From Gorbachev to Putin

An Interview with Amb. Jack Matlock

Today, if you read Gorbachev’s comments about Reagan, you’ll find he is one of his greatest admirers, precisely because he was a man of peace. He was a man who in complex situations always tried to do the right thing. He didn’t go into detailed analysis. But he had a holistic view as to how he might convince another person to do something that was actually in that person’s interest but not what they were doing before and also how you move forward from there.

Another thing he did which is different from the others: he said, before he even met Gorbachev, whatever we achieve we must not call it victory because that will simply make the next one more difficult. Ronald Reagan never said we won the Cold War. In his memoirs, when he and Gorbachev parted in December — 1988, their last meeting when he was president — he said, “We parted as partners out to make a better world.” In other words, he understood that you can’t just say, “We won, we won, we won,” as we started doing in the 1990s, and then create something better with other people.

OR: What was Gorbachev like? Why do you think he came to power at the moment he did, given that he was so different from the other general secretaries?

Matlock: First of all, his colleagues didn’t understand how different he was. Second, he was a generation younger than the older ones who started dying off. He was actually put there primarily by Yuri Andropov to reform the system. Andropov understood that it needed change. He wasn’t thinking of fundamental change but changes in development.

If one looks at the politics of the Politburo at that time, Gorbachev was really the only plausible candidate when Konstantin Chernenko died. He was vigorous and the others had been showing their age and their disabilities for some years. He didn’t need a lot of staffing. He was much better-educated than the previous generation, having gotten a law degree at Moscow University. He also knew more of the outside world. As a party official, he had taken vacations in France. He had spent time in Canada. He was acutely aware of how backward the Soviet Union was and how it was not fulfilling its needs, the needs of its people.
At that time, he thought he could use the party apparatus to push his fellow politicians in a different direction, but he had to end the arms race. He had to end the hostility with the West in order to have any possibility for reform at home. At first, he tried to do it by attempting to bring pressure to bear on the United States using Western allies. He had a successful trip to London and impressed Margaret Thatcher. He then had a trip to Paris with François Mitterrand before he ever met Reagan.

Our impression at the time was that he was going to be more vigorous. That meant that that if his aims were the same as those of his predecessors, then he could be more dangerous. But it was clear that he was able, that he was vigorous. Then he began to put forward a new doctrine and foreign policy which was defensive rather than offensive: first glasnost, which was an opening-up of the country to information, and then perestroika, which was a rebuilding. Many American analysts didn’t take this seriously. Those of us who did, we said, “Give it a chance. Let’s push him. Let’s see if he will go down this course and when he does, let’s make sure he’s rewarded for it with agreements because he is doing to policy what needs to be done if we’re going to get along peacefully.”

He was always very articulate and certainly had his brief in hand. He didn’t need a lot of assistants prompting him as his predecessors did. But at the same time, he was constantly changing and reacting to what was a very difficult situation at home and at times abroad. In talking about what he was aiming for and what he was doing, one has specify which year, which month, which day and maybe sometimes whether it was the morning or the afternoon. He was a moving train. That was part of the fascination in watching and dealing with him.

OR: Do you think that he had a significant humanitarian, peacemaking streak in him like the one you describe in Reagan?

Matlock: Absolutely. He absolutely ruled out the use of force to keep himself in power or to keep the Soviet Union together. He was the first leader of Russia or the Soviet Union to refuse to use force to stay in power. I was at a conference in China a few years ago. I said, “I think one of his great contributions to Russian history was he refused to use force to keep himself in power.” The representative of the Chinese Communist Party said, “In our opinion, that was his biggest mistake.” They had Tiananmen Square. Gorbachev, on the other hand, refused to authorize suppressing demonstrations. That’s why Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, and his co-conspirators tried to remove him in August 1991. They failed to do so because the country had changed to the point that force wasn’t going to work anymore. But that change came about because of Gorbachev’s unwillingness as the leader of the party, in control of the country, to use force to keep it together. He thought this was fundamentally wrong.

Russians who would say, “Well, it was more important to keep the Soviet Union together,” consider that a mistake. I consider it an example that Russian presidents, I hope, will continue to follow. You can’t have peaceful changes of regime if every leader insists on ruling for life and using force to stay in power. There are other aspects here where he was absolutely different. That was when he learned that many in the Communist Party were blocking the reforms he wanted internally. He began to take the party out of control of the country. That was going on certainly from 1988, 1989, and 1990. When the Party was out of control of the country, that allowed it to split apart later.