Michael Simmons interview by phone. Philadelphia, winter 1993
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Not quoting him always exactly.
One year a group of 5-8 Soviet scholars and journalists, once in a while a bureaucrat from a ministry, would come to the US for a seminar with their counterparts in the US. and the next year we would take a group there to meet. That experience was 3-4 day seminar, then some travel for about 10 days, meeting with officials to find out the thinking about the societies. When we went to Moscow, we would usually meet with people in the foreign ministry, the military, and then, if we had any agenda like going to Oriental Institute or African Institute, do that . I started job in 1986, coinciding with first trip to USSR. In 1985 there was a seminar that Laurama [Pixton] coordinated where the term that the Soviets came with here was “New Political Thinking” but it hadn’t evolved into glasnost or perestroika at that time. I don’t think they knew what it meant. They weren’t sure what it meant. We would get the kind of Soviets in mid-level careers. Over the years some of the participants became significant figures, like Posner and Gerasimov. Everett Mendelsohn —- he’s been a part of our program for years. Chair of the History of Science department at Harvard. Part of the 1985 seminar. I came in on the tail end of the process and the transition was in process.
In 1986 I went to Moscow with a small group as participant in the seminar and then in 87 I went with Paul Walker who works with House Armed Service Committee in Washington.
MS: I am guessing that this is the Paul Walker who would become staff of Green Cross International —i.e. Global Green— in DC.] It was clear that some openings were occurring that, as one who was frankly fascinated with Marx, what struck me was how different it was to have a conversation about Marxism. The hardest place to talk about Marxism was in Moscow. I was Marxist. People did not find Marx or Lenin a topic of conversation. They were defensive about their society, but not in a Marxist-Leninist context. Clearly, Star Wars freaked them out. That was a major topic. Our seminars began to focus on it.
The shift I brought was, what had been a bilateral US /Soviet dialogue, I expanded it to include regional concerns — e.g. Middle East, South Africa. I included people from those regions. I also took a program expanded it from nukes to human rights, E/W tension and impact on the 3rd world. Soviets began to open up, became the object of scorn from people from the 3rd world. They began to articulate a position against solidarity, as in S. Africa. Soviets were upset about the Intifada. They were backing away from ANC, PLO, the whole tension associated with the PLO in the Middle East, were trying to find an accommodation with the US. There were fits and starts, like the [Nick] Daniloff affairs, the bugging of the US embassy embarrassed them, then Reagan’s rhetoric. I am not sure they would have done that. The bugging occurred pre-glasnost. By the time it was exposed, it was an embarrassment to the Soviets. Gorby was trying to find accommodation with the US and the exchanges that we did, along with a million institutions, lthe Harriman institute, Harvard, Yale.
The one they loved was Pugwash. I knew nothing about Edinburgh. I don’t know if it had always been going on but since 1986, until the end (our last seminar with Soviets was in 1990) they had no interest in meeting with progressive organizations. They would want to meet with American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation. They didn’t want to meet with the Policy Institute. They wanted to meet with the people who ‘ran the US’ — not with any left organizations or socialists. Maybe the groups who worked through the peace committee were another story. They met with people whom I didn’t want to meet with. As straight and as high up as you could get. We met with the governor of IOwa. They were interested in ingratiating themselves with the most acknowledged, conservative element in the US. I was always surprised by that because i was coming from a left point of view.
M: Was this a tactical thing? Or were they already personally changed in their thinking?
Simmons: It was the latter more than the former. Because you couldn’t just say that I want so and so to come to my meeting. We would request either a type or a person thru a middle party. There was a pool of Soviets who were used to international travel. There were certain names that always came up. I think that a lot of it came up with personal proclivities. However, MSG allowed that to become full blown. It had to be there prior to Gorbachev but he let them make it public.
M: But he had a new team. You would have met the new team.
I had a group of Soviets in 88 or 89 and we got to Washington and I took them to a mall. I would never go there! I said to meet me back here at 4:00 and went off to a bar and they came back, it was like little children. They were grown men. Bought stuff!! Jesus! I was struck by their whole materialism. Gorbachev unleashed some things that were there to be unleashed. The intelligentsia had worked their way through the Party system and who felt economically restricted.
We worked thru the USA/USSR friendship society.
M: I am surprised. In Canada the members of that tend to be old commies.
Oh, no. Here too. We didn’t work thru the US branch of it but thru the Moscow branch. Oh, no. Here too. We would contact the Moscow branch and then when they came to the US there was always one member of the Society who was probably KGB and when we went there the society took care of our needs there. If we had a seminar with peple from the Institute of History, they were not responsible for taking care of us; the society was.
M: It’s not comparable. Our friendship society are regular citizens but the people whom you met were luminaries who went to Pugwash and all that. Name some of them.
Simmons: IN 1985 there was a seminar that I was not a part of where the term New Political Thinking first came up. Then in 1986 I became part of the process and it was mentioned over and over again. I don’t believe “glasnost” was used.
M: They must have got some message to go in for New Political Thinking.
Simmons: People used to talk about that they were willing to not always agree with each other. They felt freer to disagree with each other. Before, the formal seminars were boring because they would come with a prepared presentation to make. The thing that was most striking to me, was that they were clearly trying to de-emphasize ideology and trying to find as many common references as possible with the US. The area that they were most sensitive about was human rights. They almost acknowledged that Afghanistan was a mistake. They didn’t apologize for their support of ANC but they were moderating their views on the MIddle East and even on ANC; they were saying that the ANC was being too harsh on the whites. Beginning to back up from their previous rhetorical pronouncements. But the striking thing about the NEw POlitical Thinking was its lack of definition. They would get a sheepish grin on their faces when you you asked what that meant. Was that what you found?
M: (I explain why) I couldn’t go between 86 to 90. Some of the most interesting period in terms of New Political Thnking.
Simmons: Ah! We (AFSC), while there were some individuals who were criticial of Laurama, we were very sensitive to not get associated with dissidents. I’m not saying that as anything except the historical record. There was a lot of criticism within the organization about that but the feeling was that our relationship was too important to jeopardize it. I have mixed views on it with hindsight. I supported that at the time, but based on my own experiences in Eastern Europe now, I really think that the Western progressives should have done more of what you did.
M: Some did. Fellowship of Reconciliation, for example.
Simmons: Yeah, and Joanne Landy’s group in terms of Poland. But a lot of people didn’t. I think what it did was allow people to thoroughly repudiate everything from women’s liberation to— in the name of anti-communism. But the point is, that it was not a defined terminology, it was more of a behavioral change. They whole Reagan-Gorbachev summit where the elimination of nuclear weapons came out in Reykjavik in 1986 I believe. That is when I started this job. Then I recall Gorbachev came here in 1987. I never got a definition of it, have you?
M: You are saying that these were the same people who had been around all along, not a new team? I went to Schlaining, Austria and I could tell whether they were old ones or new ones. . . . . They stopped being interested in social class issues.
Simmons: Even more. They had a bias toward the middle and upper class. I was thunderstruck about that. I recall Alexei Markov in the foreign ministry, who had been in Angola, who was telling how small his apartment was. They definitely thought the US was a better life. The only time they would beat up on the US was about homelessness or racial issues, but they did it in such a paternalistic way that it wasn’t anything that I would feel any kinship with. (Simmons is black). Historically the American Communists, going back to the ’20s, at least publicly always promoted racial equality. So I was very struck at the gross racism that I experienced in the SU. People like the head of the USA/USSR Friendship society. You know those gatherings where you go into the room and people would pour everybody else a drink and then hand me the bottle. People treated me as if I was there to carry the bags. They would talk to everybody else about nuclear weapons and they would talk to me about jazz or basketball. I have traveled a lot. There is no place I dislike more than Moscow. Zhirinovsky does not surprise me at all. I want to separate Moscow from Estonia, Lithuania. The people I experienced there had to do with the intelligentsia. Racism! I was so shocked. At first it made me mad but then after a while I was so engaged with them that I began to see that it was just part of the reality of dealing with these folks. I went into it with a very romantic view of Russia and Marxism, so I was surprised. I wasn’t even particularly mad about it, as time went on. It was just a joke. But Moscow, in general, though I have had some very wonderful experiences, it threw me off. It was not like the US, and somehow worse because they were unconscious of it. It was nothing for them to call people who they were in solidarity with “savages.” Like people from Ethiopia, or Islamic fundamentalism. Their attitude in 1988 to that was like the US attitude.
M: Were you there during the Gulf War?
Simmons: No. The last seminar we did with a Soviet seminar was in 1990. But had the Cold War been in existence there would never have been a Gulf War.
M: Virtually all the peace people I knew were in favor of the Gulf War.
Simmons: Oh, yeah. It is amazing how superficial the things that Western leftists thought were progress, like women’s rights. There is no doubt that thinking about women’s rights is much more advanced in the US than in Russia or Poland or any other former communist countries. But they were very hostile to Islam. Specifically at the Oriental Studies Institute. I’m not sure whether their anti-semitism was more acute than their anti-Islam, but I found them very hostile.
M: did you know Primakov?
Simmons: No. During my first trip he was still head of the Oriental Studies Institute. He got bumped up to head IMEMO. Mendolsohn knew him and Laurana knew him. I saw him once or twice. I didn’t like him. I found a lot of Soviet bureaucrats to be very pompous.
M: Lots of people don’t like him.
Simmons: But he is an engaging person and smart. They are all clearly smart. I found most striking that they had this inferiority complex to the West and they wanted to be respected as an equal. That was always coming up, especially in the Reagan years, where they felt that they were not respected. But the way they sought respect was to get as close as possible to the powers that be. They had no interest in meeting people like the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington. Not with any leftists.
The other thing, in the Soviet International NGO bureaucracy, various institutions played different roles. For instance, the Peace Committee played one role. The USA/USSR Friendship society played another role. Then there was a group on Solidarity with Africa and Asia, and then there was probably some in-group that played a role that was more establishment-oriented than the Friendship Society because I bet if you talked to some American Communists during that same period, who tended to work with the peace committee, that they were getting much more of the same hard line. The sense of glasnost would have been much less there. I think the USA/USSR Friendship Society in Moscow was a major conduit in feeding the glasnost people. You could tell the difference between the old and the new, but sometimes the old were just as happy to see this change as the new were. I didn’t meet anybody new who was sad to see it. Young people just saw it as getting out of intellectual prison. But also I ran into some of the old people who were very threatened and didn’t like it at all. They didn’t say it directly but you could see it in their political points of view. They would take a hard line on human rights, on Afghanistan. They had a hard time demarcating themselves from ..
M: Did you talk about Afghanistan with them?
Simmons: Oh, yeah. I did a trip in 1987 where I predicted that Yeltsin was going to be a significant figure. Yeltsin was fired in 1987 by Gorbachev. We were in Moscow right after that had happened in November of 87 and I was struck that the Young Communist newspaper had written an article in support of Yeltsin, and that —- It was a very surprising kind of openness to criticize the policy of the government.
I wrote about how they were calling into question support for National Liberation Movements. Angola.
The KAL thing was a big deal. I’m looking at my notes here. It was still lingering.
M: When did you notice their attitude changing about human rights?
Simmons: 88, really. There was a meeting, this big meeting in Moscow, it must have been in 89 where they invited people from everywhere all over the West. This was a meeting of a new kind. Sakharov was there. He had just got out. They invited all these Western Who’s Who kind of people That was significant.
Another thing that was so interesting, I was going to E. Germany during those same days and the German government was hostile to what was going on. But Gorbachev began to court Western intellectuals. Laurama can tell you (and Mendelsohn) whether we are are talking about a whole new generation. I don’t think it was a sharp break.
M: Could you see when they were softening up (say on Afghanistan) before they would officially take a changed position?
Simmons: In 86 they were already expressing view that Afghanistan was a mistake.
M: You heard it first in 86. Had they publicly said so?
Simmons: I don’t think so. They were all pouting about the Olympic boycott. They acknowledged that the war had given rise to Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, which might destabilize Pakistan. On the other hand they expressed belief that a withdrawal would lead to a bloodbath. They were prepared to accept a non-communist government in Afghanistan. Their proposal was for a phased withdrawal. I can’t remember their public position in those days but I am sure this was not public during those days. This information came from what was still the Primakov institute — oriental studies. This was the view.
M: Do you know Lindsay Mattison?
Simmons: No. Informally, it was clear that nobody supported the Afghan war, thought it was a blunder. This was not your stereotypical solidarity thing. They were embarrassed about Afghanistan.
M: You had experience that the offstage conversations were different from the onstage?
Simmons: I wouldn’t say that, but the openness that I saw in the meeting, one could get more of it informally. There were some times that I began to develop friendships with the bureaucrats at the Friendship Society. One time I had a discussion of Afghanistan with a guy in my hotel room and he broke down and started crying about his brother who had gone there. He had been drinking a lot. I finally had to stop that, because they sure can drink. But starting from 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, the openness got more and more and more and more. People would say more and things were more in political flux. But again, this was a Moscow phenomenon, though our seminars were sometimes elsewhere. One was in Estonia, one in Lithuania. I was taken aback by how the people from Moscow treated the people from Estonia. Chauvinistic! It was awful. It was clearly that they felt better than the Estonians. It wasn’t xenophobic, it was just chauvinistic. If you went to a ballet in Tallinn, it was “Well, this is nothing like we have!” The other thing that became clear to me because of going to Estonia and Lithuania (not so much from going to Belarus, which is the only other part of the SU that I visited) was that the Baltics were ready to revolt on their own — particularly Estonia. I was struck at the way the Estonians felt about the Russians. Some refused to speak Russian. There was a spirit of independence that surprised me. I don’t know whether that was a by-product of glasnost and perestroika or whether it was independent.
I don’t think the Russians in Moscow understood how much the people in other republics disliked them. Gorbachev went there in a spirit of compromise. I think the Russians did many positive things toward the republics, in terms of economic resources and development things. There is a complex history that the nationalists totally ignore.
M: (talks about onstage and offstage sending different messages)
Simmons: I didn’t have such experiences but I know others who did. I know of situations where people say years later, you know “In 1985 you said such and such and I was really happy that you said it.” but they told them that in 1990, say. But check with Laurama.
The Taubmans, William Taubman, who wrote a great popular book about glasnost and perestroika, his brother used to write for the NY Times. William or Philip Taubman and Jane, the woman. They wrote a book. Michael Klare knows them. Get a copy of it. Published around 1990, really captures this culture in transition. This is not done in a narrow writing.
M: Have you seen anybody change his mind on the spot?
Simmons: Let me think. I’m not sure I saw that. I saw people whose point of view surprised their colleagues and whose point of view went along with ones Americans were expressing. I saw that kind of interaction. The people we were around had something to lose in prestige. I’m convinced that, except near the end, people who had seen and heard about purges, were reticent about how they let their points of view come out. They wanted to make sure they could come back in from the cold, if necessary.
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