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Authors: Serhii Plokhy

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George Bush's international career began at the dawn of détente in Soviet-American relations. In 1971, President Nixon appointed the forty-five-year-old former Republican congressman from Houston to serve as US representative to the United Nations. With his patron out of office in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Bush found himself in the role of chief architect of the US-Chinese rapprochement initiated by Nixon. He spent fourteen months as head of the US liaison office in Beijing, helping to build an alliance then aimed primarily against the USSR. In 1976, Bush returned to Washington to head the Central Intelligence Agency, where he presided over US covert operations in Angola directed against the Cuban-backed government of Angola's first president, Agostinho Neto. As director of the Council on Foreign Relations between 1977 and 1979, Bush witnessed from the front row the deterioration of Soviet-American relations during the last years of Jimmy Carter's administration.

In 1981, George H. W. Bush became the forty-third vice president of his country. The man at the top of his ticket, Ronald Reagan, dramatically raised the level of anti-Soviet rhetoric in Washington. He built up American military capability and boosted the nation's morale in the wake of the Vietnam debacle and the economic crisis of the late 1970s. But Reagan was also looking for a Soviet leader with whom he could negotiate the reduction of both sides' nuclear arsenals. It was a frustrating search, as the Soviet leaders kept dying on him. Soon after
Reagan came up with his START initiative, Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982. His successor, the former KGB chief Yurii Andropov, followed suit in February 1984. Finally, Andropov's successor, Konstantin Chernenko, passed away in March 1985. Representing his country at the funerals of the Soviet leaders, George Bush became a frequent guest in Moscow in the 1980s. At home he became known as a man with a motto: “You die, I fly.” It was at Chernenko's funeral, in March 1985, that Bush first met and greeted a new Soviet leader, the fifty-four-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev.

In July 1991 Bush came to Moscow as chief executive for the first time—he had won the presidency in 1988. He came not to attend another funeral but to negotiate with a vital and energetic Soviet counterpart. Much had changed in the USSR in the intervening period. “Since my last visit in 1985, we've witnessed the opening of Europe and the end of a world polarized by suspicion,” read a speech prepared by the president's staff for the signing of a new treaty to reduce nuclear arsenals. “That year, Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership of the Soviet Union, put many monumental changes into motion. He began instituting reforms that basically changed the world. And in the United States, everyone now knows at least two Russian words: glasnost and perestroika. And here everyone appreciates the English word: democracy.”

George Bush was accompanied on his trip to Moscow by his wife, Barbara, a sixty-six-year-old with silver-gray hair, and members of his staff. As is always the case with eastward transatlantic flights, passengers lose both sleep and time: Moscow time is eight hours ahead of Washington. On the flight over, Bush tried to catch up on time if not sleep by reading the papers his staff had prepared for him in the days leading up to the summit. Landing at Sheremetevo International airport on the warm Moscow evening of July 29, George and Barbara Bush were greeted by Mikhail Gorbachev's newly appointed vice president, Gennadii Yanaev. This was Bush and Yanaev's first meeting, and in the course of his brief three-day visit to the USSR, the president grew to like his modest and unpretentious host, whose performance of ceremonial duties and exclusion from policy making probably reminded Bush of his lonely years as the number two man in the Reagan White House. By the time the president's motorcade approached Moscow, darkness was falling. “A few people waved, and we turned on the parade lights
of the car (which illuminate the interior and let people see clearly who is inside),” recalled Bush. “It was hard to see out and we waved at lampposts a few times, giving us a good laugh.”

The procession through the dark streets of Moscow was a perfect metaphor for the upcoming summit. The bright parade lights of American foreign policy were turned on, and expectations were high, but it was difficult to see clearly in the twilight of the Soviet Union's existence. After a period of wavering and hesitation, Gorbachev appeared to be solidly on the side of continuing reform and Soviet-American cooperation. He seemed increasingly persistent about requesting American financial assistance. Some of Gorbachev's closest advisers, including Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov and the head of the KGB, Vladimir Kriuchkov, were opposed to asking for American help and clearly tending toward authoritarian rule, away from the democratic achievements of Gorbachev's reforms. Then there was the military, which believed that Gorbachev was going too far in reducing Soviet military might in return for little or nothing from the American side.

Finally, there were the increasingly self-confident leaders of the Soviet republics—the constituent parts of the USSR. One of them, the flamboyant leader of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, would meet with Bush in Moscow. The US president would then fly to Kyiv to see another rising star, the leader of Ukraine, the second-largest Soviet republic. Soviet power was no longer concentrated in the hands of one person and was not wielded in Moscow alone. It was becoming increasingly dispersed, and the program of the summit, which included meetings with republican leaders, underlined that reality. Bush would have to try to look past the Potemkin villages of the new Soviet political edifice to see the future. The president had had many opportunities to discuss these questions with his advisers. It was now time to judge the new Soviet reality for himself. His immediate question was how to help Gorbachev stay in power and continue the honeymoon in Soviet-American relations.

for the Moscow summit. This would be his third meeting with Bush in slightly more than a year. In late May and early June 1990 he had visited the American president in Washington, and in mid-July 1991 they negotiated at the
meeting of the Group of Seven (G-7), the world's richest nations, in London. Each time, Gorbachev asked Bush for American economic assistance. But it was not only money that interested the Soviet leader. He badly needed a boost to his flagging popularity at home, and the only place he could get one was in the international arena. The summit was supposed to remind Soviet citizens of Gorbachev's role as a world leader.

Born in March 1931 and thus seven years younger than Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to be born and raised after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Like Bush, Gorbachev was a “southerner”—he came from the Stavropol region of the USSR, next to the volatile North Caucasus. Like Bush, he received an elite education, obtaining a law degree from the prestigious Moscow University, and made his initial career outside the capital. But there the parallels ended. Bush came from the ranks of the American political aristocracy, whereas Gorbachev was born to a peasant family of settlers from Russia and Ukraine. He never mastered proper Russian pronunciation, speaking a heavily accented southern Russian dialect strongly influenced by Ukrainian—a characteristic that allowed his critics in the Moscow intellectual elite to dismiss him as a provincial upstart. In Moscow the young Mikhail married Raisa Titarenko, a fellow student and another product of the Soviet-promoted friendship of peoples: her father was a railway worker from Ukraine and her mother a Russian peasant from Siberia, where Raisa was born and grew up. Unlike the Bushes, who had six children, the Gorbachevs had one daughter, Irina.

After graduating from Moscow University, Gorbachev returned to his native Stavropol region, where he made a spectacular career in the Communist Party apparatus. According to a concise biography of Gorbachev included in Bush's Moscow briefing book, “Gorbachev's early career included Komsomol [[Young Communist League]] and party posts in Stavropol. He became first secretary of the Stavropol regional party committee in 1970, when only 39, and held this post till his appointment to the CPSU Secretariat.” In Stavropol Gorbachev attracted the attention and made allies of two powerful members of Brezhnev's ruling elite who had direct links with Stavropol. One of them was the Soviet ideological watchdog Mikhail Suslov, while the other was the KGB chief and future general secretary of the party,
Yurii Andropov. The two allies made possible Gorbachev's move to Moscow in the waning years of the Brezhnev regime.

Until his arrival in Moscow in 1979 as Central Committee secretary in charge of agriculture, Gorbachev had had little exposure to foreign relations of any kind, aside from infrequent travel abroad in low-and mid-level party delegations. However, once he received a more prominent government position during Andropov's brief tenure and then was elected to the country's highest office, general secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee, in March 1985, he turned out to be a quick learner. Liberal policy advisers in Moscow finally found in him a man at the top prepared to listen and take risks in an effort to change the status quo both at home and abroad. Many of them longed for the relatively liberal times of Nikita Khrushchev and the détenteera policies of the early Brezhnev years. They were also secret admirers of the Prague Spring of 1968—the attempt of Czech communists (crushed by Soviet military force) to create socialism “with a human face.” Gorbachev, who was influenced by Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's terror in the mid-1950s (both of his grandfathers had been arrested by Stalin's police), and who shared a room at Moscow University with Zdenĕk Mlynář, one of the architects of the Prague Spring, was a good listener and, more important, a doer.

In domestic policy Gorbachev initiated perestroika (literally, “restructuring”), which loosened party control over the centralized economy and introduced elements of the market. He also began the policy of glasnost (openness), a term borrowed from the arsenal of the Soviet dissidents, which reduced party control over the media and made some allowance for ideological pluralism. Abroad, Gorbachev returned to ideas reminiscent of Brezhnev's détente policy while eventually abandoning the “Brezhnev Doctrine” of political and military intervention in Eastern Europe. In Gorbachev, Reagan and Bush had finally found a Soviet leader who not only would not die on them but also would be prepared to talk nuclear disarmament. Less than a month after taking office, Gorbachev suspended the deployment of Soviet medium-range missiles in Eastern Europe; a few months later, he invited the United States to cut the Soviet and American strategic nuclear arsenals in half.

In November 1986, at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Reagan and Gorbachev all but agreed—to the horror of their advisers—to
liquidate nuclear arms entirely. What stood in the way of the deal was Reagan's insistence on continuing to develop his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a missile defense program. Gorbachev believed that SDI, if ever implemented by the Americans, would put the Soviets at a disadvantage. The summit ended in a deadlock, and the world seemed to be returning to the darkest days of the Cold War. But the dialogue was eventually resumed. Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and a prominent political dissident, helped convince Gorbachev that SDI was little more than a figment of Reagan's imagination. The Soviet leader flew to Washington in 1987 to sign an agreement limiting the US and Soviet nuclear arsenals and dismantling intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Now, in July 1991, Gorbachev and Bush were about to use pens made from “Euromissiles” to sign a new treaty cutting the number of long-range nuclear weapons that targeted Washington, New York, and Boston on one side of the Atlantic and Moscow, Leningrad, and Kyiv on the other.

In the months leading up to the Moscow summit, the Soviet leader had been struggling for his political survival. While the Soviet president and his advisers and well-wishers at home and abroad firmly believed that reform of the Soviet system was impossible without a democratic transformation of society, in practice economic reform and democracy did not work very well together. Perestroika broke up the old economic structure before market mechanisms could be put in place and produce results. Glasnost angered the party apparatus by ending its monopoly control of the media and unleashing public criticism for the first time since 1917. As economic difficulties increased and living conditions declined drastically, Gorbachev came under attack both from the party apparatchiks and from the reformers who called for radical transformation of the economy and society on the model of Poland and other former East European satellites of the Soviet Union.

The advance report for Western journalists arriving in Moscow for the Bush-Gorbachev summit, prepared by Gene Gibbons of Reuters, pointed to a growing gap between the Kremlin and the people on the Moscow streets. “Fort Apache, says a sign over an entranceway of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, aptly capturing the flavor of a Soviet capital in the throes of economic disintegration,” read the report. “As
George Bush motorcades through this city of 8.8 million, he will see long shopping lines, empty store windows, broken-down cars along the roadsides and dozens of idle construction cranes. At the Kremlin he will see the other extreme—glittering gold and crystal chandeliers, fabulous paintings, exquisite inlaid wood floors and enough marble to build thousands of monuments.”

Deteriorating living standards for average Soviet citizens—they were increasingly unhappy not only with their own situation but also with the privileges of the ruling elite—were making Gorbachev unpopular among the people he wanted to set free. Reporting from Moscow during the summit, Peter Jennings, one of America's “big three” news anchors, told ABC network viewers that Gorbachev's approval rating had dropped to a precarious 20 percent (Bush's approval rating at that time, soon after the American victory in the Gulf War, was in excess of 70 percent). Talking to Western correspondents, however, Gorbachev showed optimism and humor. Pointing to the friendly crowds at the Kremlin, he told Jennings, “See, some people like me.” He added, “I am the man who began all this. If anyone's writing off Gorbachev, this is a superficial judgment.” For the first time in months, Gorbachev felt that he was finally getting the situation under control by reining in the conservative opposition, and he was eager to use the summit to secure international support for his domestic agenda.

BOOK: The Last Empire
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