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Diplomacy in Action

Recollections from the Final Years of the Soviet Union

Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

Arthur Adair Hartman, Former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union
Videotaped Remarks
Washington, DC
May 14, 2007

Following are excerpts of an interview conducted by Elisa Becker of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, March 20, 2007.

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Arthur Adair Hartman, Former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union. State Dept. photo

People often ask me, you know, did you see things falling apart? I don't know of any professional or academic who accurately predicted the fall of the Soviet regime.

So you come into an embassy that sort of feels itself under siege, and one thing I tried to do was to break that down by encouraging officers, even if they didn't get a chance to have appointments with their opposite numbers and the Russian or Soviet Administration, go out on the street and just get some experience and learn from that and observe it and write about it.

We all saw around us an aging group of leaders, a wreck of a country, and you know, it didn't seem to us that the system, except in the military field, was working very well. But none of us predicted that it was going to fall down the way it did at a later time.

So I arrived, aging leadership, three funerals ?.And finally they got to the real choice which was Mr. Gorbachev. And I've since had good talks with him, and he admitted to me that the Politburo was ill informed on exactly what was going on in the country. That is, not from a security point of view but, for example, they had no way of knowing how much money they were spending on military things. And he said they were shocked to find out when they began to find out how much of the national product of the Soviet Union was going into military preparedness and high-tech weapons. And these were, of course, all the things that we were worried about from a security point of view. But it was interesting to find out that here the leaders of that country didn't really know themselves other than the fact that they saw the output, exactly what the military were up to, and maybe not all the military knew.

And, of course, the first meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev was at Geneva, and the President met alone except for interpreters with Gorbachev, and as the staff began to get from the interpreter all that had gone on, some of the ideologues in the Reagan administration were really shocked because one thing the President said, and I knew from my own conversations with him that he believed this, was that nuclear weapons were bad and we ought to get rid of all of them. And Gorbachev was delighted to hear that because he thought that was a good opening to getting at us on the question of nuclear arms negotiations. And subsequently at Reykjavik that was the position. Despite all the preparatory work which was leading to some kind of arms control agreement short of getting rid of all nuclear weapons, Gorbachev turned to his staff and said, you know, I can do better than you guys.

And I might just say a word about how things have evolved because I go back to George Kennan. Anyone who thought that after the wall came down and after the Soviet Union fell apart that they were automatically going to become a thriving democracy, hadn't studied Russian history, and this is a country that, basically, it's people believe that strong leadership is absolutely necessary or somehow or other they're going to be in some way conquered. Now it doesn't mean that nothing is happening and nothing is evolving in that country. I chair the board of a number of investment funds in Russia today, and there's a middle class developing. So something is evolving. It will be a different society. Whether it will be a Jeffersonian democracy or not, I would bet not. And George Kennan and I think it's been proven correct, as one of my earliest predecessors, saying that it's a work in progress. Do not neglect Russian history when trying to interpret events of today, and have patience.

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