Long live Shevardnadze

Don Cook

  • Memoirs by Andrei Gromyko, translated by Harold Shukman
    Hutchinson, 365 pp, £16.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 09 173808 3
  • Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy by Anders Stephanson
    Harvard, 424 pp, $35.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 674 50265 5

One of the many welcome aspects of Gorbachev’s glasnost is that it has made possible a mutual East-West re-examination of the twists and turns in the record of Cold War conflict and confrontation. Last February, for example, there was a gathering in Moscow of top-level participants in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, from both the White House and the Kremlin: they were meeting to discuss how those events unfolded in each capital, and how decisions were made on each side, almost minute by minute. One of the participants was Andrei Gromyko, just before his recent retirement as President of the Soviet Union. Earlier, on a visit to Moscow, the British Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker, received from a group of Soviet historians a surprise proposal to organise a joint examination of Soviet history books with English historians, in order to improve the writing of Soviet history after so many years of toeing the Communist Party line. The proposal was accepted with enthusiasm. A few dissident Soviet historians like Roy Medvedev have, of course, for some time been challenging the official orthodoxy of Soviet history, in which the Kremlin never makes mistakes and always prevails against capitalist enemies. In the West, revisionist historians have frequently been in vogue, particularly in the United States, with recurrent fits of academic or political questioning about who was really responsible for the Cold War. But until now, both Soviet dissidents and American or English revisionists have had to theorise or analyse almost exclusively on the basis of Western records and source material, Western memoirs and historical writings. Soviet records have remained a closed book and Soviet versions of history have been about as useful as re-reading Pravda. Memoirs have not been permitted. Khrushchev’s potted account of his turbulent decade at the centre of power was smuggled out of Moscow and has never appeared in print in the Soviet Union. Although it contains some lively and interesting passages, it has to be treated with caution as largely self-serving.

All this is changing on direct orders from the top. About a year ago, Eduard Shevardnadze, Gromyko’s successor at the Soviet Foreign Ministry, assembled his entire staff to listen to a remarkable in-house address, lasting several hours, in which he blasted Soviet foreign policy for the mistakes of its past all the way back to the origins of the Cold War, and outlined an entirely new glasnost approach to diplomacy which would restore the image of the Soviet Union in the world. A copy of the speech ‘for official use only’ was later obtained and circulated by the US State Department.

‘In the area of history and theory of foreign policy we must undertake an analysis of previous experience, the study of the “blank spots” and an elucidation of these blank spots,’ Shevardnadze told his staff. ‘We should compile a list of these and designate the range of problems over which disputes are still raging. The archives of the Foreign Ministry must be opened wider and admission granted to researchers who have sought out the necessary means, created the actual beginnings of technical study ... Each diplomat, I am convinced, should be a public affairs specialist and each public affairs specialist should be a diplomat. We are ready to open wide the doors of the ministry.’ He even added:

We criticise foreign correspondents and they criticise us. And thank God they do criticise us. This means that things are actually changing. What would have happened if, say ten years ago, someone on the editorial staff of a large newspaper had complained of the secrecy at the Foreign Ministry!

The difference between Shevardnadze and Gromyko is the difference between day and night. It is a pity, but no surprise, that Gromyko’s Memoirs of half a century in Soviet diplomacy, and almost three decades at the head of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, make no contribution to glasnost or to any re-examination of Cold War history. Indeed, those Western revisionists who think that the Cold War could have been avoided with a little more accommodation of Stalin’s demands will find a pretty severe douche in Gromyko’s turgid and plodding prose, with its endless reiteration of the correctness of Soviet policy and the official Kremlin propaganda line. Anyone looking for chinks of negotiating light in Gromyko’s diplomatic armour, or disclosures of lost opportunities for great power understanding, need not bother to make his way to the end of the book.

In the West he was known during his long career as ‘Grim Grom’, and in Moscow the joke was that he never set foot in the capital. He was whisked by automobile to and from his apartment or dacha day after day, either to the inner courtyard of the Foreign Ministry to ascend to his office, or to the airport to walk up the steps of the aircraft that was waiting to take him abroad. His Memoirs show that he enjoyed the rarefied privileges of life at the top, and that it was scarcely necessary for him to set foot on the streets of Moscow.

In one sense, his Memoirs serve a purpose: he clearly epitomises the rigid conduct of Stalinist diplomacy, the image of the Soviet Union as an adversary to most of the world, and the costly mistakes of Soviet foreign policy which Shevardnadze is now striving to overcome by applying moderation and common sense. In fact, he emerges not as a policy-maker but as an utterly loyal, totally dependable and, from a Soviet standpoint, very able diplomatic technician, always carrying out his instructions without questioning them and quite capable of arguing and debating for ever without an iota of intellectual reflection or – until permission to change has arrived from the Kremlin – the slightest penetration of outside thought. Although he had the longest maximum exposure in the West and around the world of any diplomat in Soviet history, he didn’t make it to the top leadership of the Politburo until very late in his life – near the end of the Brezhnev era, in 1981. Most of his career was spent as a Central Committee member and therefore not at the decision-making centre.

One of the book’s few disclosures reinforces the picture of a technician without much influence on policy. It concerns the Korean War (‘when the puppet government of South Korea was being egged on by the USA to start war on North Korea’) and the Soviet Union’s diplomatic blunder in continuing at this juncture to boycott meetings of the UN Security Council, in protest over the refusal of the UN to give a seat to Red China. He relates that when fighting broke out in June 1950, he received a phone call from Stalin asking what instructions should be sent to Yakov Malik, the Soviet delegate to the UN in New York. He says that he told Stalin that Malik should be told to return to the Security Council immediately in order to be in a position to veto any ‘hostile resolution’ condemning North Korea. But Stalin replied: ‘In my view, the Soviet delegation should not attend the Security Council session.’ So Malik stayed away and the United States was able to obtain a veto-free resolution which, in effect, turned military intervention in South Korea into a UN peace-keeping operation. Gromyko tactfully observes that ‘guided for once by emotion, Stalin had not made the best decision.’ As one might expect of Soviet history’s ultra-survivor, Gromyko accords maximum praise to the achievements of Joseph Stalin, and expresses a minimum of regret for the millions who suffered and died in his reign of terror. In a final chapter, added at the request of his Western publishers more than a year after his book’s appearance as the first ‘leadership memoir’ ever published in the Soviet Union, Gromyko declares his support for the Gorbachev leadership – his loyalty as seamless, patriotic and available as always.

The Soviet Union’s only man of the world for much of the post-war period, Gromyko is a relentless name-dropper. He even manages to turn a brief handshake and exchange of cocktail pleasantries with Marilyn Monroe, at a Soviet reception, into a five-paragraph dissertation on her suicide. He speculates that ‘her good relations with the USSR did not escape notice,’ and thinks that she may have been ‘gotten rid of’ as a security risk because of her good relations at the same time with John and Robert Kennedy. He has dinner at Nelson Rockefeller’s New York apartment, but assures his Soviet readers that he sat amid the opulence thinking of the homeless, the unemployed, the underfed and the oppressed blacks on the streets of New York outside. He has little memory for what was said to him-only for what he said to others. His sole standard of judgment seems to have been whether they, the people he met, agreed with him and supported the Soviet Union.

It is well-nigh impossible to find in Gromyko’s Memoirs anything to support the contention of revisionist historians in the West that it was the rhetoric of Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, or the Truman Doctrine, or the inflexibility of Western diplomacy on the German question, or the birth of the Nato Treaty, that fed Stalin’s paranoia about encirclement and brought on the Cold War. The most recent in a long line of these revisionist studies, just published in the United States, is a lengthy academic thesis on George Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy, by Anders Stephanson, who writes ‘from the viewpoint of a neutralist Swede of socialist convictions’. His book is largely a tireless and, in the end, rather inconsequential examination of inconsistencies in Kennan’s writings (which Kennan would acknowledge), of Kennan’s intellectual prejudices and weaknesses, and of shortcomings which he finds in Kennan’s analysis of Russian history, Communism and Soviet foreign policy. ‘There is no doubt in my mind that a settlement with Moscow was possible,’ Stephanson declares rather grandly. ‘Prior to 1948 a reasonable offer on reparations and demilitarisation [of Germany] might substantially have put agreement through, although Kennan never recognised that possibility.’ Stephanson’s theory seems to be that if at the time Kennan had couched his advice to the State Department in the direction of accommodating Stalin’s ambitions, the Cold War could have been avoided. Stalin would no doubt have approved, but Gromyko would have been told to play Oliver Twist and ask for more.

It is on the Soviet side that real revision of Cold War history is opening up. As Shevardnadze said: ‘The Cold War commenced and we should ask ourselves whether we did everything correctly at that time. The answer is generally yes, but we would not be honest with one another if we did not say that we did not completely utilise all the opportunities to eliminate the scale and acuteness of the confrontation or prevent the appearance of the Iron Curtain that has cost us so dearly.’

Budding Soviet revisionists might well ask whether Stalin was correct in forcing Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary to reject participation in the Marshall Plan. Was the Berlin blockade wise, prudent or necessary, and what did it achieve for the Soviet Union? Was it necessary to run a brutal Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, and murder Jan Masaryk? What did Stalin gain by organising purge trials and a reign of terror in Eastern Europe? Would he not have been wiser to accept Tito’s independence instead of trying to break him?

‘There were events that ended with enormous harm done to us and to the good name of our country,’ Shevardnadze told his diplomats. ‘That “image of the enemy” – which we are now spending such an effort on destroying – came into being contrary to the real image of the Soviet people and in spite of and contrary to its amicability, valour, wisdom and self-sacrifice. Belief in its creative pacific quality was undermined by the repressions, statements such as “we will bury you,” by incorrect steps against friends and the preaching during the period of détente of the erroneous, and, I would say, anti-Leninist, thesis of peaceful co-existence as a specific form of the class struggle.’ These intellectual attacks on Stalinist foreign policy from Shevardnadze and the new leadership are in their own way just as shattering to the system as Khrushchev’s attacks on Stalin’s crimes were in the Fifties. Heresies of this kind were never uttered in the Foreign Ministry in the days of Molotov and Gromyko – it is doubtful whether anyone even secretly thought them.