Turning Point in Russia
Jack F. Matlock, Former U.S. Ambassador, Professor at Princeton and Columbia Universities
October 18, 2007
Following are excerpts of an interview conducted by Mark Simakovsky of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, June 7, 2007
By the time I got to Moscow in 1987, we were almost at a turning point, we still were not sure what Gorbachev was going to do domestically, and yet from then on, things began to move very rapidly, not only in our relationship, by December of 87 we had the INF treaty that abolished that whole class of nuclear weapons, in a way that was as much in Russia's interests as in ours, even though it had been our proposal. And by the next year you had Reagan visiting Moscow, endorsing what going on domestically and Gorbachev, then preparing for the first real elections which then happened in 89, so the improvement in our relations and the opening up of democratization of the Soviet Union was happening simultaneously. That was the most exciting part of my stay in Moscow as Ambassador.
I think there were three distinctive, I call them seismic, changes, seismic that goes in geo-political terms, it was like continents being torn apart. The first was the end of the Cold War and that happened because of cooperation between the Western leaders and Gorbachev. So the Cold War ended on terms and Gorbachev is right when he says we all won the Cold War. Reagan himself wrote in his diary later, after he was no longer president, it was not the victory of one country over the other; it was the victory of one idea over the other. Now, the second thing that happened was Communist Party rule at first was undermined and then collapsed in the Soviet Union. Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union; we had nothing to do with it. It was internal pressures.
When we saw that the Soviet Union was breaking up, we of course wanted to have as good relations as we could with all the successors and I think that policy was absolutely right. But the idea that we tried to bring down the Soviet Union and even worse the idea that we forced the Soviet Union apart, or that we destroyed communism, this is all nonsense.
I think that the thing that really brought the greatest joy was the fact that the political changes allowed us to develop very, very close relationships, officially, personally, intellectually with the top Soviet officials, with many of the intellectuals, societies, the scholars and a lot of ordinary people.
I think it is very much in the United States interests to have a strong, free Russia and a Russia which is affluent. I think the fundamental interest of Russia and the fundamental interest of the United States are very similar. Now of course, any two countries are going to have different points of view on some issues. Any two countries are going to compete, commercially and in other ways both cooperate and compete, because you do both but even the competition just as we have competition inside, country really makes us better.
In the Soviet Union when we dealt with issues like human rights, we referred to an agreement they signed. It was a political commitment. So we weren't forcing American rights or American views on them, we're saying look, this is something that all of the countries of Europe have signed, you've signed it voluntarily. Now let's discuss how we keep it. Now, if, and you hear this sometimes ?Russia should do this or it should do that and you know, that there's backtracking on democracy, you know I think for most Russians the 90s seem more like chaos than it did democracy and the lives for a lot of reasons deteriorated to a degree. If you call that democracy, you're giving democracy a bad name.
I'm very much encouraged by the degree that we have people now studying on both sides. I think that it is very important and it's very important to keep these changes going and frankly if the United States wants to spread democracy, I think there is only one effective way to do it; have people come here, see how it works and if we are making it work properly, not everyone who comes here likes what they see, but most do in the long run on balance and then they'll go back and if there are institutions or practices they think make sense, they'll do what they can to brings those into their countries.
This reached the point that by 91, before I left Moscow, Gorbachev told me privately, my last meeting with him he greeted me as Comrade Ambassador and I sort of did a double-take and he said Jack, you know, I'm not offending you, nor am I implying that you're anything but a full representative of your country, but you and your government have helped us do what we need to do here, because we need to end the tension between our two countries.