Georgy Arbatov (Gorbachev's turn to right), 1992

Georgy Arbatov Interview, Moscow July 1992
Interviewer — Metta Spencer

MS: I have met people who say the peace movement didn’t have any influence, public opinion didn’t have any influence — that this was just a revolution from the top. If that’s true, then I need to know how ideas found their way to the top during the 1980s.

Arbatov: You know the peace movement was, of course, a very mixed picture. It had two faces: One was the official face. It was an official organization, created for the support of our policy soon after the war. Our policy was, of course, for peace (with a special interest in nuclear ___) and we wanted — the leaders of the country — wanted to have prominent people. We started with intellectuals. Sartre — and not to speak about others who had some left wing connections, like Louis Aragon, and from many other countries. But at the same time it was supported by millions of citizens, who wanted to help as much as they could. They have given the money. The money was sent to the government. … What government did, ___ convert it to hard currency, but as to rubles it was a usual thing for people to work one shift and send the wages. And this created a climate in the country that helped the leaders when they __________. [New policy was to get an immediate mass support, and not to worry much about it. This was true of (detente?) and this was true also for Gorbachev in his time.]

MS Well that already partly answers my question because some people have said that it was a revolution from the top but the ground was prepared —

Arbatov: Well it was a revolution from the top. [A good thing,] because we know what a revolution from below is —where it led France in the eighteenth century and where it led us. I don’t believe much in revolution. I believe in evolution and reforms. In a country like ours that had a totalitarian past (our democratic institutions are embryonic) the only chance to have change was from the top. But the policy at the top was not only determined by what ideas came to them, but by the mood of the country, the realities of policy, the realities of military situations, economic situation, etc. So the beginning of it was even different. The totalitarian situation was built especially for the dictator. Dictatorship is impossible without a dictator. But then the dictatorship is shaped like a pyramid upside down and if you remove the leader, it falls. You cannot remember a totalitarian society that survived the leader. So from the beginning it was impossible to have the same society. The society couldn’t survive the ____ which was created. But it was a very painful process because the whole ____ of the society was already to some degree changed. Thirty years since Stalin’s death — next year it will be forty years and we still are trying to solve some of the problems created by the totalitarian society. But of course the leader must know what to do, and here comes the important part of this idea. But it’s not mass movements. Mass movements make the ___ and show the limits sometimes, but there must also be some intellectual milieu. And it was very weak under Khrushchev. He felt alienated from intellectuals. Brezhnev, I would say, he considered it important to have some people of intellectual background and to work with them.

MS How free were they to say what they thought to him?

Arbatov: It depended on them — what they were ready to risk. But in general, you must understand that there were two kinds of influences — one of those who considered themselves outside the system — dissidents. I won’t deny that they played a role, but they couldn’t change anything. The others were inside the system. They didn’t pretend. They were not closet dissidents, closet liberals. They believed in the ideals of the system as they had to work. But at the same time they could [have their views?] and I for one was very vocal in protesting, of course not in the press but in meetings with leaders against, for instance, the war in Angola. [Gorbachev ____ can ——- this __ for deeper understanding.] Not all the leaders agreed with me __________, you know I was not punished but tolerated.

MS: I just came from interviewing Mr. Deliusin.

Arbatov: I worked with him in the central committee.

MS: He told me that you could answer more fully the questions that he answered. I am interested in discovering people who knew critical writers, intellectuals, artists, etc. and who still had relations with top leaders. I chose him because I had heard that he was friendly with Mr. Lyubimov of the Tagaka theatre.

Arbatov: I was also friendly but he was a closer friend. But I was his friend also.

MS: It occurred to me that if any ideas came to the minds of the leaders from any source, it had to be through contacts with people like you and Mr. Deliusin. I wondered how that worked and to what extent it was true that you were sort of a broker of ideas that might not otherwise have found their way to the leaders.

Arbatov: Well, you know, it is not very proper for me to speak about my role in history, but I would say that there was a group of people in which I include myself who were awakened by the 20th party congress — the intellectual movement started at that moment — who tried to do their best. During the retreats of this new wave they could at least hold on so the retreat was not ____ by the [oligarchs?]. They could also be very helpful when the time came that there was an advance. I devoted a lot of time and attention to militarism. It determined some of the directions in which I tried to influence policy. You worked until you felt that it was useless. It was so with Gorbachev in September 1990 — useless to try to influence him. He turned to the right, but he returned to the center later.

MS: Can you remind me about that? I don’t know whether to change the subject because I am still interested in ways in which you made a difference, and also interested in whether the peace movement affected his policies.

Arbatov: No, it didn’t. The peace movement was the background, maybe in the early years some ideas came through it. The support that it gave — but what peace movement? If you mean the mass movement, it’s — but some ideas of the Palme Commission came through to Gorbachev.

MS: What about Pugwash?

Arbatov: Maybe some of the ideas. It’s very difficult to trace because they become a part of it all. This exchange of letters between Einstein and Russell — maybe people don’t know, but the fact that everything has changed, but the mentality has not changed — that became part of conventional wisdom.

MS: Is that where New Political Thinking came from — the Einstein Russell –-?

Arbatov: I would say it included everything. The new political thinking, these isolated ideas became the basis for foreign policy of a superpower — or was at least proclaimed to be. He was not always up to the standards he had proclaimed; he was _____ delayed or had to maneouvre (you can explain it in different ways) but here I think people like myself had a chance, under this new leadership, and we tried to use the chance. But at the same time, you know, a moment came when I decided that I had to fight on my own. So I started with a letter to the Supreme Soviet. The pretext was, I got to know that we are building three aircraft carriers. It was 1989 or 80. I considered that to be so stupid that I wrote letters to the Presidium Supreme Soviet and also to the Central Committee of that time. In both places, Gorbachev was the top figure. A rather long letter where I protested against the whole mass military spending. I also mentioned the three aircraft carriers as an example of that — the absence of political control. At the Malta meeting, it was 89, I was invited and there was also [Chernayin?]. It was [Chernayin] who was commander in chief of the naval forces. I had an argument with him in the presence of Gorbachev and he promised to me that he will explain everything. I asked several questions. When he has read the letter, he will answer them at the next meeting.
I was a member of parliament, and so in December at the meeting of parliament, he didn’t answer but I made a speech, a very sharp speech, against military spending because the meeting was debating the economic situation and the plan proposed by [the government?]. I said we don’t use the opportunities provided by this new international situation: One is disarmament and another is this economic cooperation with foreigners. I made a special ____ re military spending and immediately Charnayin himself, and then two generals, and another civilian started to answer. And then a long debate started, it lasted from Dec until the coup. It became sharper and sharper and I had against me such vicious arguments. I got letters from the military, from the right wingers, most of them were anonymous so I don’t know from where.

MS Are you talking of Dec. 1989 or 90?
Arbatov: ’89. I had written several articles: a couple in Izvestia and three in Ogonyok. Twice I was on TV. And against me you could make a library. It was at least a few dozens. I got even a very funny thing. How do you call this?

MS; A folder.

Arbatov: Folder. The editor of Ogonyok phoned me at the time. He had received a number of articles from generals. He asked me to respond. It was already May 1991, I think. I told him that I don’t think I should go on with this debate. They don’t answer my questions. They say the same thing. So I don’t think we should do it. We should wait for some new development. He said, ‘but I will send it to you.” I said okay. He sent me the article by the General Karabushin, who had forgotten to change the folder. He had typed on it “Gen. Karabushin reports prepared on assignment of the Chief of the General Staff, Gen. Moiseyev.” So General Staff had nothing to do but to stage this campaign. But they became scared. I am very proud of this whole thing. It was a risky job. Politically, and maybe not even politically. You know, if the coup had succeeded, I was on the list. And you see, for the first time, I managed to start a broad discussion of these military issues and I managed to pull these people into the open and make them say something. Their major weapon was silence, a dignified kind of silence masked by the necessity to keep secrecy. I asked very ugly questions. I asked, for example, whether it was true that we have more generals and admirals in MOscow than in the whole armed forces of the United STates. They never answered, and the silence spoke very loudly. I asked it again. My major opponent was Akhromeyov. Of course it was a touchy situation. He was adviser to President Gorbachev. He became hysterical. He was wrote in the style of Stalinist times when you wanted somebody to be arrested: This serves the enemy! Why does he do it? Whom can it please? Who prompted it? etc. etc.
I asked, is it true that the air force of the Soviet Union uses more fuel than Aeroflot, who couldn’t serve 20 million passengers last year? And other questions of this sort. It was useful.

MS: When did you throw up your hands and stop trying to influence Gorbachev?

Arbatov: It was a natural partition when he moved to the right. I wanted nothing to do with him —- well, that’s not quite true because I wrote him a couple of letters.

MS Are you on friendly terms now?

Arbatov: We are on normal terms. He invited me even (I have somewhere here a letter) where he invited me to the Foundation.

MS: I have a lot of questions about that move to the right. I have heard people who should know say that they had him by the throat, that he was threatened and that if he did not accede to whatever they demanded, he would be physically removed. I cannot see how —-

Arbatov: I don’t believe that they made such threats. They could have threatened that if you don’t do this, the country will fall apart or somebody will try to make a coup. This could be, but no, no, not in such a way.

MS: Someone said that he started to be accompanied to every negotiation with hard line people and that his team —-

Arbatov: He has picked them out! He picked out the people around him on his own free will. Why did he insist so much, because even contrary to the rules of the institution, as vice president Mr. Yanayev. Why did he appoint Pavlov?

MS Let’s play with the idea that he was not his own person at that point and that he was afraid that he would be removed.

Arbatov: No, no. That’s nonsense. It was tactics, maybe. He said that it was tactics. It was [the power of] tactics because if you are too deeply involved with tactics you can use your strategy if you have only a _____ mind. And I think it was more than tactics. He is not 100% honest. He was not very sure about whether he had not gone farther than he should. There were maybe some ideological things that he could make peace with [himself.] But there was a ___. Shevardnadze left. Yakovlev left. Bakatin was fired. The best people. IN the next echelon, people like myself distanced ourselves. [Oregenyev???] distanced himself. And quite different new people appeared. And also, would he take the measures in due time? I think I told him about it, that as a General Secretary you have a tremendous force, a capability ——————-
(tape runs out here, turns over with a gap.)

. . . . We could not send troops but maybe a hospital ship, maybe anti-aircraft battery in Syria or something like that. And immediately a new shower of anger broke out against him and against me in the military. And those people had their interests, because these countries were their main watering hole.

MS I was opposed to the war and American participation in the war, but I can see why people here felt they had to support it. But it was an unpopular war. What I wonder is whether, by supporting it, did Shevardnadze not strengthen the position of the Arabists in the military?

Arbatov. No. He exposed himself under some additional fire, but it was of course with the consent of Gorbachev. It was the usual policy of Gorbachev. He could put people in such positions and then — tolerated — sometimes I don’t think this kind of behavior is always bad. Sometimes you have to sacrifice. You have to guard the leader and therefore you have to take the fire yourself. But it was the usual behavior that he practiced. I think that it was not only this; everything made the right wingers here sympathize with Saddam Hussein. Anti-semitic feelings.

MS: That was part of it?

Arbatov: Of course it was part of it! Anti-semitic feelings. And just their vested interests in such regimes because if they could sell arms, the advisors could take trips. I don’t know how clean everything was financially. It was a thing they cherished. And it was very close to their style of imperial way of thinking. They wanted the Soviet Union to remain an empire. Aircraft carriers were their spheres of interest. Their allies, son of a bitches.

MS: When Primakov went to Baghdad, he came back with something. Nobody paid any attention to it. Everybody just brushed it off. Did Gorbachev think, so far as you know, that there was anything substantial in that agreement?

Arbatov: I don’t know. I don’t want to discuss Primakov. I think he made a mistake.

MS: So you don’t know what Gorbachev thought of it. Okay.
The only other thing I need to ask you about is whether or not the position of working through unilateral initiatives was a considered decisions, that that is how the government would proceed.

Arbatov: Well, you know this was one of the attacks against me. The difference as Akhromeyev said is that I am for unilaterial decisions, unilateral disarmament and he is for negotiated decisions. My position is that you have to have both. I don’t trust much the old-styled negotiations because you could have them go on for twenty years and I have described my opinion about that.

MS: Where did you get your ideas about unilateral initiatives?

Arbatov: Well it is up here, why? If we have more than they, we are so rich, so it should be levelled both ways. Unilateral restraint, unilateral cuts of armaments, unilateral moratorium and at the same time, negotiations. It will make it so much easier. And here is how we managed to end the cold war. We deprived the Americans of their enemy. We couldn’t do it through negotiations, we could do it only — (Phone interruption)

MS So it was not just happenstance, but it was decided.

Arbatov: It was policy since World War II. I made the point on many occasions. We cannot copy each stupid thing Americans do. In general we put ourselves in that position. By copying the Americans we give the keys to our defence policy in their hands. They have invented even this competitive strategy., this defence guidance which they published. IT was a special rules to make obsolete Soviet investments. They used this because the difference in GNP was so striking that to try to keep up with every extravagance on the other side was just stupid.

MS: Well, I’m glad you did what you did. Thank you.

Audio file

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See also
Georgy Arbatov (German unification), 1990

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