It was eight o’clock Moscow time when the overcrowded British Airways Jet landed at Sheremetevo Airport. Liberated from our Iron Maiden seats—BA seems to have squeezed in an additional seat per row—we made our way into the arrival hall, happily anticipating if not a good Russian dinner, then at least something to eat.
The barely illuminated hall was already filled with passengers from other flights, and the Russians had not bothered to put more immigration officers on duty. We waited, my friends from the Lord Byron Foundation and I, and we waited. I had time to study the strange ceiling, fabricated from metal pipes. Srdja Trifkovich, the Byron Foundation’s director, said they were shell casings. Swords into ploughshares, bullets into building materials, I suppose. As we got to the front, we could see that it was taking ten minutes for the Russians to check each passport and visa, examining every page, and writing in the numbers by hand. Hundreds of unhappy visitors made no difference to them. Why should they? Welcome to Perestroika. Welcome to Russia.
The first thing I learned about Russia was that nobody stands in line, nobody makes way for you when you have to squeeze by, nobody knows the difference between entrance and exit, even when they are plainly marked. On my last day, at an open-air market, I have only 20 minutes to spend on bribes for the family, and as I am standing patiently in the entrance line, a ticket-taker at the exit motions to me impatiently, as if to say, “What are you waiting for? Can you read?” The main purpose of the visit is a two-day conference on the Balkans War at the Russian Academy of Science, cosponsored by the Lord Byron Foundation and the Institute for the Study of Modern Balkan Conflict (of the Russian Academy). The rest of the time is spent in meetings with Russian policy experts. Taking nothing for granted, I am never sure of how much is said—both at the conference and in private meetings—out of conviction, how much is cooked up for the consumption of useful idiots like myself.
Since my Russian is only good enough to ask directions or haggle over a price, I am entirely cut off from the usual information sources. The newspapers, I can hardly attempt, except when a Russian student is kind enough to digest them for me, and the television news is only a series of images: a wounded (Russian?) soldier, Chechen fighters.
The sullen barmaid in my hotel confirms something of what I had heard about the hostage-takings, but she does not want to talk about it—or virtually anything. The only human moment is her contemptuous laughter when I pronounce the word for “bill” as it is spelled. She is throwing us out at 11:45 (last night she gave me till almost one), but offers to keep the place open if I will pay for her taxi, then it is her girlfriend’s taxi, and, I fear, before we are through we will be getting her mother’s teeth fixed and setting the barmaid up in a dress shop. It is easier to go down to the bar in the lobby, where I contrive to have my camera stolen.
This isolation from news is like going back several centuries, when the only information was gossip and rumor. I only find out the next day that the Russian attack has failed to recover the hostages, and that Yeltsin has gone back to the bargaining table. The Russians I speak with are disgusted. The television images of the Chechen crisis arc always in the background of our discussions. More than one Russian, seeing the results of American adventurism in the Balkans, concludes: if NATO troops are in Bosnia today, they will be in Chechnya tomorrow. The whole idea of unilateral secessions, backed up by Germany and the United States, is terrifying to a country that is only a fragment of its former self, and even that fragment contains hostile Muslim nationalities.
In London I had drinks with a Soviet analyst who took a look at my itinerary. The Gorbachev Foundation is a trip-wire. “An unholy alliance between the KGB and the Esalen Foundation,” he says, referring to the executive in the American branch who used to be number two man at Esalen. I keep an open mind, walking into the foundation’s Moscow headquarters, which is home to Gorbachev’s top advisors. The question of the new foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, comes up. As a Muslim expert, he might be expected to take the “Bosnian” side in the Balkans. Alexander Galkin jokes about the difficulty of speaking for Primakov—a close friend of 35 years. Primakov is not a Muslim-lover, he insists; his only devotion is to the Russian interest. Inevitably the Chechen problem comes up, and Galkin slips in describing Russia’s inability “to control problems outside our borders.” Have they already written it off, I wonder.
One of his colleagues explains that the current American power monopoly is inherently unstable. The absence of a counterpressure will lead to inevitable conflict. The Dayton Accord was basically a good thing, though, because it stopped the barbarization of Europe: “We in Europe still maintain a high regard for human life that is not shared on other continents.” I hear this theme picked up several times: Russia is Europe, America is not.
From time to time I have doubts about our whole mission in going to Russia. What separates me from all the other useful idiots who have gone to Moscow in order to promote understanding? Are they even listening? The next morning our conference is reported on the morning news, somewhere between the hostage crises and the weather report. (January 15: It’s a sunny day in Moscow today—a real man-bites-dog story.)
Our next stop is the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, established by Boris Yeltsin in 1992 as his principal board of advisors. The director, Yevgeny Kozhokin, is a pleasant, accommodating man: “We can speak English today,” he says. “All my colleagues speak English.” It is then I notice their strange logo: a circle (representing the globe?) scored and shaded like a checkerboard, with Cyrillic letters RISI on one line and underneath, in a contrasting pattern of light and dark, RISS—for the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies—intelligible only to English-speakers.
Inevitably the Bosnia/Chechnya parallel is made, and we are told that the rebellion is not a secession movement or an ethnic liberation front but more like the war waged by the Cali cartel against Latin America and the United States: “If Dudayev does succeed in making himself dictator—or emir—it will be a unique occasion on which criminals have created their own state.” He explains that the Chechen criminals have diversified their activities and now have a vast network of international gangs dealing in drugs and weapons, both in Eastern Europe and even in the West.
In general, the Russian policy wonks have the advantage over their American counterparts. They are certainly better informed and better educated—despite the apparent Russian phobia of foreign languages, their English is a great deal better than our Russian—and they seem more intelligent. For smoothness the palm goes to the professionals at the United States-Canada Institute, for many years the home of disinformation in the guise of dissent.
We spend several hours discussing the general geopolitical situation. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, so we are told, Russia has been unable to reformulate an identity to replace the old Soviet image. At the beginning, Russia made unilateral concessions in the hope that she would be welcomed into the Western community as a reward for her part in ending the Cold War. Kozyrev, the recently fired foreign minister who played the part of “Mr. Yes,” opposed Milosevic out of a desire to side with the West, but Russia is no longer a superpower, and there can be no bipolar balance of power. On the other hand, this does not necessarily entail an American monopoly. There is the possibility of a multipolar system developing as the United States finds herself competing with her closest allies, particularly Germany and Japan.
A glance at the various collective institutions reveals the nature of the competition. In the G7 nations, the United States, although the strongest single party, is not predominant, while in the EU, where German interest prevails, the United States is not even present. This leaves NATO as the primary vehicle of American hegemony, hence the need—from the American point of view—for enhanced NATO activity, as in the Balkans. But Germany has actually got her way in Yugoslavia. The United States, in its willingness to use its NATO clout, was drawn into Yugoslavia by the Germans, who also muscled Britain, Russia, and France into compliance, but then the Germans took a step backward leaving the Americans to do the only thing they can do, which is drop a few bombs.
Foreign policy decisions in Russia are no simple matter. In addition to the Chernomyrdin government and the Yeltsin administration, there are also the so-called “power ministries” that have independent authority, e.g.. Defense, Foreign Affairs. It was Yeltsin who made the decision to go along with NATO, saying “Twice in one century is enough for Russia to go to war for the Serbs.” Once he decided this, there was no debate: he simply imposed his will in the good old Soviet style of “the president knows best.”
But Yeltsin may not have the last word. As the institute’s Balkans specialist explains, “Stalin, in April 1941, signed a mutual defense pact with Yugoslavia, even though he knew full well that the Germans were about to attack, and even though he wanted, more than anything, to avoid war with Germany. When asked about the contradiction, he said: ‘The Russian people would never forgive me, if I betrayed the Serbs.'”
General Alexandr Lebed, “the hero of the Afghan War” as he is inevitably called, may be the most impressive political figure in Russia. Among the few Soviet officers to come out of Afghanistan with their reputation enhanced, he happened to be in Moldova when the region was breaking away. Lebed decisively intervened to protect the sizable Russian minority, while at the same time managing to avoid a bloodbath. In the Chechen crisis, it was Lebed who, in the parliament, blocked the use of the regular army in what he called a “dirty business”—a police action against Russian citizens. According to some Russians, Lebed’s hatred of the KGB is characteristic of Russian army officers who have always resented the interference of cops and spies in military affairs.
For our meeting with Lebed, it is easier to walk than try to maneuver our bus illegally into the restricted business center, where his office is located. The Hotel Belgrade—bugs, procurers, ladies, and all—is right across from the great Stalinist- Gothic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we walk down the (old) Arbat, past the clubs and pizza parlors, which make it seem like Greenwich Village in Antarctica, to the very end and cut over to the Novi Arbat.
Lebed’s office is a run-down building. In the conference room, where we wait for the general, the blinds are broken and twisted. Standing outside the building, our student friend does a Lebed impersonation: “I will teach you to love Mother Russia.” Is this wise, I wonder, under the nose of the general’s assistants—tough-looking, although not sinister by Russian standards.
We all (about half a dozen) stand when the general enters the room. He walks around the conference table and formally shakes the hand of each of us. He is less ugly than in the photographs, but his face is hardly more animated. As he listens and as he speaks, his face registers no expression, but I notice that he plays incessantly with a little piece of metal wire. Lebed speaks no English; neither does his translator, unfortunately, and the session threatens to break down into corrections and recriminations. Finally, we arrive at the solution. Lebed speaks in Russian, which one of his aides—a Balkans expert—translates into Serbian, which Srdja Trifkovich translates, virtually simultaneously, into English. The New World Order for monoglots.
Our opening statements are a bit long-winded, and Lebed—smiling for the first time—answers: “You have raised all the questions, and supplied the answers as well,” but he offers to wrap up the whole question of Russia and the Balkans in a neat little package. Over the past five years, he says, Russia has not had an independent foreign policy. (Kozyrev was an unguided missile, acting on his own initiative.) The Dayton Accord was the result of American pressure: the Russians were not consulted. In any event, Russian policy in the Balkans is immoral. Russia made two serious mistakes: first, in acquiescing in the end of the arms embargo—weapons are not needed for peace. He cites Chekhov’s famous theatrical dictum: if a rifle is hanging over the mantle in Act One, it will have to be fired in Act Three. The second mistake is over Sarajevo, in keeping it intact. The precedent was already set at Mostar, which was divided between Muslims and Croats, but in handing all of Sarajevo to Muslim control, they are abandoning 150,000 Serbs in the environs to their fate. Izetbegovic will not keep his promise to protect the Serb women and children, and this will lead to war.
This situation cannot be resolved peacefully, both because of Muslim aggression and the Serb national character: they will defend their neighborhoods to the last, and this will elicit more NATO bombings. The Serbs, of course, have a long tradition of guerrilla warfare, and Bosnia is no flat desert. In the mountains, guerrillas can go on almost forever. If peace is really desired, it will not be achieved by backing this people into a corner and giving them no way out.
Earlier in this century, the Russians backed the Serbs, the Germans backed the Croats, and no one could give practical help to the Muslims. But now, the United States, because of its problems with the Islamic world—problems that arise chiefly from its support for Israel—has taken the Muslim side. At the same time, the Russians have abandoned their national interest. Not too long ago, the Prime Minister of Montenegro offered Bar as a harbor to the Russian navy; now it has been given to the United States, which also has bases in Macedonia and Albania. The Bosnian Serbs are being forced, against their will, to accept American patronage. The situation is exacerbated by internal tensions in Yugoslavia, and there is even talk of Montenegro seceding. Kosovo may be transferred to Albanian protection, forcing Serbia itself to seek patronage from any great power willing to protect them. Once this path is embarked upon, it will be followed to its logical conclusion. Serbia will be invited to join NATO, and the isolation—and humiliation—of Russia will be complete. Still, peace will not have been achieved.
When asked if it is possible to change the situation, Lebed says that there are no impossible tasks or lost causes. If Russia is to change the course of events, it will require the will to decide, but the current Russian government has forgotten not only the Serbs but also the 25 million Russians living in the former Soviet Union but outside the boundaries of the Russian Federation. He does not share the enthusiasm for Primakov we found in the policymaking establishment and objects even to the method of selection, promoting the chief of intelligence—without any intermediate position—straight into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Perhaps one may envisage important changes in Russian policy, but only after the presidential elections—if they are actually held—though merely shifting and replacing parts in the administration will not achieve results.
Asked how a President Lebed would change policies, he answers that he is not inclined to futurology, but—he declares emphatically—Russia will change and in a civilized manner. This is a small planet, after all, and there are many reasonable people everywhere, who can understand each other, regardless of nationality, and they will work together to establish a lasting peace. I wonder if there is a very faint threat under all this: if wiser heads and civilized methods do not prevail, then what?
I come away from the interview thoroughly impressed. There is no doubt that, succeed or fail, General Lebed is one of those military men of destiny who comes along from time to time to save (or destroy) their country. The real question is which type: a Washington, a Franco, or a Caesar? As a useful idiot, I am predicting one of the first two, because from my brief scrutiny I could detect no signs of pathology or megalomania. Lebed seems to be the kind of leader that many Russians want; strong, competent, straightforward. Even Russians who dislike his political positions concede that he is both honest and intelligent—not the impression one receives from the American press. A Russian friend in England observes cynically that if Lebed is all that he seems, then the KGB—and its friends Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and company—will never let him get anywhere.
It is hard to judge a city, much less a country, on the basis of a week during the worst month of the year. Moscow is cold and dirty, and the people are less than friendly. Every interaction with a Russian, whether he is a professor chairing a session or a hotel clerk answering a question, seems to turn into a power struggle. The American attempt to ingratiate with a smile does not go over even in postcommunist Russia: they interpret our grin either as a sign of idiocy or a gesture of propitiation—they are probably right on both counts. In either case, they feel justified in treating “the grinning idiot” (as a Yugoslav once described all Americans) with contempt.
I am surprised to see signs of prosperity. Everywhere, there is construction: roads, churches, office complexes are all being built or rebuilt. The shops, when I peek in, are full of things for sale, and there is plenty of food in the stores and restaurants. The profits may all be feeding the Mafia, for all I know, but Moscow is booming. I ask a Moscow sociologist about the economic and political reforms. “Perestroika,” he says, “and the other reforms were a kind of bribe offered to the Russian people to console them for privatization.” Not quite understanding, I ask for clarification. So-called privatization, I am told, was simply the policy by which the communist elite looted the country of its resources. Stupid bureaucrats who could never have run a shoe franchise ended up as managers and directors of multimillion-dollar enterprises.
The most creative aspect of Soviet economic reforms, it strikes me, is inflation. The ruble, which used to be on par with the British pound, is now almost 5,000 to the dollar. By this simple expedient the neocapitalist nomenklatura wiped out its debts to the Russian people: loans, pensions, fixed salaries—everything. Russians are not stupid, and many of them loathe Mikhail Gorbachev for what he did to his country, and the hottest political candidates—with the exception of the liberal Yavlinksv—are nationalist communists like Zyuganov and nationalist militarists like Lebed.
In the first blush of democratic capitalism, the grim pronouncements of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were ignored, but as Russian society, left in ruins by communism, is subject to the strains of rapid modernization, some Russians may begin to look back into their own traditions. When I return to America, I am interviewed on a major evangelical talk radio station, and they want to know if the Russians are encouraging Protestant missionaries. I try to be polite, in explaining that Orthodoxy, as a distinctive religious tradition, is at least 1,500 years old. What would give Calvinists the notion that their peculiarities could be grafted onto Russian stock? Why not reconvert Scandinavia and Germany and leave Russia to its own priests?
This subject of Orthodoxy comes up in conversation with Igor Shafarevich. One of Russia’s greatest living mathematicians, Shafarevich contributed an essay to Under the Rubble, Solzhenitsyn’s collection of dissident writings. He is much admired in Russia but—to say the least—controversial in the West. Wanting to take the measure of the man, I had dinner with him, in company with a few of his followers and several members of our “delegation.” We meet almost clandestinely at a Metro station and walk to the restaurant, which turns out to be Moscow’s premier businessman’s club run, inevitably it somehow seems, by Serbs.
The proprietor is very attentive, and when he is asked if he ever has any problems, he laughs and tells us that every week, it seems, ambitious thugs will scout the place out, saying it would be a shame if anything happened to such a nice place. He thanks them and then mentions two or three of his patrons. The blood drains from their faces and they quickly excuse themselves. Forget the so-called Mafia: the real gangsters are the political and business leaders who run Moscow.
Most of what I know of Shafarevich, apart from one essay, is secondhand. Knowing that he believes he has been unfairly treated by Western journalists, I ask him if he objects to my taking a few notes: he does. I must rely, therefore, on my memory of conversation to make a few generalizations. Although he said nothing that could possibly reflect badly upon him, it would not be fair to report the details of the conversation.
For the most part, his views seem compatible with those of traditional and religious conservatives in America. In the United States he has been widely accused of anti-Semitism because of a number of things he has said about international banking and Jewish influence in Russia. He asks me about the Christian right, if they can really be as uneducated and obscurantist as they are portrayed. I try to explain that although there is all too much truth in the negative stereotypes created by the New York Times and the Washington Post, conservative evangelicals are for the most part decent and well-intentioned people—pious peasants, as it were, whose very ignorance has made them less vulnerable (by no means immune) to the liberal toxins that are injected into the veins of students at major universities. He remains puzzled that scientific questions, like evolution, should be subjected to a priori theological assumptions.
Now that the subject of the kook right has been raised, I sound him out on the question of holocaust revisionism. He smiles wanly and says that no one whose country had been occupied by the Nazis would make the mistake of underrating their brutality. Of course the events of World War II should be subjected to historical scrutiny, but even if parts of the standard accounts were discredited, one could scarcely deny the Nazi atrocities against Jews, Slavs, and gypsies.
Like Solzhenitsyn, whom he so much admires, Shafarevich believes that the solutions to Russia’s difficulties lie within her own history and traditions. We do, after some discussion, agree that Russia is neither unique nor isolated: it is a part of Christendom, and in this sense truly a part of the West. Unfortunately, the East-West schism between Constantinople and Rome continues to mislead many Catholics and Protestants. Because of our religious difference, we in the West abandoned the great Christian city of Constantinople to the Turks, and European powers like Britain, France, and Austria—brutally writing off the Orthodox Christians of the Balkans—shored up the failing Ottoman Empire.
Now, America and Germany are playing the same game again, betraying the Orthodox Serbs to the Muslim fanatics who control the government in Sarajevo. In earlier times, the Serbs could call upon the Russians for help—successfully on some occasions. Would the Russians respond, even diplomatically, in the current crisis? That is what I mainly wanted to find out by going to Russia. I still do not know.