Elite-level Soviet politics, privileged access to state secrets, knowledge about machinations inside the Kremlin—such is the environment in which Andrei A. Kovalev lived and worked. In this memoir of his time as a diplomat in key capacities and as a member of Mikhail Gorbachev’s staff, Kovalev reveals hard truths about his country as only a perceptive witness can. In Russia’s Dead End, Kovalev shares his intimate knowledge of political activities behind the scenes at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Kremlin before the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991 and afterward, including during the administration of Vladimir Putin.
Kovalev analyzes Soviet efforts to comply with international human-rights obligations, the machinations of the KGB, and the link between corrupt oligarchs and state officials. He documents the fall of the USSR and the post-Soviet explosion of state terrorism and propaganda, and offers a nuanced historical explanation of the roots of Russia’s contemporary crisis under Vladimir Putin. This insider’s memoir provides a penetrating analysis of late-Soviet and post-Soviet Russian politics that is pungent, pointed, witty, and accessible. It assesses the current dangerous status of Russian politics and society while illuminating the path to a more just and democratic future.
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About the Author
Andrei A. Kovalev is a former member of the secretariat of President Mikhail Gorbachev. He worked in the Soviet and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the staff of the Security Council of the Russian Federation during the Yeltsin and Putin administrations. He is the author of two books on Russian on politics.
Steven I. Levine, a retired professor of politics and history, is the coauthor of Mao: The Real Story.
Peter Reddaway is professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
Read an Excerpt
Russia's Dead End
An Insiders Testimony from Gorbachev to Putin
By Andrei A. Kovalev, Steven I. Levine
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
Diplomacy and Democratic Reforms
It is hard to imagine. In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital of what, in the second half of the 1980s, is still the totalitarian Soviet Union, a number of ministry officials are working openly to destroy the totalitarian foundations of the state. This was the same ministry headed during the Cold War by the grim-faced Andrei Gromyko, widely known in the West as "Mister No" from the results of his negotiations and almost automatic rejection of all Western proposals. Yet the story is true. It was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that initiated and pushed through almost all of the democratic changes in the Soviet Union during the tenure of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Why did part of the foreign policy establishment of the USSR seek to destroy the totalitarian regime and establish democracy and a state ruled by law in a country devoid of legitimacy and justice? The answer reflects the rather well-organized confusion of the era of change that began with Gorbachev's accession to power in March 1985. The new leadership of the ministry demanded it.
From their service abroad, many Soviet diplomats were familiar with a world outside their own country that was entirely different. More than many others in the USSR, they had a better and clearer understanding of not only the need to promote the democratic reformation of society but also how to achieve it. To give one prominent example, Gorbachev's close associate Alexander Yakovlev, generally recognized as the chief ideologist of perestroika, had spent many years on diplomatic assignment in Canada.
The Foreign Ministry and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze were meant for each other. A unique synthesis existed in the ministry between those officials who had mastered the science and art of diplomacy and Shevardnadze, Gorbachev's minister of foreign affairs, who possessed political will and was intimately acquainted with every facet of Soviet life. Prior to becoming the leader of the Soviet Republic of Georgia (1972–85), he had headed Georgia's Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Of course, Shevardnadze did not act on his own. First, appropriate conditions had to be created for the Foreign Ministry to become active in the field of human rights, an area that had been clearly outside its domain. According to a resolution the Foreign Ministry proposed at the Twenty-Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), in February–March 1986, humanitarian affairs was designated one of the foundations of international security. This empowered the Foreign Ministry to address human rights issues inside the USSR that had previously been out of bounds not only for the diplomatic service but also for all other government departments apart from the punitive ministries, which punished those who even dared to speak of human rights.
Soon a Directorate for Humanitarian and Cultural Cooperation was established in the Foreign Ministry. Its main task was to resolve a broad range of questions in the field of human rights. It was far from obvious, however, how to undertake the task of cleaning up one's own home, sweeping out all the accumulated dirt and trash.
Shevardnadze's appointment as minister of foreign affairs triggered an intense allergic reaction among many ministry officials. After the simple and predictable Andrei Gromyko, Shevardnadze was an enigma, especially to officials who were unfamiliar with the complex issue of human rights or simply clueless as to what was going on around them. For almost a year Shevardnadze sized up the ministry and made no changes among its leading personnel. Only just prior to the explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, did he replace his first deputies. Instead of the hawkish Georgy Kornienko and Viktor Mal'tsev, he appointed Anatoly Kovalev and Yuly Vorontsov to these positions. Then Kovalev's closest associates, Anatoly Adamishin and Vladimir Petrovsky, also became deputies to the minister.
Starting from the top down, I shall provide brief sketches of those persons to whom Russia is indebted for what was good and democratic in its recent past.
I can only judge Eduard Shevardnadze, whom both well-wishers and adversaries referred to as the Silver Fox, on the basis of what I know personally. There have always been too many lies and too much slander surrounding him, born of misunderstanding and hatred. Yet there can be no doubt that he made an invaluable contribution to the establishment of democracy in Russia. He and Alexander Yakovlev were the main authors of the democratic reforms.
During perestroika, this lively, charming, energetic, gray-haired man was as greatly respected by the supporters of democratic reforms as he was hated by their opponents. His name is linked to the end of the arms race, the Velvet Revolutions in Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union's entry on the path of establishing democracy and observing human rights at home. His enemies accused him of abandoning the foreign policy positions of the USSR and of weakening the country's military potential. His supporters admired the courage with which he jettisoned moldy dogmas and facilitated the USSR's rapprochement with civilized, democratic countries. He was always in the thick of contentious matters and seemed to attract them to himself.
His first deputy (and my father) was Anatoly Kovalev. Shevardnadze did not deal with a single important foreign or domestic policy issue without consulting him. Possibly this was because of my father's closeness to Gorbachev; possibly it was because of the foreign minister's empathy and trust in him. As far back as the height of the period of stagnation in the 1970s when Leonid Brezhnev was in power, Kovalev was instrumental in having the USSR assume unprecedented obligations with regard to human rights by signing the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). He was close to all the Soviet leaders, starting with Brezhnev, and was especially close to Gorbachev, to whom he had direct access. Kovalev's other persona was that of a poet. He embodied a paradoxical combination of idealism grounded in what, for those times and for people in his profession, was an unusual belief in common sense together with a combative personality. He was a cunning chess master who calculated diplomatic moves many turns in advance. In his youth he had boxed and played soccer and many other sports. This synthesis of creativity and combativeness enabled him to be effective in both the foreign and domestic policy arenas.
Yet he was hampered by a tendency to idealize his like-minded political associates, and he was excessively loyal toward Shevardnadze and Gorbachev. His combativeness helped when he was pushing forward some good initiatives but not when he failed to realize there was no chance for success. Still it was thanks to Shevardnadze and Kovalev that the Foreign Ministry succeeded in getting the Twenty-Seventh Congress of the CPSU to include human rights on the agenda of international security policy.
The deputy minister of foreign affairs of the USSR Anatoly Adamishin was a liberal even down to the smallest details. Clever and intelligent, he was a very modest man who achieved much more for democracy and liberalism than all the inveterate demagogues put together. He liked to compare himself to a medieval battering ram in the service of Shevardnadze and Kovalev. This is a striking metaphor, of course, but if he was a battering ram, he was by no means a medieval one. Adamishin acted too intelligently, too resourcefully, and with too much talent for this comparison to be valid. This slim and resourceful diplomat was distinguished by his outstanding boldness and exceptional human decency.
Vladimir Petrovsky replaced Anatoly Adamishin as the custodian of human rights and democratic standards after Adamishins departure to serve as ambassador to Rome. Even after Eduard Shevardnadze's retirement in December 1990, Petrovsky continued to work actively on human rights and did everything he could to ensure the successful convening of the Moscow Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE (September–October 1991).
Under Shevardnadze the Foreign Ministry's activity in the field of human rights may provisionally be divided into three basic components. First was freeing political and religious prisoners from their places of confinement including psychiatric hospitals. Second was resolving the problem of the so-called refuseniks — that is, persons who were refused permission to emigrate. The third was "bringing Soviet legislation and the implementation of Soviet laws into accord with the international obligations of the USSR." (This was my basic brief.) Translating the bureaucratic jargon into ordinary language, it turned out that during my government service in the Foreign Ministry, my assignment was to promote the democratization of the country. Thus, I had to deal with activities that according to existing legislation were illegal and punishable by imprisonment.
In transforming the Soviet Union into a law-based state, the international human rights standards that had been formulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, and other such documents served as a kind of "absolute weapon." The declaration was a reliable guidepost that had been tested by others and was protected from ideological crusaders. An emphasis on international standards provided a legal foundation for our dialogue on human rights with Western countries, with the United States in the first instance. Soviet diplomats stopped avoiding discussions with Western colleagues regarding human rights violations in the USSR. We ourselves often added names from our own information to the lists Western diplomats gave us of prisoners of conscience, psychiatric prisoners, and refuseniks before we sent the lists on to the relevant ministries and departments to confirm the grievances presented to us. Fortunately, no one thought to compare these enhanced lists with the original lists; otherwise, there would have been an incredible scandal.
When we were accused of allowing foreign interference in our domestic affairs, we always had this naive response at hand: "We are simply cooperating in the implementation of universal human rights standards!" It may sound paradoxical, but without the critical input and pressure from our foreign partners, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to resolve many problems of democratization in the USSR. Richard Schifter, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, played a special role in this regard. Western representatives often acted as intermediaries between the Soviet authorities and Soviet dissidents. At the time there was no simpler path for dialogue.
The Foreign Ministry had another powerful means of exerting pressure on opponents of liberal reform — the Vienna conference of states represented in the CSCE (1986–89). The USSR had succeeded in persuading the Vienna meeting to hold a human rights conference in Moscow. By this means the Foreign Ministry provoked our Western colleagues to push more actively for the Soviet Union to respect human rights. We needed them to do this. The West introduced the proposals that we needed, the Soviet delegation in Vienna requested Moscow's approval, and the Foreign Ministry secured the agreement of the "relevant ministries and departments," which mistakenly supposed they would not have to fulfill their promises. The delegation in Vienna received the go-ahead from Moscow, and these same ministries and departments had no alternative but to fulfill their own promises.
The Foreign Ministry also took advantage of other opportunities to resolve human rights problems. Mikhail Gorbachev's speech at the UN on December 7, 1988, would provide what we thought was a unique opportunity to deal a crushing blow to the obstructionists. I was in the office of my boss Alexei Glukhov when Anatoly Kovalev, the first deputy minister, called on his secure line and instructed him to prepare a specific section of the speech. (Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were not in Moscow at the time; Kovalev was acting on his own initiative and later reported on this issue to a session of the Politburo.) I was assigned the task of preparing a first draft that both Glukhov and Kovalev Sr. subsequently revised. Standing at the rostrum of the UN and barely containing his sincere jubilation, Gorbachev would shortly make his sensational announcement, "There are no persons in prison [in the USSR] for their political and religious beliefs" The previously unrevealed background to these words was rather dramatic.
A text that openly contradicted the status quo in the USSR had been prepared in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR. Its purpose was to transform that status quo. A memorandum containing specific instructions to the ministries and departments was immediately drafted in the Central Committee of the CPSU regarding measures that needed to be taken to ensure that the imminent declaration would accord with the actual situation. It was approved in record time. Just a few days remained until the speech. I heard that during this time no one in the Procuracy and the KGB slept at all. By December 7 all the dissidents known to the Foreign Ministry had completed their passage through the purgatory of the Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps (GULAG) and the psychiatric prisons. Gorbachev could now make his speech at the UN with a clear conscience.
We took advantage of Gorbachev's talks with "appropriate" Western interlocutors to release as many political and religious prisoners as possible and to grant refuseniks permission to emigrate. I don't know whether Gorbachev himself ever discussed any of these lists; most likely such questions were resolved at a lower level. But his talks provided an excellent opportunity to resolve existing problems.
Naturally, dialogue also took place in other arenas. One such example was connected to Pope John Paul Il's desire to visit the USSR on the thousandth anniversary of the baptism of Rus, or when Grand Prince Vladimir had accepted Orthodox Christianity in Kiev in 988 CE. Although Shevardnadze tried his best to facilitate the proposed visit, he failed. The Central Committee of the CPSU, the KGB, and the Russian Orthodox Church — all opposed the visit. Unfortunately, they prevailed. The great pontiff was unable to realize his dream of visiting Russia. Neither the USSR during perestroika nor its successor, the Russian Federation, passed the test of real democracy and real freedom of conscience.
Although the diplomatic instruments of the Foreign Ministry were fully employed in the democratic reform of the country, they were obviously insufficient to cleanse the country from the accumulated layers of dust and filth of totalitarianism and to air out the ideological mustiness, the atmosphere of fear, and the other unpleasant odors. That demanded action at a higher political level, especially since the democratic trio of Gorbachev, Shevardnadze, and Yakovlev was opposed by most of the other leaders. Had Shevardnadze only been the minister of foreign affairs, and not concurrently part of the top leadership as a member of the all-powerful Politburo, many of the democratic reforms in the USSR and Russia would have been impossible. In every possible way we took maximum advantage of the minister's political clout. The Silver Fox not only encouraged our efforts but even pushed us toward even greater activity. As a member of the Politburo, Shevardnadze initiated legislation removing political and religious articles from the Criminal Code, introduced religious freedom, established the right to freely exit and reenter the country, put an end to punitive psychiatry in the USSR, and pursued other measures.
Every day draft proposals piled up and were dispatched by special messenger to Politburo members for their views before the Central Committee took any decisions. Shevardnadze assigned Adamishin to deal with those concerning democracy and human rights. Adamishin, in turn, often called upon me. I must give Shevardnadze his due, for he never failed to respond when asked. And, of course, my thanks to Adamishin who initiated all of this.
Excerpted from Russia's Dead End by Andrei A. Kovalev, Steven I. Levine. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1. Diplomacy and Democratic Reforms, 17,
2. The August 1991 Coup: The Breaking Point, 67,
3. Anatomy of a Lost Decade, 1992–2000, 97,
4. How the System Really Works, 141,
5. Inside the Secret Police State, 173,
6. Strangling Democracy, 217,
7. The New Russian Imperialism, 255,
Cast of Characters, 315,