Gennady Gerasimov (Gorbachev's press secretry), 1994

Gennady Gerasimov, Maryland, May 16, 1994
Interviewer — Metta Spencer

I interviewed a guy named Yegor Kouznetsov at the Gorbachev Foundation who is an aide to Shakhnazarov, and he said he had seen a set of notes taken during meetings that showed that all along Gorbachev had intended to crush the party and that when he seemed to oppose eliminating Article 6 of the Constitution, that was just a pretext.

(I read out the other questions that I will want to ask about, including coup before the coup.)

And I name Arbatov, Petrovsky, or Shakhnazarov as the main brokers of ideas.

MS: Let’s talk about Prague. I see it as a kind of a seedbed for reformism. Is that true?

Gerasimov: Sure. It was our second university. And the reason was that in Prague we had discussions, free, that we had no opportunity to have in Moscow and we were in touch with the world. For instance, I was in charge of buying books, among other duties, for the library and there was no limit. So I was subscribing to Book Seller of Britain and Publishers Weekly in United States and a publication from France and of course New York Times Book Review and I was one of the first to buy the books that just disappeared, and distributing them to the people. It was a kind of university for us. We were always able to know what was happening in the intellectual world. For instance, books on arms control and disarmament, which were very many of them in those years. And all these discussions, this exposure— that meant that many friends of mine who were there changed their views on certain subjects. When they came back, many of them went to the Central Committee, as you know — including me. I went to the department in charge of relations with the socialist countries, together with Shakhnazarov and Arbatov. Once Burlatsky came to Prague and picked me up when he was hunting for additional people for the CC, so I spent three years there.

MS: Who were some of the people in Prague that you talked to most at that time?

Gerasimov: At that time we had Gibbons from British CP, a Canadian — what’s his name?

MS: Kashtan?

Gerasimov: No, starts with F. He died. Gibbons was also very old at that time. It was long ago. I was there from 61 to 64. Arbatov, Shakhnazarov, Mamardashvili was there—

MS: Mamardashvili was there? I didn’t know that.

Gerasimov: Sure. His friend was Rossi. Canapar (?) and Bellefois (?) from France. And all this stuff.

MS: Rossi seems to have been very influential, right?

Gerasimov: I don’t know. When I read your letter where you said that you try to find out how these peace movement ideas traveled into Soviet policy, this is a very difficult job to identify. I don’t speak about myself. I was a journalist, with a syndicated column with Novosti Press Agency and then I was chief of Moscow News and I wrote a lot of articles on disarmament, arms control, and reasonable sufficiency, overkill, you name it, and I wrote also scientific articles trying to apply game theory to the analysis of international relations to show that the arms race is futile and we must stop it unilaterally. I collected these and published a book — War and Peace in the Nuclear Age. But now, if I asked myself “Was it a big influence or not?” there is no criterion for that. For instance, I had another book, Astral Illusions, which was an analysis of the Strategic Defence Initiative — Star Wars program — and I thought I had valid arguments.1 It was published and read, but it didn’t influence Gorbachev in the beginning because I remember in Reykjavik we had a meeting before the negotiations started and when I said something about ABM not being a real threat because for many reasons it was technically impossible, and even if it were possible it is much cheaper to counteract it with additional missiles and so on. But then there was Marshal Akhromeyev, a specialist, and so he dismissed this. But then gradually, everybody, starting with President Reagan, came to the conclusion that it is technically impossible. So you see. It is very difficult to evaluate the influence of any particular person on decision-makers.

For instance, when we had this speechwriting. It was written in dachas by a group of people and we decided which passage to put in and we were very proud when this passage was put in and especially proud when Brezhnev (in my time it was Brezhnev) read it. But very often nothing really happened in practical terms because the Minister of Defence looked at it and didn’t move. So that’s it. I don’t know.

MS: Well, you can say where ideas came and went from yourself.

Gerasimov: The ideas came from Prague originally, from reading all this stuff that was published. And then when I came back to Moscow and when I left the Central Committee, I was there only three years, I went to be a syndicated columnist. It was much more interesting for me to write on my own than to try to put my words into somebody else’s mouth. And then I had a very good position which was called “political observer.” This position came with multiple exit visa. We had a system of restricted travel abroad, as you know, and everybody had to have an exit visa to travel abroad. The decision to give you this exit visa was made by a special commission in the central Committee. I never visited the place, actually. But some professions had multiple visa. For instance, flight attendants or pilots or sailors or political observers because the idea was that the nature of the job demands travel and of course it was a big advantage for me. I was introduced to this by Arab-Ogly, and of course I traveled to their meetings. I was very good. Very interesting. Very educative. And of course I used their ideas in my articles and I hope they used my ideas in their discussions too. So it was a two-way street. But again it was all reflected. And then maybe — I had my TV program also, called International Panorama, so my face and my ideas were known to a very wide audience because it was a Sunday evening program. And maybe this influenced the decision to pick me up as the spokesman.

MS: You don’t know how that decision was made?

Gerasimov: I never asked Shevardnadze or Gorbachev about it but it started with a call from Petrovsky. He was deputy foreign minister at that time. Later he told me that there was a list with several people, but they decided to pick me up but I never asked why. My guess is that this was the reason — they knew my political ideas and they coincided with their own.

MS: How much influence did you have while you were spokesman?

Gerasimov: I was given a free hand in terms of talking but of course I had to know what to talk about so I was officially the chief of the information department of the ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was one of the biggest departments and Shevardnadze used to joke that there was “the whole ministry under your command — one hundred people.” They were busy helping foreign correspondents. There was a big crowd of foreign correspondents, growing bigger and bigger with perestroika years. I guess now we have almost 1800, give or take. In my time it was close to 1000. Very big. So Shevardnadze gave me on loan to Gorbachev when Gorbachev was on the road. The impression in the West was that I was Gorbachev’s spokesman — and really I was because he had no spokesman of his own for many years. Only in the last year did he get three spokesman.

MS: To what extent were you— I have two images of you— hovering on the outside, listening to what is going on, or wading in and participating, offering your own ideas.

Gerasimov: Well, sometimes. I mentioned Reykjavik. But mainly I was there — for instance I remember Malta, a small room on the ship. Me together with Marvin Fitzwater, sitting in a corner making notes just to go out and talk to the correspondents. In this sense I was more of an observer and interpreter. I did not take part in actual negotiations, no, because my specialty didn’t allow it. But in preparations, yes. For instance, when Gorbachev traveled he had this custom of sending a group of advisers. He called them “def..ants?” And they came to the country several days in advance and sometimes I came with them. I was in charge of the group. And then when Gorbachev came, the first evening you really were free of protocol. The first evening Gorbachev gathered us together. We were drinking tea and cookies and he was asking us our impressions. So this was the input, yes.

MS: When I asked Randy Forsberg I was interested in the history of the nonintervention policy and she said I had to clear it with you before I said anything about her role or any influence that might have come from that direction. Was there any?

Gerasimov: Well, I have read her interview. I don’t see any misrepresentations there. She was active, she was known. She traveled to Russia many times and she was influential because this lady sometimes knew the details of the military things better than some of the military people. She impressed everybody with her knowledge of details. Not only that she was the author of the nuclear freeze movement, and so on.

MS: The policy of reasonable sufficiency. Can you fill me in about how that decision was made?

Gerasimov: No, that I don’t know. But it was in the air for a long time. The first man who talked about this was Robert MacNamara when he stepped down from being Secretary for Defence, he said that it was enough to have 400 missiles for the defence of the United States. So many ideas were in the air. For instance, the so-called “new political thinking” is based on a manifesto by Russell and Einstein, I guess in 1955, saying that nuclear weapons changed everything but our way of thinking. This is one thing that I publicized, Shakhnazarov publicized, and Gorbachev in my view was the first politician in power who accepted it. That was a very big difference between people who just talk and have no power and somebody who has the power.

MS: To what extent do you think people knew ahead of time that that was his orientation” Let’s go back to the Prague circle, and these people who have known each other for 20 or 30 years, did you all know who you wanted to take power? Did you have your own private candidate and was it Gorbachev?

Gerasimov: No. Gorbachev is a different story. It has nothing to do with Prague. Gorbachev was noticed by Andropov and by others. He was brought to Moscow from Stavropol. Maybe the world was lucky that he was in Stavropol and not in Sakhalin because this is the resort area and all those old people in power in Moscow had to go every year to recuperate and stay for four weeks in sanitariums. And Gorbachev, as the party boss on the spot, had to meet them at the airport and entertain them and I guess that is how he came to be noticed. He was liked by Andropov, as a young man on the rise, and he invited him to Moscow. One of the bones of contention, in my view, between Gorbachev and Yeltsin is that Yeltsin was in power in a much more important region — Sverdlovsk region, a very industrial region, but Yeltsin was invited later and to a lesser post. So it is a question of political ambitions. So I don’t think that somebody in Prague ever mentioned Gorbachev. No. But the idea was that we must do something with our system, we must improve it. So for instance, Shakhnazarov, who now entertains the theory that Gorbachev was a hidden rebel who wanted to change the system — I don’t buy this theory. Shakhnazarov himself has written three volumes on futurology, and the message was that the future of mankind is socialism. Period. He is a good friend of mine and I was asked to write a review of this work for a magazine called Uni Komsomolets or something (just Young Communist Magazine) by the wife of Arab-Ogly, who was working there as an editor. I wrote a favorable review, but with 2 or 3 critical remarks. The editor said, No, no, no. This book is so excellent. I said Shakhnazarov is not going to be offended by these two or three critical remarks, but the editor insisted that they must be taken out. So the idea was that the world is moving toward socialism. He was convinced. But people change with the times and Gorbachev, who wanted to give socialism a second wind with his glasnost and perestroika, he realized that when we had glasnost , this freedom of discussion, we opened our closets and found lots of skeletons and he was buried under them. The first skeleton was the nationality question. So it was a tragedy for him. But I don’t think that he thought that this would be the end result of his efforts. He thought that the end results would be the Soviet Union changed in character a little bit and a socialist beacon for the world and all this stuff.

MS: What about this stenographic notebook showing that the opposition to getting rid of Article 6 was a pretense?

Gerasimov: If there is this, then my observation is wrong.

MS: So you think that at that time Gorbachev really did oppose getting rid of Article 6?

Gerasimov: Have you read Raisa’s book?

MS: Yes.

Gerasimov: You may remember that she mentions his letter of 1952 from his village to her in Moscow where he says something like “I think this native village is awful and we must change it.” So the idea was there even before Stalin died, but all these people called themselves, as you know, Children of the Twentieth Congress. And this congress gave them hope that we may change our system for the better.

MS: When your eyes began to open in Prague, how would you have reformed things if you had been in power just about then”

Gerasimov: Those years were years of hope. They were the best years for us because we were young and Khrushchev was in power — the thaw. Relative freedom. So we thought that we could continue like this and move to what we really wanted.

MS: Would it have been socialism?

Gerasimov: Sure. One hundred percent. Nobody talked about market economy.

MS: How about any influence from the Prague intellectuals?

Gerasimov: Not in my time. In my time Prague, official Prague, was behind the Soviet Union. In Moscow we had Khrushchev and we had the demolition of the cult of Stalin. In Prague we had a huge monument to Stalin intact, overlooking Prague. Novotny was in charge. So the tension was there. Those representatives of the Czech communist party who were in the editorial office, they didn’t talk about any change at all.

MS: I know quite a number of people in Charter 77. I started interviewing them before the Velvet Revolution. I haven’t found any Czech intellectuals who had any contact at all with the people at Problems of Peace and socialism.

Gerasimov: That only proves my point. But I am talking about my years. I think they looked upon it as something completely foreign to their activities. They never suspected that the representatives of the communist parties from all over the world, with the domination of the Soviets, could talk sense. So they just didn’t contact them. But it is interesting that in my time and I guess later, we had a minimal contact with the embassy. Almost none. It showed that it was different from the diplomatic bureaucracy.

MS: I heard two wonderful stories. One was supposedly by Mlynar, who reported that Gorbachev . . .[went to the place in the Sparrow Hills where Herzen had taken an oath against absolutism] and he made an oath to devote his life to combating Stalinism. Have you ever heard that story?

Gerasimov: Yes. I have a book by Mlynar by me now. I must look into it.

MS: He doesn’t say it there. It is not in print anyplace that I can find and Mlynar won’t let me interview him.

Gerasimov: You read that book, Nightfrost in Prague?

MS: Yes but it isn’t there. Have you heard the story from anybody else?

Gerasimov: I guess I heard it but I cannot pinpoint it. Maybe. It is a little bit too good to be true. Maybe it was just made up later because it is a good story.

MS: Yes, but if Mlynar made it up way back then, it is a better story than if it were made up now.

Gerasimov: I must tell you that I was a postgraduate student at MSU law faculty. I was studying International Law. The year was 1954. This was the year when Gorbachev was there. I was there only for a year and I spent my time in seminars and the library and reading American Journal of International Law. I never met him because he was busy with Komsomol work and I was not. I think it was one of my biggest mistakes in life.

MS: That you weren’t active in Komsomol?

Gerasimov: No, that I didn’t meet him. (laughs)

MS: But what about this story that during the period in the fall, Gorbachev had lost control of the government and that there was a kind of a secret coup. About November until the spring before the coup. He made all this swing to the right.

Gerasimov: Well, he tried to stay in power. It was very sad to watch him trying to do this and one of his mistakes was that he actually did not rely on intellectuals who had tried to embrace him in the first place. When he came to power, he picked up people — not that the Prague crowd picked up Gorbachev and made him, as some people try to tell you — but just the opposite. When Gorbachev came to power, he relied on international affairs and people who were at hand. And who were at hand were people from Prague. It was a very happy coincidence. Now he also had to do something domestically and he relied on people in the Central Committee in other departments. And the people in the domestic departments were just awful. And also he took some people from Stavropol and he introduced one of them to me, who claimed to be extremely close to him for many years in Stavropol. He was a very good man by nature but he knew next to nothing and he was put in charge of ideological connections with the Communist Parties of Eastern Europe. So it was just a happy coincidence that Shakhnazarov and Chernayev and people like that happened to be there and available, but there were other intellectuals available outside and Gorbachev was suspicious of them. So he had no good team. If he had had a good team from the very beginning — and not Gennady Yanayev, for instance. I knew him personally and when Gorbachev insisted that he must be Vice President, I couldn’t believe my ears or eyes. To pick up such a man! Everybody knew! His reputation was as a demagogue.

MS: In Time magazine that winter there was a statement that the military said that if he didn’t sack a certain number of people, he would be removed from office.

Gerasimov: I don’t know. The problem with him was his party background. He became Secretary General. And by our tradition the Secretary General is the boss. If he says something, it must be done. And he could use this power. He used it, but he could use it to bring new blood to the Central Committee, which he didn’t do. He thought that the vehicle of reform would be the party. And this was his mistake. The old party had to be renewed to do what he wanted to do. But there were many mistakes. From the point of view of what you are interested in—the peace movement. Of course, they were this transmission belt, you can say — Shakhnazarov, Chernayev and others — they were a kind of transmission belt. And when we were sitting in the dachas writing speeches, this was the possibility to put into the mouth of our leaders what we wanted to hear and to put change into politics. It didn’t happen with Brezhnev because of resistance. But it happened with Gorbachev because he didn’t resist it, he welcomed it, he was interested.

MS: Did Arbatov play as important a role as I have inferred? So many people have mentioned him as being the transmission belt.

Gerasimov: Arbatov certainly was. I know him very well for so many years. We are friends. And I remember after Burlatsky was ousted and became a political observer, he was in charge of this group of consultants. Arbatov worked under everybody— Brezhnev, Andropov, especially Andropov, and Arbatov was given the task of creating this institute. I remember he was just told, now you are the director. And then he had to find a building, furniture, people. You know that Lukin was invited to join the institute when he was ousted from Prague because he said something against the invasion. And Kokoshin, his deputy, is now first deputy minister of defence. And so I think his institute played an important role. And they have written a lot of papers for the Central Committee. They acted in parallel with this group of consultants. In the International Department and in the department of socialist countries. Of course these papers influenced the decision makers. Unfortunately, not today. One of the current complaints of Arbatov is that nobody asks them to write papers anymore. Yeltsin’s government thinks they know all the answers and they don’t ask for papers. I don’t know if these papers are published. Maybe the Gorbachev Foundation produces some papers, I never heard of any of them. But they are not read because of the personal animosity between these two men, which is extremely unfortunate. When Gorbachev was in Ottawa once, I was in Washington waiting for him, and Yeltsin was elected the chairman of the Supreme Soviet in Russia, and Gorbachev talked to correspondents and criticized him. In Washington I contradicted him, I said, look, you must be together to save the country, and not fight each other. But they continued to fight each other so we now have all the results.

MS: Of all the people I have interviewed, Arbatov was most critical of Gorbachev. But that was maybe two years ago and Sergei Plekhanov is teaching at York University here and I know him. He says that they have reconciled.

Gerasimov: Maybe, I don’t know. He didn’t mention to me that he [Arbatov] has anything to do with this foundation.

MS: I don’t know that he has anything to do with the foundation. He was in Toronto a few weeks ago. I wouldn’t have known from his speech what his attitude toward Gorbachev was, but Plekhanov told me.

Gerasimov: Arbatov was his official adviser, but then he changed sides and went as an official adviser to Yeltsin, which was a big surprise. I remember that I mentioned that to Burlatsky and Burlatsky said, “Oh, look. Arbatov knows everything, so it’s the sign of the change.” And really there was the change. But then, as you know, Yeltsin changed all his advisers again. It’s the same problem again — no real team. Just as Gorbachev had no real time. Same thing here too.

MS: So you don’t feel that when Gorbachev moved to the right that they had him by the throat”

Gerasimov: I simply don’t know. I was with the ministry of foreign affairs. I can answer all the questions about international politics but as to domestic politics, I was too busy with international politics. Of course, I might know by chance, but I don’t know.

MS: The influence of Egon Bahr’s notion of common security— do you know about his influence on Arbatov?

Gerasimov: It is quite possible. Arbatov knows German. But all these ideas about peace and security, they were there and sometimes it is not easy to pinpoint the authors. For instance I can pinpoint Randy Forsberg as the author of the nuclear freeze, but remember in 1975, Brezhnev — not anybody else — Brezhnev signed the Helsinki Act, which was incorporated into our constitution. And if you read Brezhnev’s speeches today, at least the ones devoted to international issues — they’re not bad. The problem was that it was mainly propaganda. And the real talks started with Gorbachev. And here his advisers helped.

MS: Thank you very much. I will send you this transcript.

Gerasimov: I will be here until June 9 or 10.

MS. I will send it there to you. Thank you very much. Bye.

1 Matthew Evangelista refers also to an article by Gerasimov critiquing ABM as early as 1969. This is in Pravda Ukrainy, 23 March 1969, and is quoted in Wolfe, Soviet Power and Europe, pp. 439-440 n. 57. Here Gerasimov points out the futility of ABM defences, arguing that “investments in ABM can be neutralized by much smaller investments in additional offensive means.”

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books