The Foreign Service Journal, December 2011

D E C E M B E R 2 0 1 1 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 27 E MBASSY M OSCOW : O N THE F RONT L INES OF H ISTORY ne of the many unfounded myths about the collapse of the Soviet Union is that the American government was taken by surprise. Not so! Embassy Moscow advised Washington 18 months before the Russian tricolor was raised over the Kremlin that con- tingency plans should be laid for that eventuality. And in the year and a half that followed that report — the July 1990 embassy cable, “Looking into the Abyss: The Possi- ble Collapse of the Soviet Union and What We Should Be Doing About It” — the embassy carefully reported the stages of unraveling, based on extensive contacts with gov- ernment officials and opposition leaders on the one hand and, on the other, the insights derived from deepening in- volvement with the broader public, Russian and non- Russian alike, in and outside the capital. Though it conflicted with prevailing opinion in Wash- ington, the embassy’s July 1990 message was not a bolt out of the blue. We had been reporting on the rise of na- tionalist movements in many Soviet republics, the grow- ing problems in the economy, the weakening of Communist Party control over the country, and competi- tion and disarray among supporters of reform and within the party itself. Moreover, Embassy Moscow and its associated posts covered political and economic developments in the So- viet Union during the years leading up to and through the breakup without the assistance of a single clandestine source. By 1987, every “human intelligence” source in the Soviet Union had been exposed to the KGB, not through lack of security at Embassy Moscow, as many in Washington once suspected, but — as we learned years later — by moles in the CIA (Aldrich Ames) and the FBI (Robert Hanssen). The most serious security lapses by A S THE S OVIET EMPIRE SELF - DESTRUCTED , AN INTREPID F OREIGN S ERVICE TEAM PLAYED A VITAL ROLE IN INFORMING U.S. POLICY . B Y J ACK F. M ATLOCK J R . Jack Matlock, FSO-CM, retired, was ambassador to the USSR from April 1987 to August 1991. He first served in Moscow from 1961 to 1963, again from 1974 to 1978, and once more in 1981 as chargé d’affaires before his appoint- ment as ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1981-1983). Dur- ing his 35-year career in the Foreign Service, he also served in Vienna, Munich, Accra, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and Washington, D.C. He is the author of Autopsy on an Empire: The Ameri- can Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Random House, 1995), Reagan and Gorbachev: How the ColdWar Ended (RandomHouse, 2005) and Su- perpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray—andHow to Return to Reality (Yale Uni- versity Press, 2010). Comments on his books and an occa- sional blog post can be found at F OCUS ON THE B REAKUP OF THE S OV I ET U NION