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The Russians, One on One

Soviet and American citizens chose to talk privately about nuclear arms. Still, few minds were changed

Demonstrators, march, Central Park, nuclear, disarmament, rally, freeze, nuclear arms

Demonstrators hold hands and vocalize as they march towards Central Park during a massive nuclear disarmament rally where 750,000 gathered to demand a freeze on nuclear arms, New York City on June 12th, 1982.

Lee Frey/Authenticated News International/Getty

THE NOBLE EXPERIMENT BEGAN IN A BEIGE banquet hall at the Sheraton Ritz Hotel in Minneapolis. There, amid a rectangle of conference tables surrounded by huge tinted mirrors on the walls, a collection of earnest, peace-minded Americans would talk with two dozen visitors from the Soviet Union. For five days in late May, they would begin the arduous journey toward mutual understanding.

It was a lovely vision, this U.S.-U.S.S.R. Bilateral Exchange Conference, one widely imagined by Americans dedicated to halting the arms race. While Ronald Reagan and his apparatchiks gorge on new weapons for the new cold war, the logic went, ordinary citizens could begin building private bridges toward peace by talking to the Russians themselves. If it were left up to their governments to resolve the rivalry, the nuclear madness might very well end in holocaust. Americans of good will, therefore, should try to open their own channels to the Russians and hope that citizen-to-citizen dialogues may eventually produce new approaches and renewed public pressure for change.

While the theory is laudable, it is exceedingly difficult to fulfill in practice. The conversations in Minneapolis, as amicable and serious as they were, simply underscored how hard it is for Americans to get on the same wavelength with the Russians — even sympathetic Americans who believe that the United States is at least as culpable in the arms race as the Soviet Union.

This communications gap wasn’t simply mechanical, either. Most of the Russians in attendance spoke excellent English, and on paper, certainly, the Soviet delegation was relatively broad: it included scholars, journalists, a factory manager from Kiev and even two clergymen — one a Baptist, the other, Russian Orthodox — who tried to demonstrate that their churches care about peace, too.

Despite this range of representation, the visitors, of course, were led and dominated by professional “Americanists” — men who study us for a living, who have visited the United States many times and seem to know everything about us. They anticipate all the questions we ask, from the invasion of Afghanistan to the persecution of Andrei Sakharov. And they know all the “correct” answers.

That was the first and most fundamental problem with the dialogue. The Soviets stuck to their official script, despite the Americans’ freewheeling and eclectic expression of their opinions. And, of course, the forty American delegates were atypical in their own way. A few mainstream figures attended, including former Minnesota governor Albert Quie and Minneapolis mayor Don Fraser, but the political spectrum was quite narrow. Because the delegation was assembled by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a left-liberal think tank based in Washington, the majority of them were speaking for various elements of the American peace movement. Most talked of change — radical change — in the status quo of arms-control negotiations.

Thus, the Minneapolis forum produced a bizarre role reversal, a pleading at cross-purposes. The Americans were now the dissidents, opposed to their own government. They urged the Soviets to consider bold approaches, to work toward a future of total disarmament. The Russians, meanwhile, spoke authoritatively for the established wisdom, for caution and small steps, for political pragmatism.

In fact, the “Minneapolis Dialogue,” as it was informally known, inadvertently revealed this melancholy reality: Americans devoted to peace are so frustrated with their own leaders and the bellicose direction of American politics that they feel they must direct their fragile hopes at Moscow, counting on the Russians to act responsibly in the face of America’s irrational drive to further escalate the arms race. The Russians shrug. It is a lot to ask.

Nodari Simoniya, a professor of Oriental studies at the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, was amused by the irony. “The Americans are the radicals, the revolutionaries who want to change everything,” he observed. “And we are the conservatives, the realists.”

ROBERT BOROSAGE, DIRECTOR OF THE IPS, admitted the obvious: “At this particular historical moment, the Soviets have all the best lines on arms control.”

As the discussion unfolded, the Soviets used each one of them. Dr. Nikolai Blohin, president of the U.S.S.R.-U.S.A. Society and putative leader of the delegation, recited at length the key Soviet proposals that the Reagan administration has spurned: the concept of negotiating a freeze on all new weapons; the promise not to be the first to inaugurate a nuclear war; the willingness to permit on-site inspections; and the desire for a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. The Soviets, as he reminded everyone, have negotiated three new treaties with the U.S., including SALT II, but all are now moribund. As Blohin, a dour man with flaring eyebrows, plodded through the list, it was easy to understand why the Soviet arguments have scored so effectively in the propaganda battle in Western Europe.

Even allowing for their hyperbole and hypocrisy, the Soviet version is essentially correct. It is the U.S. government that has abandoned the arms treaties, and it is our government that intends to build a new generation of genocidal weapons that will inevitably provoke a similar response from the Soviets. None of the American delegates disputed these facts, but they did stress that the armaments issue could not be addressed in total isolation. They pummeled the Russians on the long list of Soviet offenses against human rights and warned that genuine cooperation on weaponry will always be stymied until the Soviets deal more honestly with this subject.

The Soviet delegates responded with tired and absurd evasions: George Washington owned slaves. America has unemployment and poverty. Anyone who wants to can leave the Soviet Union. The Baptist minister even claimed that the law banning Sunday schools in his country has a positive side — it forces parents to read the Bible to their children at home. “The press always writes about the one man they put in prison,” griped the Reverend Anatoly Sokolov. “Nobody writes about the 40 million people who are not in jail.”

Still, the debates among the delegates were mild compared to the Soviet-directed barbs from the American heartland. Agreeing to appear with Minneapolis citizens on a televised forum, the Russian visitors heard the full wrath of U.S. public opinion on human rights. For ninety minutes, a long line of Ukrainian emigres and other indignant citizens assaulted the Russians with angry questions.

The Soviets were furious. Some suspected that they’d been set up. Vitaly Kobysh, a representative of the Communist Party Central Committee and the real ranking member of the delegation, fumed afterward: “I have heard nothing like that before in my life. I never saw such insults, hatred. If that is democracy, there is something wrong with democracy.” Some of the Ukrainian exiles, he added, were undoubtedly ex-Nazis, and the Soviet Union was glad to be rid of them.

If rancor was the tenor of the human-rights discussions, incredulity dominated the focus of the session on arms control. The Americans suggested that the Soviet Union might jolt events out of their deadly rut by making new unilateral concessions. Since the Reagan administration refuses to budge, the Americans proposed that the Russians should voluntarily destroy more of their smaller, obsolete missiles as a token of good faith. Perhaps, said the Americans, the Soviets might dismantle some of their SS-20s aimed at Western Europe as a way of preventing the United States from deploying its controversial Pershing missiles there.

“It would be a courageous step, a historic step,” said Anne Cahn, director of one American peace group. “It would capture the high ground for the Soviet Union, and it would be a turning point in the arms race. I urge my Soviet colleagues to seriously consider this.”

The Soviets were bemused at first and finally a little irritated by these repetitious pleas. Natalia Dolgopolova, a senior research fellow in American studies, reacted this way: “This is the second day I am here, and I must say, I don’t yet feel comfortable. I feel that I must always defend myself. Yesterday we were told how we should behave in certain areas of human rights. Today we are told of certain measures the Soviet Union must take unilaterally. I don’t know the United States very well, but what I do know does not give much grounds for hope.”

Nodari Simoniya was equally sarcastic. “The Soviet Union is supposed to take some kind of initiative,” said Simoniya, “an extreme initiative, and perhaps this will start a chain reaction, which perhaps will pressure the Reagan administration. Perhaps. Each speaker emphasized perhaps. Well, I would like to suggest a different chain reaction that seems more realistic. Reagan has taken a very strong negative line that says you must build up your arms, and this seems to appeal to the corporations and other interests. Then your answer is that we must give more concessions to help the peace movements in the West. Before you can deploy your peace movement, Reagan will say, ‘See, it worked. The Soviets have given in.'”

Even though their relatively narrow suggestions were greeted with skepticism, some of the Americans moved on to a grander goal — a blueprint for “general and complete disarmament.” The slow, tedious process of negotiating limited arms agreements over the last fifteen years has “managed” the arms race but has failed to control it, they argued. Marcus Raskin, a leftist theorist and cofounder of IPS, presented a detailed fifteen-year plan for total disarmament that would mandate international inspections, United Nations enforcement and many other visionary precepts for global peacekeeping. “This is not an exercise in utopianism,” Raskin insisted.

The Russians were perplexed. Proposals for complete disarmament, after all, had been their tack back in the propaganda wars of the Fifties. Whether or not they were sincere, the Soviets abandoned that approach at the urging of the U.S., which supported the more gradual process of arms-control treaties. Now, two decades later, Americans were telling the U.S.S.R. that such treaties were a waste of time.

Genrikh Trofimenko, a leading spokesman for the United States and Canada Studies Institute in Moscow, responded with contempt. “Of course, it sounds very good to make this drastic approach, but in reality, it wouldn’t work,” he said. “The U.S. government doesn’t want to make a treaty because some commas in the draft look like they favor the Soviet Union. So it would be impossible to make agreements with the United States if we take this drastic approach.”

It took Mikhail Milshtein, a seventy-two-year-old retired Jewish general from the Red Army, to pinpoint the subject that the Russians regard as the key to progress: American politics. “It takes ten years to come to an agreement, and it takes only one election to repudiate everything that was agreed upon,” Milshtein observed. “Speaking frankly…the situation is very gloomy.”

The Americans agreed. And it was this very frustration with American politics that made them pin so much hope on the distant Soviets. Reverend William Sloane Coffin, a veteran antiwar leader from New York, put it most directly: “There’s nothing we can do here with Reagan. Everybody knows this. So the only ones who can take action are you. Andropov has talked of destroying some of your weapons — why don’t you do it? Do it! You will be heroes to the world. It will not be a sign of weakness but a sign of your strength.”

It was a plea for time, a plea for any gesture from the Russians that might slow down the Reagan administration’s deployment of nuclear weapons until the fall of 1984, when America elects its next president. But it was precisely on that point that the Russians were most wary.

“A new president in 1984?” mused Genrikh Trofimenko. “Ah, yes, if there were a new president, that’s different. But I do not think there will be a new president in 1984.”

Trofimenko made a small wager of five rubles with an American delegate, but he gave the American two-to-one odds.

ON THE SURFACE, ALL THIS TALK DOES SEEM futile. What’s the point of it? The best answer — perhaps the only encouraging answer — is that for some reason, the Russians feel the need to do it. It is indeed unusual for a delegation of Soviet institutenikis to discourse so thoroughly with people they know are outsiders to government power, especially with peace-movement “dissidents.” As Trofimenko told one organizer beforehand, “Movements come and go; we deal with governments.”

These days, however, the government-to-government dialogue is going so badly and the Soviets are so uncertain about the future that they are speaking with all sorts of groups, searching for insights and new contacts. And, yes, searching for propaganda points, too. Dropping blunt hints, the leading Soviet delegates suggested that it would be nice if the conference produced a joint statement, perhaps one endorsing the concept of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, already declared by the U.S.S.R. but not by the American government. The U.S. delegates declined, not because they disagree with the “no first use” position, but because it would have made them tools in Russia’s short-run propaganda war, while their vision is on the longer view.

If the Russians came to Minneapolis to test the strength of the American peace movement and to find out whether these “dissidents” had any hope of stopping the deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe, the answer they heard was an unequivocal no. For now, this knowledge might encourage the Soviets to make some sort of cynical deal with the Reagan administration, a meaningless agreement that would permit both sides to continue the arms race unabated. The American delegates, however, wish to focus on the larger goal of general disarmament.

Their fragile hope is that over time, maybe within the next three to five years, they can establish another channel for exchange and mutual research outside the orthodox routes — a vehicle for floating unconventional ideas that neither their government nor ours would dare to offer. The two delegations did agree to meet again next year in Moscow and, in the meantime, to establish a joint commission to study and explore some of the “impossible ideas” the Americans had advanced. Who knows where it will lead? Perhaps nowhere, perhaps to new thinking. While the Russians scoffed at the American proposals, they also listened and took copious notes. Those American delegates with considerable experience in dealing with Soviet representatives were not surprised or discouraged by the initial response. The Russians always say nyet to new ideas, then go home and study them. Sometime later, when the previously rejected concept has been digested, they may abruptly endorse it.

After talking with members of the Russian delegation, my own enduring hope for the future is less complicated. Like us, the Soviets are trapped by their own politics and propaganda. And like us, they are driven by their own history and national insecurities. Yet, of course, their human aspirations are common to ours. Over some vodka late at night, Vladimir Kirillov, secretary of the delegation, spoke emotionally about his childhood in the Ukraine and the deprivation of the war years. “My mother made soup from the grass,” he remembered. “It was the best soup I ever tasted.”

Fyodor Burlatsky, an author and a senior political commentator, shared his bewilderment at the younger generation, focusing on his twenty-two-year-old son’s attitude toward nuclear arms. “Our generation still thinks that something can be done,” Burlatsky said, “but the younger generation is afraid. My son said to me, ‘You don’t realize that our generation feels it has a shortened lifetime.'” This is no different from how Americans, young and old, feel about the bomb.

In the present dangerous climate, the idea of a citizens’ dialogue, though flawed and difficult, is surely better than nothing. “What else can we do?” General Milshtein asked. “At least it’s talk.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Nuclear weapons

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