Adopt Reagan's Attitude toward Russia
Suzanne Massie is a Russia expert and former adviser to President Reagan
"Take bold steps, like Ronald Reagan, and chart a new foreign policy course toward Russia." This is the advice that Suzanne Massie, a Russia expert and former adviser to President Reagan, gave to President-elect Barack Obama during her presentation ,"Reagan's Evolving Views on Russians and their Relevance Today," at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (KIARS) in Washington D.C. on December 1, 2008.
Ms. Massie is a writer, lecturer and the author of best-selling books, Nicholas and Alexandra, and Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia, as well as other books dealing with Russia's history and culture. Born in New York City in the family of a Swiss diplomat, she was educated at Vassar College and the Sorbonne. From 1985 to 1997 she was a fellow of the Harvard Russian Research Center. Trilingual (fluent in Russian, French, and English), she was invited by KIARS's director Dr. Blair Ruble to reminisce on the years of 1984-1988 when she was an adviser to President Reagan.
It fell upon her to advise Reagan during a deep freeze of the Cold War that ensued after Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and stretched from the last years of Jimmy Carter's presidency through Reagan's first term. At that time there were no negotiations going on, and there were virtually no contacts between the two nuclear superpowers. She met Reagan for the first time in January 1984 just before she went to the USSR on what she calls a "back channel mission" to explore whether Soviet leaders would be willing to negotiate on a number of most important issues.
Her mission was so successful that Reagan invited her to a cabinet meeting. "Since then I met the president 21 more times, and had private lunches with him and Mrs. Reagan," says Massie. Even members of his cabinet were jealous of her easy access to the White House and wondered what she and the president talked about. "Culture", was her standard reply. "Culture" was her cover word for the all-important art of intercultural communication that is truly becoming indispensable in global politics.
During those intercultural encounters, Massie educated Reagan about something that the majority of American Sovietologists ignored. She told him, for instance, that in spite of the official atheism, one third of Russians were not afraid to admit that they regarded themselves Orthodox Christians. "The 50 million Christians was three times as many as the Communist Party members", remarked Massie and added: "Twenty years later, two thirds of the Russians regard themselves Orthodox Christians."
Massie attaches singular importance to the influence of Orthodox Christianity on the character of the Russian people even when they chafed under communism and their religious beliefs were distorted. According to her, a "deeply religious man who did not wear his convictions on his sleeve," Reagan eagerly absorbed her instruction. She also explained to him it was wrong to see in ethnic Russians the stalwart defenders of the Soviet Empire, as many Sovietologists did. She knew that ethnic Russians were as disgusted with Soviet ideology as any national minority.
At a time when the predominantly liberal US mass media routinely associated the adjective "Soviet" with things positive and "Russian" with the negative ("Soviet sputniks" and "Soviet doctors" versus "Russian tanks" and "Russian aggression"), Reagan understood the difference and issued an executive order not to confuse the two. From his personal experience, he knew the media could be unfair. Many in the media held against him that he had stood up to the Communist influence in Hollywood. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 about this influence in the motion picture industry while defending individual liberty of American communists. Nonetheless, before he entered the White House, the media had unfairly dubbed him a "Commie hunter", "war monger" and "a trigger-happy cowboy".
Thanks to Massie's instruction, Reagan came to feel greater respect for Russian culture and history. Even while calling the USSR "the Evil Empire," and proclaiming that Communism would be cast to the dustbin of history, he believed that, once free from the yoke of Communism, Russia will make a worthy contribution to the family of mankind.
As I was professor of Russian Studies at the time, I recall that, while both the media and universities routinely ignored the dissident movement in the USSR, Reagan (before his presidency) wrote a column praising the heroic efforts of Russian Ã©migrÃ©s to duplicate, on a shoe string budget, Soviet samizdat publications so that Americans would pay more attention to a small but vibrant stream of dissident opinion. Besides being a great actor and wise politician, Reagan was a good journalist, observer, and columnist.
It was his realization that Soviet society had been evolving not only toward greater openness, but also back to the Russian tradition that helped Reagan treat Mikhail Gorbachev and Soviet people with respect and understanding. They responded in kind. Once during a visit to Leningrad, recalls Massie, Reagan jumped out of his car, his coat off, to give a bear hug to the host Gorbachev who was all wrapped up for the inclement weather. That gesture alone, says Massie, spoke volumes to Soviet people about the Americans and their president, spontaneous and vigorous even in his 70s. They came to respect him as a genuine, amiable and patriotic cowboy.
Yet, in spite of his openness and affability, Reagan was not naÃ¯ve about the treacherous vestiges of Soviet ideology. Massie revealed that it was she who taught him the Russian expression he loved to use: "Trust, but verify." She also taught him to pronounce it properly in Russian: "doveryai no proveryai". "Reagan never treated his adversaries as enemies", quotes Massie the words of Senator John Danforth, who as an Episcopal priest officiated at Reagan's funeral service in 2004.
Massie does not claim that she knew Reagan very well. After all, in spite of his acting career and affable character, he was the "most reserved, reclusive and even mysterious man always prone to shut up like a clam." And he always made his decisions himself, in the deep recesses of his mind. Once, before his meeting with Gorbachev in ReykjavÃk in 1986, Massie gathered her courage to ask Reagan about his most heartfelt wish for humanity. "I want to get rid of those damn nuclear weapons," Reagan replied.
The greatest achievements of Reagan's presidency, says Massie, were due to his ability to think "out of a box." That ability empowered him to easily match Gorbachev's "new thinking" and helped both in their mutual efforts to end the Cold War.
Has Reagan's legacy been followed? Massie revoked to the relevance of Reagan's views for today. "No, his legacy in regard to Russia was largely destroyed, especially during the past eight years," said she in a rebuke to the incumbent presidency that likes to claim that legacy. Nuclear arms race has not been squashed and threatens to escalate again. The NATO has not been scrapped, but expanded. The August war in the Caucasus unleashed hysteria of Russia bashing unheard since the end of Communism. Without denying worrisome authoritarian trends or mistakes of new Russian leaders, Massie believes that it was U.S. fault that "we have managed to bring out the worse out of Russians." Instead of thinking, like Reagan, "out of a box," his successors boxed themselves into the mold of Cold War.
Massie ought to know. She has been a tireless bridge builder between the two countries. When she wrote, jointly with her former husband, Robert Massie, her first bestseller, Nicholas and Alexandra, she touched on the subject that professional historians overlooked, namely, the tragedy that befell the tsar family because Alexis, their son and heir to the throne, suffered from hemophilia. Her book made millions of Western readers empathize not only with the stricken family, but with Russia herself. One might even say that her book had "rehabilitated" the tsar long before post-Communist Russian officials ever thought of it (The formal rehabilitation decision of Russia's Constitutional Court was made on October 1 this year).
Making her home in the state of Maine, Massie frequently travels to Russia where she runs a foundation for the victims of hemophilia and helps arrange exhibits of Russian art overseas. As the only lay member of the Permanent Episcopal-Orthodox Coordinating Committee she met several hierarchs of the church, including Patriarch Alexis II, and has a unique perspective on life in Russia today.
But how exactly should the Democrat President-elect Obama proceed to adopt a Reaganesque attitude toward Russia? Massie spells it out: "Stop Russia bashing. Stop lecturing Russian leaders. Stop looking into their eyes only to find the KGB writ large in them." Above all, treat the Russians with respect and understanding due to their unique civilization. Get out of the bureaucratic box of "Washington consensus". "Take bold steps, like Ronald Reagan, and chart a new foreign policy course." As to the Secretary of State designate, Hillary Clinton, "or whoever," Ms Massie has a very special word of advice: Learn quickly how to properly pronounce Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's name.
Dr. W. George Krasnow is President of Russia & America Good Will Association (RAGA) in Washington. Formerly professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, he is the author of Russia Beyond Communism: A Chronicle of National Rebirth (under his Russian name Vladislav Krasnov).