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The Apparatchik's Lament

In This Review

In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents

By Anatoly Dobrynin
Times Books, 1995
688 pp. $30.00
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A reader of Anatoly Dobrynin's important memoir is likely to be struck by a sense of having seen all this somewhere before. Colored throughout by nostalgia for a great but vanished empire, it is written in a conversational now-this-can-be-revealed tone, containing large dollops of court gossip, intrigue, and wistfulness about the author's loss of high position. It suggests that things could have turned out much better had it not been for incompetence and even betrayal in high places. Then it dawns on you. Although Dobrynin, a long-time diplomat and ambassador, was a loyal servant of the communist regime throughout his career, his book reads for all the world as though it were written by a tsarist functionary in the wake of the 1917 revolutionary cataclysm.

As with many memoirs in this genre, Dobrynin's is a fascinating read; it will also be an essential source for historians trying to come to terms with the late Soviet period. Ultimately, however, Dobrynin gives little insight into fundamental questions. He certainly provides useful new information about such things as Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty negotiations and the fate of détente. But relying solely on his account would leave one wondering why the formidable Soviet empire, whose power and status until recently seemed to be a permanent fixture of the international scene, proved so brittle and crumbled so suddenly and completely. Like his tsarist predecessors, Dobrynin is at a loss to explain how everything he thought permanent could prove to be so ephemeral.

A MISTRUST OF CONVICTION

Dobrynin was an outstanding product of the second generation of Soviet diplomats, as was his longtime boss, Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko. The first generation had been composed of old revolutionaries, cosmopolitans whose experience of the world predated the Soviet period. They were a linguistically talented, heterogeneous lot whose broad knowledge of the non-Stalinist world, far from making them an asset to the great dictator's diplomacy as one might think, doomed them to the concentration camp or the bullet. They were too independent for Stalin's taste. Dobrynin's class, which stepped into the not-yet-cold shoes of this vanished group, was selected precisely to be a new breed--not self-important experts but obedient executors of a rigidly centralized foreign policy. Caution was, and would remain, the hallmark of this post-purge class. They would serve the system faithfully, simultaneously advancing their careers, but unlike their predecessors they were not true believers. A consistent theme of Dobrynin's account is that, throughout his career, he was most uncomfortable dealing with people, Soviet or foreign, who held strong personal beliefs. They contradicted his survivor's ethic.

Dobrynin was an aircraft engineer in 1944 and was less than delighted when informed he had been selected for the foreign service. Like Gromyko, who was an agronomist and had been drawn into diplomacy six years earlier, Dobrynin had no prior knowledge of foreign affairs or indeed foreign languages. He gives a wry account of his hasty training, which consisted of a combination of rushed language instruction and drilling by a Soviet Miss Manners. He reveals that, obsessive Soviet secrecy being what it was, diplomatic trainees were not cleared to read foreign "bourgeois" newspapers. Instead, he had to polish his English skills with such masters of prose as the communist Daily Worker. Apparently the object of the training was to create a class of diplomats who could deliver Moscow's notes competently without the embarrassment of proletarian etiquette.

The bulk of the memoir deals with Dobrynin's long tenure as ambassador to the United States, from 1962 to 1986. His chapters correspond to changes in American presidential administrations and the issues at stake. Here it is interesting to read observations of Washington's leadership by an acute, if hostile, observer. Dobrynin provides pen portraits that teach very little beyond demonstrating that the view from the Soviet embassy concurred with received wisdom. Thus, Robert Kennedy was emotional and difficult; Lyndon Johnson personalized the Vietnam War and became obsessed with it; Henry Kissinger was clever and able but overly fond of diplomatic intrigue; Jimmy Carter was "erratic" and suffered from "emotional instability"; Alexander Haig "was a typical bully." Dobrynin is less certain what to make of Ronald Reagan; he was the sort of conviction politician that made Dobrynin uncomfortable. The president's anticommunism was "not just some political pose," and Dobrynin's ambivalent portrait of Reagan is one of the work's more interesting features.

It is less pleasant to read how during election years presidential candidates and their minions from both parties routinely courted Moscow's favor, often assuring Dobrynin, as Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1964, that anti-Soviet campaign rhetoric "would in no way signify any change in Johnson's position toward the Soviet Union." Two decades later, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill warned Dobrynin that Ronald Reagan's reelection would be catastrophic: "Reagan will give vent to his primitive instincts . . . probably put us on the verge of a major armed conflict. He is a dangerous man."

SOVIET SENILITY

What makes this memoir valuable is less what it reveals about American diplomacy than the glimpse it provides under the surface of Soviet foreign policy making and government, likely the best source of insight until the Kremlin's archives are fully declassified. Dobrynin's portrait of the Kremlin leadership, though incomplete and self-serving, is nonetheless devastating. He shows how Soviet leaders were insular and chronically unable to coordinate their policies even on major issues such as the interventions in Afghanistan and Africa. Also interesting is the evidence he unwittingly provides that the long tenure of Soviet officeholders such as Gromyko and even Dobrynin himself, far from enabling them to mature and master their tasks, led to sclerotic and decreasingly imaginative policies. Instead of crafting programs for a rapidly changing world, Soviet diplomatic mandarins became complacent and wedded to process; Dobrynin became the consummate insider and dealmaker, more concerned with the latest arms agreement than with the crumbling bases of Soviet power.

Nor did experience protect Soviet leaders from making crass misjudgments. Gromyko, who had been ambassador to the United States, so badly misunderstood the nature of American politics and society that he ordered Dobrynin to offer financial aid to Hubert Humphrey in his 1968 campaign against Richard Nixon, whom Moscow feared as an ardent cold warrior. Dobrynin argued fruitlessly that such an offer, if accepted, would inevitably become public knowledge and would backfire. Fortunately for both the U.S.S.R. and the Democratic Party, Humphrey declined the offer.

Leonid I. Brezhnev himself supplies the best argument against lengthy political tenure. Dobrynin reinforces the accounts of other Soviet functionaries, such as Georgi Arbatov, who have outlined the effects of the general secretary's creeping senility during his final years. Dobrynin claims that during his Vienna summit with Carter, Brezhnev had to read entirely from a prepared text; even his answers to questions were scripted. His translators "were armed with several versions of his possible reply [to Carter's questions] and helped him pick the right one at the moment it was needed." Clearly, imaginative statesmanship was unthinkable under such circumstances, making suspect Dobrynin's argument that American diplomacy could have achieved more during the twilight of the détente era.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Soviet leaders were unable to understand the American Constitution. Watergate puzzled them, as did the incessant wrangling between Congress and the president over foreign policy. The concept of a chief executive who was not master of his own house mystified men reared under Stalin. Their confusion was compounded by the amazingly constricted flow of information, even at the highest ranks. According to Dobrynin, during the Brezhnev years most Politburo members relied on the state-run newspapers Pravda and Izvestiya for news of the outside world; in discussions of diplomacy they routinely deferred to the advice of a few figures, notably Gromyko and Yuri V. Andropov, the KGB chief, who had read the relevant cables.

Peace seems to have been kept among Soviet hierarchs via self-denial, whereby Politburo members did not interfere in their colleagues' fiefdoms. Gromyko, for instance, ran relations with the United States with a minimum of interference, whereas he ordered his staff not to inform him of such "absurd" domestic matters as the actions of dissidents. The Foreign Ministry had no idea of the size of the Soviet armed services because the Defense Ministry reported exclusively to Brezhnev; in arms control and force reduction talks with the United States, Dobrynin claims, the Soviets relied on Western figures.

Although this compartmentalization preserved oligarchic amity, the policy cost was enormous. If Dobrynin is to be believed, the lack of coordination between branches of the Soviet apparat makes Washington's perpetual policy wrangles look like a model of deliberation. The KGB and the Communist Party's International Department, under Boris Ponomarev, engineered Soviet intervention in Angola and later Ethiopia without consulting the Foreign Ministry. They were motivated by "a simple but primitive idea of international solidarity which meant doing our duty in the anti-imperialist struggle." Soviet leaders were blithely unconcerned about the international ramifications of their actions."I happened to be present at several meetings of the Politburo dealing with Angola, Somalia, and Ethiopia," Dobrynin writes, "and I can report that American complaints were not even seriously considered."

The decision to invade Afghanistan was made almost lightheartedly by only a few key members of the Politburo. They believed that the operation would prove as simple as the Czech invasion in 1968. Interestingly, Dobrynin suggests that Johnson's failure to react more forcefully encouraged Moscow to believe that Washington would do nothing to help the Afghans. "The plan was opposed by our general staff and by military officers who knew Afghanistan firsthand," Dobrynin writes, but when these officers presented their concerns to Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov, he curtly told them to "stop reasoning." They were simply to enact their political masters' will.

Dobrynin ridicules Western leaders for worrying that the Afghan invasion might be part of some Soviet master plan to interdict Persian Gulf oil routes, but his assurances ring hollow for at least two reasons. First, if there were such plans, Dobrynin, even as a member of the Central Committee, may not have known of them. After all, he disclaims any prior knowledge of such crucial events as Nikita Khrushchev's placement of missiles in Cuba, the Czech invasion of 1968, and the Soviet interventions in Angola, Ethiopia, and even Afghanistan. Furthermore, by his own admission he lacked direct information from the Defense Ministry. Second, Dobrynin admits that the U.S.S.R. suffered from "imperial overextension," which drew Moscow into quarrels it had not foreseen. It is not hard to imagine how, once ensconced in Afghanistan, the Kremlin could have discovered vital new security interests one step further to the south.

DELUSIONS OF LEGITIMACY

Dobrynin often tries to have things both ways. In his telling, he opposed all the proper things: the stationing of missiles in Cuba, the inhumane treatment of dissidents and Jewish would-be émigrés, and the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. The shooting down of Korean Air Lines flight 007 was "a gross blunder," the installation of new Soviet intermediate-range missiles in Europe another "gross miscalculation." One wonders how vigorously he argued these points while prospering in his career. Nonetheless, he faults Western leaders for overreacting to these very same Soviet actions. This will no doubt strike some readers as admirable evenhandedness. In fact it suggests a remarkable failure to understand the broader context of foreign relations.

For Dobrynin, the chief object of diplomacy is to make deals between states. His ideal, so far as one can divine from this book, would have been the perpetual continuance of détente, with the U.S.S.R. recognized as a legitimate great power on equal terms with the United States and with a long series of cautiously crafted arms control agreements slowly ratcheting down the Cold War. He has a Kennanesque suspicion of and even distaste for untidy popular movements and passions that get in the way of diplomats' serious work. Soviet dissidents and their Western defenders get short shrift, as do Soviet Jews whose "persistent and outspoken desire" to leave the U.S.S.R. "made things even worse." Amazingly, he scarcely mentions Eastern Europe or Poland, though he admits that during the Johnson years Moscow was unwilling to make serious force reductions because "it was not sure it could maintain stability in Eastern Europe with far fewer troops."

The problem with this worldview is that, at least since the rise of democracies, diplomacy does not exist in a vacuum. Popular movements are part of the international landscape whether diplomats like it or not. Dobrynin has an apparatchik's view of the world, a world controlled by sober masters. This becomes most evident in his remarkable treatment of the Gorbachev years.

The collapse of the U.S.S.R. was, in his view, a grave tragedy. It was also unnecessary, the product of "our incompetent but highly ambitious leaders." Gorbachev, assisted by his "evil mastermind," Aleksandr Yakovlev, engaged in hastily planned reforms "without seriously contemplating the consequences." Vain, flattered by the Western media, economically incompetent, acting like "a virtual monarch," the Gorbachev that emerges from Dobrynin's account is very different from the man still widely admired in the West. His headlong rush to gain American cooperation led to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and "the Soviet Army, still seen as the victors of World War II, [being] rushed home as if it had simply been thrown out. This is an inglorious heritage of the Gorbachev era." "Few Russians are prepared to forgive him" for failing to play "his best card" by demanding more in exchange for German reunification.

Without Gorbachev's bungling, "all positive achievements" could have been preserved "and major shortcomings and mistakes of the past eliminated in a carefully planned and evolutionary way." "The Soviet Union . . . would have ranked high among the democratic countries of the world." Instead, Gorbachev lacked a "coherent, balanced, and firm foreign policy to end [the Cold War] on the basis of equality." "This equality," Dobrynin believes, "was real."

Here is the core of Dobrynin's problem. He does not understand why, for all its military might, the U.S.S.R. was not and could not be an equal partner of the democratic West. Perhaps he is right that the U.S.S.R. need not have collapsed when and as it did, but he is surely wrong in believing that it could have somehow magically resolved its myriad deadly illnesses and still remained the military power it once was. Dobrynin had been abroad too long and become too isolated from the reality of life in Eastern Europe and his own homeland. Like a tsarist servitor, he cannot understand why all those people in the empire rejected the rule of their betters.

One puts down this hefty book with a nagging worry. Dobrynin has advanced a stab-in-the-back theory explaining Soviet collapse. How widespread this view is among the Russian elite remains to be seen. But carrying as it does a sense of betrayal, xenophobia, and imperial longing, it is a dangerous sentiment. One hopes it never becomes the reigning ideology.

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