GRAHAM:
 Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less