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Danger in Moscow

Of Time magazine’s two “men of the year,” Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov, one consented to an interview. Reagan said: “I think there is less of a risk and less of a danger [of war] today than there was a few years ago…. Because [then] there was more risk of someone gambling if it did not look as if we could retaliate in any extremely damaging way.”1 The first statement undervalues both the seriousness of the danger of deteriorating superpower relations in recent years and the potentially explosive consequences of tensions inside the Soviet Union. The second statement may well overestimate the importance of America’s military capacity, should the Soviet Union decide to gamble.

Having recently returned from my third trip to the Soviet Union in thirteen months, I should like here to convey the mood in Moscow and the formidable threat presented by the combination of American bellicosity and Soviet anger and vulnerability. I want also to suggest ways of improving the poisonous atmosphere that exacerbates the far from normal hostility of the two powers, which persists notwithstanding the recent gestures of the Reagan administration. I speak as an advocate of a strong defense; of increased military spending by the United States, Western Europe, and Japan to counter one-sided Soviet gains during the last decade; the deployment of INF weapons in Europe on political if not military grounds; the disciplined use of policies concerning trade, credit, and technology transfer to advance the goals of the Western alliance; and the containment of Soviet expansionism. I wish I could speak as an optimist who expects the dangers I encountered to be recognized and enlightened statesmanship to outweigh political advantage during the election year.


In Moscow, I found that the dominant mood among officials was one of anger; among people outside official circles, it was one of fear. The urban population has been deeply affected during the last two years by a war scare; and this has been fueled by incessant, agitated, and strident vilification of the United States. The higher officials of the Party and government leaders have been stirred to defiant hostility toward the United States; the combination of American insult and pressure since 1982 has been made more bitter by the recognition among Russian elites of their own political and economic vulnerability. An increasingly intolerant neo-Stalinism in domestic affairs coexists with urgent advocacy of economic reform. These different tendencies share one volatile ingredient—the desire to reassert Soviet greatness at home and abroad.

Residents of Moscow have been subjected to an assault of anti-American propaganda that recalls Stalin’s attacks of the early 1950s. Their published and unpublished letters to newspapers and their insistent questions at public lectures suggest the impact of a campaign against American policies and leaders that has been more primitive and offensive than any others I have observed during the last three decades. President Reagan, for example, is portrayed as a new Hitler. The fear of war is deliberately fostered by Soviet authorities. Appeal to Russian patriotism and Soviet great-power nationalism in the face of foreign menace is once again being used to inspire new exertions, to justify present and future austerities, and to mobilize support for Soviet policies.

The neo-Stalinist direction of the press and television is followed by the academic institutes that study international relations and the United States. Their researchers busily grind out what is officially called “counterpropaganda.” Articles on international questions are returned to their authors with the advice that additional pages attacking the American government would speed publication. Predictably, the scholars who might once have appeared “soft” on America are now the ones who are anxious to appear most zealous in their attacks.

The turn to neo-Stalinism is reflected not only in the pressures on dissident groups but in the choice of prosecutors as well. Andrei Sakharov is denounced as a warmonger. Dissenters are tried with exceptional speed, sentenced harshly, and their treatment in camps and prisons has become more cruel. Experienced KGB managers have taken control of the uniformed police who, after undergoing a purge, have been unleashed against “speculators, hooligans, and shirkers.” Increasingly tough measures have been applied in factories and offices to enforce “work discipline.” American diplomats and correspondents are more effectively isolated. In December the head of the KGB gained alternate membership in the Politburo, a promotion that preserves the KGB’s place at the very top during Andropov’s illness and underscores symbolically its new visibility and power.

Most striking in official circles, however, is the intensity with which Soviet officials, their aides and experts respond personally to real or imagined slights from Washington. Policy makers in the West—and President Reagan foremost, as the opening quotation indicates—are accustomed to regarding Soviet leaders and their advisers, notwithstanding their ideological hostility, as having pragmatic respect for the language of power, as being prudent calculators of risks and costs in international relations. Even at the height of détente, the Soviet leaders were committed to ideological warfare; but this was somewhat discounted in the West when it came to negotiations. Now the sensitivity and emotion with which Soviet leaders and elites respond to strong doses of their own medicine from the American side have put assumptions about their “pragmatism” in doubt.

President Reagan’s rhetoric has badly shaken the self-esteem and patriotic pride of the Soviet political elites. The administration’s self-righteous moralistic tone, its reduction of Soviet achievements to crimes by international outlaws from an “evil empire”—such language stunned and humiliated the Soviet leaders, especially since it followed so suddenly a decade of the greatest mutual civility in the history of Soviet-American relations. No one who seeks to understand the political culture of Soviet Russia, not to speak of its historical tradition, should under-estimate the potency of words. Among the Soviet elites, who have spent much of their lives manipulating the nuances of ideology, words are taken very seriously. They use an elaborate rhetoric to convey existing attitudes and shifting policies and they expect no less of the adversary’s rhetoric. For Soviet leaders and high officials President Reagan’s decision to use bellicose language was and is a political fact that amounts to a policy pronouncement. The Soviets became convinced that far from being mere posturing, President Reagan’s rhetoric reflected actual beliefs that promised even tougher policies if the Soviet Union allowed itself to be pushed around. Thus even the recent muting of Reagan’s attack, largely under pressure from Western European allies—as in his speech of January 15—cannot quiet their alarm. The damage will not easily be undone.

High Soviet officials, their aides, and their experts believe that President Reagan is determined to deny the Soviet Union nothing less than its legitimacy and status as a global power. This status, they thought, had been conceded once and for all by Reagan’s predecessors, not to speak of America’s allies. They believe President Reagan would deny them the respect and international influence due them as an inevitable consequence of what they see as the most important accomplishment in their postrevolutionary history—the achievement of military parity with the West. A rekindled sense of insecurity fires an angry and defiant response, a desire to lash out, to reassert self-esteem, to restore the diminished respect of others. Such an attitude must surely make us reconsider our confident expectation that Soviet pragmatists will continue to be content with policies of “low risk” and “low cost.”

How do Soviet officials and experts explain Reaganism? Without detailed information or deep understanding of the US, high Soviet officials and Soviet experts often resort to their ideology’s simplistic formulas and to superficial comparisons with times past. Reagan for them has become the spokesman of aggressive new business interests in the western and southwestern United States and of the “military-industrial complex,” which has reemerged to end the post-Vietnam caution, and which seeks new conquests and huge profits. The historical analogies used and probably believed in official circles ironically point to the same period whose lessons are emphasized by zealots in Reagan’s entourage—the 1930s. In the Soviet version, Reagan’s America is an aggressive force plotting if not to attack the Soviet Union then to roll back the Soviet Eastern European empire, to isolate the Soviet Union, and to deny it equality as a superpower. Reagan’s military budgets are seen as proof of his determination to alter substantially the balance of European nuclear power and the balance of global strategic forces. They are equated with Hitler’s preparations for war. Reagan’s refusal to accept a declaration of “no first use” of nuclear weapons is said to reflect his willingness to contemplate nuclear war. The lesson of the 1930s seems as obvious to Soviet leaders and their advisers as it is to President Reagan and some of his advisers: “appeasement” can only bring disaster.

In an already paranoid regime, the intensification of dread takes place rapidly. Mistrust of Reagan and his policies is deep and pervasive. To mention only one of many examples, a high Soviet official harangued me for twenty minutes on American culpability in the Korean airplane disaster. It was, he insisted, deliberately engineered by Reagan’s people so that the Soviet military would be forced to shoot down a passenger plane, thereby exposing the Soviets to international condemnation and loss of stature.

In these circumstances the Soviet officials contemplate the present and future of Soviet-American relations very soberly. They expect only the worst from Reagan and are preparing for it. At formal and informal meetings with Americans they speak more earnestly and resort less to propaganda clichés than at any time in my memory. They seemed to me to be making an exceptional effort to understand the position of the American administration and to signal to their American counterparts what is and is not acceptable to Soviet leaders. Whether or not President Reagan is reelected in 1984, they anticipate no return to the détente of the period between 1972 and 1975. Like their American counterparts they no longer harbor illusions about the prospects for long-term relations. Whatever the outcome of the election, they expect continued high American military expenditures, even if a Democratic president in their view would call for lower annual increases. Yet, most of all, they fear Reagan’s reelection. They know they must prepare a strategy for relations during a second term.


Taken together, President Reagan’s rhetoric and politics have contributed to a momentous change in the atmosphere of Soviet-American relations, one that is not readily reversible. Reagan’s rhetoric deeply disturbed Soviet leaders in three ways. His public disrespect toward Soviet leaders affected them personally. His assault on the legitimacy of the Soviet system and the prestige of its leaders humiliated them before their domestic audience. His denunciation of Soviet international behavior diminished them before the world audience. The persistent rhetorical onslaught created for the Soviet leaders not only personal grievances but domestic and foreign problems. Reagan’s rhetoric provoked an especially savage Soviet rhetoric by way of response. The consequence for Soviet-American relations is a deeply rooted situation of confrontations exacerbated by personal grudges and high emotions.

  1. 1

    Time, January 2, p. 37.

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