The Foreign Service Journal, December 2011

38 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / D E C E M B E R 2 0 1 1 ergy— their sense of wonder that they had finally lost their fear of the authorities and were prepared to say in public what they had long reserved only for the intimacy of the kitchen table with their trusted friends. It was another small sign that a regime based on terror and intimidation was coming to an end. Indeed, for many of us — and for many of the demonstrators — the great mystery was that the Soviet authorities had seemingly lost the will and ability to defend themselves, to strike back and restore that fear. As a result of the elections and the demonstrations, of the opening up of Soviet society, our task shifted from the search for subtle clues in the press to sorting out the meaning in a tidal wave of information for the Soviet Union’s future and American interests. Looking back 20 to 25 years, I am bemused by the topics that so riveted our attention then. Many seem inconsequential now, but at the time offered valuable clues to the Soviet Union’s trajectory. Would Nicolay Bukharin, a comrade of Lenin and an advocate of a “softer” communism who was executed by Stalin as an enemy of the people, be rehabilitated? (He was, and that decision lent greater force to Gorbachev’s reforms.) What was the meaning of the first positive use in a published article of the locution “private property” by a senior Communist Party leader? (More radical eco- nomic reform was on its way.) How far would the Kremlin-approved effort to “fill the blank spots in history” go in unmasking the crimes of Josef Stalin? (They ultimately reinforced some of the most neg- ative Western assessments.) Would it lead to questions about the true character of Vladimir Lenin and the found- ing myths of the Great October Revolution of 1917? (It did both, thereby dangerously eroding the regime’s legit- imacy.) Foreseeing the Collapse There was much excitement and much to report. But just how good was our reporting? In particular, did we fore- see the collapse of the Soviet Union? The answer is “yes, in broad outline.” In July 1990, the embassy sent a cable ti- tled “Looking into the Abyss: The Possible Collapse of the Soviet Union and What We Should be Doing about It,” drafted by political counselor Ray Smith (see p. 37). It recommended that the United States set up “a phys- ical presence in each of the Soviet republics and several additional locations in Russia. It is increasingly evident as these regions evolve toward greater independence that our ties with them should not be funneled through Moscow.” Likewise, one of the first memos I drafted after leav- ing the embassy and taking up a position in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, in August 1990, argued that the breakup of the Soviet Union was a scenario we needed to take seriously. That thought did not just come to me sud- denly on the plane back from Moscow. Indeed, the embassy had been alluding to that possi- bility in its cables since at least the middle of 1989, when a delegation of Lithuanians from the Congress of People’s Deputies met with Amb. Matlock to outline their own strategy for regaining their independence within a year. They then implemented that strategy step by step, and a newly elected Lithuanian parliament voted for inde- pendence in March 1990. Genuine independence for the three Baltic states, to be sure, would hardly qualify as the collapse of the Soviet Union. But other developments were pushing in that di- rection, particularly the rapidly escalating power struggle between Gorbachev as the Soviet leader and Yeltsin as his Russian counterpart. As each sought to enlist the support of the leaders of the Union’s constituent republics to ad- dress the balance at the center, those leaders enhanced their autonomy and took control of resources within their territories. Eventually, Gorbachev initiated negotiations to trans- form the Soviet Union from a unitary state into a genuine federation or confederation. Fear of this new arrangement drove the conservative forces in the Soviet leadership to launch the putsch of August 1991. Its ignominious collapse in three short days was a clear sign that the Soviet Union was bankrupt, and ignited a series of events that quickly led to the country’s breakup into 15 sovereign states by the end of the year. With its dense network of contacts in Moscow, Leningrad and the Russian provinces, reaching out through the constituent republics, the embassy kept abreast of all these developments and provided Washington with a con- tinuous stream of reporting. As the embassy reporting from this period is eventually declassified and made public, I am confident it will reveal howwell a dedicated group of Foreign Service officers and their colleagues from other agencies, often in adverse con- ditions, served their country at a time of historic change. It was, indeed, a good time to be an American diplo- mat in Moscow. ■ F OCUS