BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert G. Kaiser, author of Why Gorbachev Happened: His Triumphs and His Failure, what's the main point of the book?
ROBERT KAISER, AUTHOR, "WHY GORBACHEV HAPPENED: HIS TRIUMPHS AND HIS FAILURE": Well, the main point of writing the book was to try to explain to someone just like you or like the loyal C-SPAN viewer, an intelligent person who's aware of the fact that the most extraordinary things have been happening in the Soviet Union in the last six years, to explain why this happened. Where did this guy come from, why did he do what he did, why did he turn our world upside down, how'd he get away with it? It's to give a "graspable," whole picture -- take it home, put it on the shelf, and now I've got the view of it. I've got a big sense of it.
LAMB: What's the most interesting thing about him to you?
KAISER: That he rose inside this incredibly stultifying political culture created by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, that he hid his true qualities for 24 years or more and then sprung out the way he did after 1985 as this really remarkable reformer, first, and revolutionary ultimately.
LAMB: How many times have you met him?
KAISER: Twice. For miraculous reasons never explained, I was invited, my wife and me both, to the White House when Reagan gave the first state visit for him in his first visit here in '87. I got a few seconds interchange with him then. But then in 1988, the Washington Post and Newsweek interviewed him in Moscow and Katherine Graham took me and a few others to go with her to conduct a two-hour interview in his office in Moscow -- a fabulous experience.
LAMB: How many years have you spent in the Soviet Union?
KAISER: I lived there three years, '71 to '74, as the Post correspondent. I've been back a number of times since -- twice for periods of about a month.
LAMB: What have you noticed on your return trips about the difference from when you first lived there?
KAISER: I didn't get back after '74. I published a book in '76 called Russia, which they didn't like. You've got a nice copy of the paperback here which is still in print. It was viciously attacked in the official media of the time and for a long time they wouldn't give me a visa to come back. I finally got a visa in '84 and went back for five weeks
It was stunning to me because the country was really in lousy shape. It had deteriorated dramatically, and there was an obvious social crisis going on. The alcoholism which had always been serious was much more serious. Life expectancy statistics, which actually weren't being published officially there but which scholars here were keeping up with, had shown a dramatic decline in life expectancy, which is unprecedented for an industrial society. There were just lots of signs of bad trouble, and I wrote about that in the Post at the time.
That's when I first heard about Gorbachev and heard about the hopes that a lot of my friends, the sort of progressive intellectual types, had invested in Gorbachev. I left in September '84 and Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the party in March '85. So what I was really confronting was the conditions that were the basis of Gorbachev's own run for the brass ring, if you will. He had a platform. His platform was to deal with this crisis, and there was a real crisis to be dealt with.
LAMB: One of things that pops out when I read the introduction was that you refer to his intense eyes.
KAISER: They really hook you. It's sort of a cliché now. If you read anything written by somebody who's spent time with him, they talk about these eyes. But they're very fierce. They just get you, and he works with them. The interview we did in Moscow was fun. I was the only person at this table that understood him in Russian. All my colleagues had to wait for the translation. He caught on quickly that I was the one who was understanding his words as opposed to the translators, so we had a lot of eye contact because he knew that I was understanding him.
But then I watched him. The translation time gave him an opportunity to study the people he was talking to and he gave Katherine Graham a real going over with these eyes. He really studied her. I felt I could see him saying, "Now, who is this woman? Why is she so rich and powerful and what have I got here?' Meg Greenfield was at the table and Jim Homan, and he went right down the row and really studied us all in a wonderful way which said to me that this is someone who's really paying attention to the world around him, isn't just going through the motions.
LAMB: Did you study him the same way?
KAISER: Sure I did. Although at the time I didn't have a plan to write book about him, I knew this was one of the high points of my career in journalism. I was going to make the most of it. I watched him intently. I had the sense that I had never seen a politician working so hard in that kind of a setting. He really wanted to make a good impression on us. He really wanted us to be impressed by how smart he was, how thoughtful he was and how responsive he was. He didn't want us to think that we were getting some rote answer. You've seen these guys you have on C-SPAN all the time with their prepared, homogenized remarks for all occasions. But this was not him. He wanted to make a very special effort to give us something original, and he did.
LAMB: How's your Russian these days.
KAISER: It's not bad. It was really pretty good in '74 after three years of living there. I think I've lost 20 percent or so of my usable vocabulary. If you don't use it all the time, you can't pull up those words when you need them, but I can still understand well and I can follow a Gorbachev press conference.
LAMB: I know when you talk to somebody in English, that immediate response helps you get some idea of how people react. Does it make a difference when you understand the Russian language? Did you get a different sense of him, say, than your colleagues who couldn't speak the language?
KAISER: Well, in some ways, yes. For example, Gorbachev's Russian is a little bit crude. He's got an accent from his part of southern Russia, and one of the interesting things about Gorbachev to me is he grew up in what they call the Kuban down in the Caucasus region where there was never serfdom. Most of the Russian peasants were slaves really. But not in Gorbachev's area, and I think that perhaps part of his independent, self-reliant spirit is a product of that. In any case, he has a noticeable accent, and he makes grammatical errors. This is important, obviously, in terms of political symbolism.
What kind of a guy is this? It's always created a slight distance between him and the intellectuals who think it sounds a little bit "bumpkinish," the way he speaks Russian. Of course, anybody listening to a translator would never pick up any of that. But, more than that, I think you're right, that just in the simple juice that goes between two people speaking the same language, you're picking up extra verbal cues if you're understanding the language that you can't get through a translator.
LAMB: Underlying other things in your introduction, "stupefying boredom," referring to the time that he spent to reach the senior spot in the leadership, "intelligence. Only great courage allowed him to try to turn his country into a new direction." Courage, intelligence and stupefying boredom.
KAISER: The boredom is really important and really interesting to me. Gorbachev's ambition for power you've got to understand before you can take him in entirely. Here's what he did. He got himself to Moscow State University from a little village high school that he walked five miles to get to. This is an enormous leap for a "country bumpkin," to make. It's like someone from a little village in Nebraska or South Dakota showing up at Harvard or Yale.
It was a great breakthrough in his own life. He did very well at university. He studied law, which is an interesting thing. It's not exactly clear why he ended up studying law, but he did. That enabled him to read Western political philosophers, the American Constitution, the French Constitution, lots of interesting document that ordinary Soviet students wouldn't have been able to read. He had a Czechoslovak roommate in university, which gave him, I think, also interesting exposure to the outside world.
Anyway, he has this very sophisticated experience. He marries the prettiest girl in the class -- wins Raisa over a lot of competition from other guys who were chasing her. He's obviously full of beans and making his way in the world, and after five years in Moscow, he turns around and goes home, back to the sticks and takes up a career as a party apparatchik, first in the Komsomol, the Young Communist League, and then in the party organization and stays there for 23 years. This is really disciplined stuff in my view. He understood, correctly, that the path to the top in the Soviet Union is through the provincial and regional party organizations, that you could be a big guy in Moscow, you could have an interesting career and a job, but you couldn't be in the very top echelons of power if you hadn't worked your up through this big party apparatus.
So he did it. He set his mind to it and he went after it and he did it. He ended up as a young man, still in his 30s, early 40s, chosen, first, secretary of the Stavropol region, Stavropol party committee. But all these years in this backwater, putting up with small-minded bureaucrats, party officials, going through all the rituals of party life. Extremely tedious, but he did it with his eye on the main game. He was going after the big brass ring. The intelligence is obvious now. We've seen how smart he is and how shrewd and clever he is.
But that made it harder, it seems to me, to put in those 23 years. If you're sort of a dolt yourself, it's easier to lead a dolt's life. But if you're really smart and, by Soviet Communist standards, extremely well educated, and yet you still have to sit through these endless cheerleading meetings and propaganda exhortation sessions and do all this ritualistic baloney that was part of the Communist life, it must have been really hard for him. The courage is, of course, critically important to the drama of the Gorbachev story. The courage of a real leader is the guy who stands up and says, "Let's go in a different direction. Follow me. We're going over here now." That's what he did. Where did that come from? Well, I just don't know. There's no institution in American life that really compares to the Soviet Communist Party.
What comes the closest, it's always seemed to me, is the Army. The way you get ahead in the U.S. Army or Navy as an officer, you do your job very efficiently. You salute crisply, you keep your shoes shined and you make sure that your immediate boss likes you enough to give you a great efficiency report so the next time you've got a promotion panel you get promoted. You don't stand out in a crowd. You don't make big innovative suggestions. You don't challenge the status quo. You get along. You get promoted. That's just what Gorbachev did. He got himself promoted right up to the top.
Then when he got there, rather like those few colorful generals we've had in American military history, suddenly you discover he's got this big personality of his own that he's been hiding under a barrel all these years and the courage to do something, the courage to stand up and say follow me. I think that's the critical human ingredient here, the hardest to identify the source of, but absolutely essential to understanding him.
LAMB: Let me ask you a little bit about the book itself, the last line almost in the whole book: "My best critic is Hannah Joplin Kaiser." I assume your wife.
LAMB: "To whom my debts are a legion and unrepayable. She was first to see a critical flaw in my initial approach to this book." What was the critical flaw?
KAISER: You're putting me on the spot. Well here it is. I'll tell the truth. I sold this book to Simon and Schuster as a collection of previously published articles woven together with new material. I've been intently following Gorbachev from the beginning. I published several pieces in Foreign Affairs Quarterly. I wrote a number of pieces in the Washington Post "Outlook" section and other places. My idea was that I could weave these together and put some new observations on them and do a real quickie book. Hannah thought this was a pretty dumb idea from the beginning, and she was astounded when Simon and Schuster gave me a modest but substantial advance to produce such a book.
Then I started to do it, and I produced about 100 pages of manuscript of which maybe 35 pages was new material and 55 was old material. She read it for me and said, "This is lousy. You can't do this. It's not good enough. If you want to write a book about Gorbachev, you've got to write a book about Gorbachev." She was right and I did and it is much better.
LAMB: You know, you see this all the time, these little asides in here. Did you think you'd never have to explain that?
KAISER: I guess I did, yes.
LAMB: Let me ask you about this in the front. You have dedicated to book to Thomas Powers. Who is he?
KAISER: Thomas Powers is an author, a writer. He wrote a wonderful book about Richard Helms, the former CIA director, called The Man who Kept the Secrets, which was a big best seller about 10 years ago.
LAMB: Where is he located?
KAISER: He lives up in Vermont. He was my classmate in college and my first serious soul brother as a writer. Tom won the Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for UPI in the '60s. He wrote a wonderful series of articles about Diana Houghton who was the daughter of a society family in New York who blew herself up in a Greenwich Village bomb factory. Remember that story? It was the "Weathermen," the "Weatherpeople," the crazy '60s radicals. Tom later wrote a little book about her. But we've been very close for 28 years.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
LAMB: What did you study?
KAISER: Political science and the Yale Daily News. What I really worked hardest on was the school paper.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
KAISER: In Washington, DC. Born here.
LAMB: What did your mother and father do?
KAISER: My father's an interesting political appointee. He had a presidential appointment in the Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Carter administrations. I think he's the only man I knew who had presidential appointments in all four Democratic administrations since the war. He had a lot of different jobs, mostly diplomatic. His last job was as your ambassador in Vienna at the end of the Carter administration.
LAMB: "A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature." Ralph Waldo Emerson. You use that right under Thomas Powers's name. Why?
KAISER: Well, it's interesting. If you look at dedications of books, the number of books that are not dedicated to children, parents and spouses is very, very small, and so it struck me that if I was going to dedicate this to someone who had no name in common with mine and no hint of a relationship that I had to explain why. I did that clever "authorly thing," of going to Bartlett's Quotations and looking for a good quotation about friendship and found Emerson.
LAMB: Machiavelli from The Prince: "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." You use that, again, before . . .
KAISER: That's a sort of epigram for the book, and I think that's ultimately the way to understand Gorbachev. He took the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. He changed an old order and not just any old order, one of the most elaborately constructed dictatorships man has ever created, an enormous machine, an enormous state apparatus, police apparatus, party apparatus, and he transformed it. He turned it in a completely new direction. I think it's probably going to get easier to snipe at Gorbachev for his failures, and there are a lot of them and they're important, but I think we've also got to give him large credit and history will give him large credit for doing just that, taking the lead in a new order of things.
LAMB: A glossary of Soviet terms. As a matter of fact, the first one here is apparatchik, which you mentioned earlier. Why do you need the glossary and what is an apparatchik?
KAISER: The whole book, as you'll see, is constructed in a way to make everything accessible to anybody with a brain. I wanted not to use any terminology or any insider stuff here that would make anyone feel that they were sorry they read the book or that it wasn't written for them, that it was only written for some kind of expert of something like that.
I had this thought that I could put in here the terms of art that all of us who write about the Soviet Union and Kremlinology and so on regularly use and decode the insider's language. Apparatchik is a wonderful word, which I guess we've adopted now in English. But the idea of a party apparat is a specifically Soviet Communist thing which is pretty hard to understand because there are party apparatins. This country is tiny. There's a state chairman, Republican or Democratic, in every state and he's got a small staff and then there's the national committee here in Washington with a small staff. But in the Soviet Union, the apparetin in the Soviet Communist Party had and still has -- fewer now -- but had millions of members, several million members. Could never get a really accurate count. But every party organization which actually ran something -- ran a factory, ran a county, ran a city, ran a republic -- had thousands of people working for it. There's a huge bureaucracy. So the term apparatchik in the Soviet world really means something very familiar.
LAMB: Little bit of a civics lesson, if you don't mind. You've got this in the glossary here. Relate the president of the Soviet Union to our president.
KAISER: One of the most interesting things and most important things that Gorbachev did was take this society that was really a party-ruled state -- the official state offices, the premier and the president -- there was a president of a kind in the old system -- were absolutely meaningless. The only thing that mattered was the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist party. If you were the General Secretary of the Communist Party, you were the leader of the country. It didn't matter what other title you had. In '89, which was the most really dramatic year probably of the Gorbachev era both for what happened in Eastern Europe and for what happened in the Soviet Union -- '89 is when they elected their first Congress of People's Deputies, which was the first legitimate partially freely elected political organization in the Soviet period. And then he created this new presidency. He chickened out in a tragic way, it seems to me, for making it a popularly elected presidency, which if he'd done and run for it in '89, I'm convinced he would have won. It was the height of his popularity. It's been downhill since then. Instead, the constitution or the rules -- they've adopted the law, actually, not a constitutional change; it was a legislative thing -- provided for election of the president by this new Congress of People's Deputies. The importance here of this is that he created a new institutional basis for power in this society, and that was the first stage. Then the second critical stage was last summer, the summer of '90, the 28th Party Congress where the party actually voted affirmatively to take itself out of the governance of the country. So in '89 he put the new presidency and this new governmental structure in and then in '90 they took the party out and so now they've really changed it and it really is different.
LAMB: Two other things and you almost answered one. Congress of People's Deputies. Do you know how many are in the Congress of People's Deputies?
KAISER: I hope it says right there. I've forgotten.
LAMB: I don't think it does.
KAISER: It's 400-and-something.
LAMB: How do you get to be a deputy?
KAISER: It's going to be different next time. There's going to be another election next year. This first congress was elected in a very odd way. There were, in effect, three kinds of paths into the congress. One was recognizable and comparable to ours -- a district, a geographical area creating constituencies and that constituency will elect one member and send a member to the congress. The second was, however, a second kind of geographical constituency that was laid on top of the first kind. The most famous member of the Congress of People's Deputies and the most famous election in '89 to the congress was Boris Yeltsin, who got elected from the whole city of Moscow. Moscow also sent deputies from its neighborhoods, from regions within the cities, a city of 15 million, but Yeltsin represented the whole city. These were special, super constituencies that were created. The third way, 30 percent of the seats were reserved for representatives of social organizations, as the Russians call them which meant most of all, first of all the Communist Party. The party was reserved 100 seats as I recall, and the Central Committee decided which of its members, including Gorbachev, would get those 100 seats. So Gorbachev didn't get the legitimizing energy that Yeltsin got from his big win in the free election in Moscow. He was just picked by the party. Then lots of other groups -- official trade unions, the Academy of Sciences, the cultural unions, these weird things they have in the Soviet Union, a writer's union, an actor's union and so on -- all of them were allocated a certain number of seats in the Congress that they could elect themselves without a popular vote. So that's sort of the rigged group, although some really good democrats got in by that route, including Sakharov and others in the Academy of Sciences delegation. But the entrenched party regulars also got in that way, and they made this still less than a fully democratic institution.
LAMB: You say it will become a fully democratic institution?
KAISER: All the republics have enacted legislation which says that in election of the next Congress of People's Deputies, there will be no seats reserved for social organizations, that everybody will have to be elected from a constituency, pretty much like the Congress or the British Parliament.
LAMB: Then what is the Supreme Soviet?
KAISER: The Supreme Soviet is, very roughly speaking, the equivalent of the Senate. The Congress of People's Deputies is not meant to be a full-time job or a full-time legislative body. It meets two to four times a year for periods of two to four weeks and does big things, takes big decisions. But the sitting permanent legislature is the Supreme Soviet whose members are elected by the members of the Congress of People's Deputies. It's not direct election from the people. It's direct election from the people that people have elected.
LAMB: Do you know how big that group is?
KAISER: That's around 300, is my recollection.
LAMB: Do they have to be a member or can they be a member of the Congress of People's Deputies?
KAISER: They have to be.
LAMB: So you go from 400-and-some down to 300-and-some.
KAISER: Yes, if I've got these numbers right. But that's about right, yes.
LAMB: I guess the question that I'd really like to have you answer is, without using the military, can they ever return to their old ways of the Communist Party being in total control and the Politburo running the show?
KAISER: I think not. This is another of Gorbachev's great contributions. The old system, the system that I knew so well and lived with in the '70s, was built on myths and lies. There was this elaborate mythology about the revolution of 1917, about World War II, about Stalin, about Lenin. The whole system was justified by myths. Glasnost, which has certainly been Gorbachev's biggest contribution -- openness, honesty, free debate -- has destroyed those myths.
The mythological foundation of the old system has been wiped away, and, as a result, any attempt to again make the claim that the party is the vanguard of the working class or that the people and party are united -- these are all slogans from the old days -- or that the dictatorship of the proletariat was a legitimate form of government, that the dictators were actually speaking for the proletariats, so-called, all that would now be laughed out of court. I don't think it was very widely believed at all in the old days, but nobody had the nerve to challenge it for fear of the consequences. But now people have found their nerve.
There's a huge difference in the personal courage now in the Soviet Union. The Communist Party, itself, is incredibly unpopular. It gets less than 10 percent support in polls. People just don't have any affection for the Communist Party or for Communism. That's one of Gorbachev's problems now is that he continues to insist he is a convinced Communist, as he puts it, although it's hard to know what that means now. That's enough for an awful lot of people to say, "Well, if you're a convinced Communist, I'm not for you because I'm not a convinced Communist. I don't believe in this." Indeed, a number of my official friends -- people who were in the old system and in the new system -- have made a point in private conversations in the last year or two of saying to me, "You know, I want you to understand. I never believed in that stuff. I never believed in it." There's been this great outpouring now of candor.
LAMB: Someone you gave a paragraph in the acknowledgements to is Jennifer Long. Why?
KAISER: Jennifer Long is a very bright young graduate student here in Washington. She's at George Washington University. After this confrontation with my wife, where I realized that I wasn't going to be able to do the quick and easy thing I had in mind, I needed some help. I found Jennifer and retained her services as a research assistant. I said, "Jennifer, your first job is to build for us a chronology on the computer of all the important things that have happened since Gorbachev came to power." She did that and did it very well and we have that, as you're seeing right here, in the back of the book -- a kind of week-by-week account of the big things, the turning points in the Gorbachev era. We have it up to date through last January.
LAMB: I went through the chronology and one of the things that I found -- and we don't need to go through them all right here -- struck me in something I wanted to ask you about. I used asterisks nine different times. I'll start with the first one -- Feb. 27, 1988. This was 31 people had been killed in Sumgait. Let me get to my next asterisk. April 9 which was in the year 1989 -- 19 people are killed in Tbilisi. June 12, this one dozens are killed in Uzbekistan. Jan. 14, 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan, numbers of deaths had doubled -- I don't see the number there -- Baku in an operation that takes more than 60 lives. Feb. 13, anti-Armenian rioting in Dushanbe, the capital of Tadzhikistan, leaves 37 dead. May 28, 22 Armenians are killed. June 6, troops are sent to Kirghizia, 40 people were killed. I think you know where I'm going with this. Six are killed Nov. 2, 1990. Lots of people died in this whole thing. How do you explain all that?
KAISER: Every episode has its own particular explanation. We're dealing here with a really interesting multinational creation, artificial creation -- most important point. The Russians decided a long time ago to build this empire and to absorb peoples living around them, and they absorbed many of them in the 18th and 19th centuries. But still, after all that time, a great many of them are absolutely unenthusiastic about the arrangement that puts them into a country that's dominated by ethnic Russians, which they are not.
The nationalistic juices that are flowing, then, are very strong. You've got some ancient hatreds -- the worst one which came up the most in your list of asterisks here is the really bad blood between Armenians, who are Christians who live down in Armenia at the bottom of the country, and Azerbaijanis, who are Moslems who are right next to him. They've been at each other's throats for centuries and centuries. Yes, you can see them right there. Here's Azerbaijan and here's Armenia right next to it. Those two spots. They just don't like each other and they have no patience for one another -- when provoked. It's interesting. They've been living side by side for years.
There's been this large Armenian neighborhood in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, for hundreds of years. Then suddenly one day in 1990, Azerbaijani thugs walked into that neighborhood with clubs and pipes and started beating up innocent Armenians with no provocation, just venting spleen. There's just a great deal of national sentiment and hatred and bad will, and it's bubbling up in lots of different ways.
The first time really that Gorbachev had to sanction the police to shoot on people was at the end of '86, if I remember this right, when he ousted Kunayev, who's the leader of Uzbekistan. There were riots in the streets, and it would appear that the riots were organized by Kunayev's allies who were trying to embarrass Gorbachev. But that led to bloodshed. These tensions are going to continue. I think this unnatural creation we call the Soviet Union is going to gently or not gently, slowly or quickly -- I don't know -- but it's going to fall apart. It's going to disintegrate because it is unnatural.
LAMB: In your reading through the chronology, you basically point out, by the time you get near the end, that all 15 of the republics have now voted to be independent. What does that mean?
KAISER: To be sovereign, an important difference. It means they want to be in control of their own legal fate, particularly. They want the laws that are in effect in Moldavia or Estonia or Uzbekistan to be the laws passed by the local authorities in those places and administered by local authorities.
I think that's the main thing that prompted those resolutions of sovereignty. But, as you know, a number of the republics have said sovereignty isn't enough. We really do want independence. The Georgians are now formally pursuing independence. The Armenians are formally pursuing it, and the three Baltic republics are all saying we want to be completely independent. Gorbachev finally is having to accept that this may happen, it seems to me.
There was this meeting three weeks ago with Yeltsin and Gorbachev where they made a new agreement again, a zig and zag back and forth, but now they're agreeing again. This time they agreed at a meeting that was attended by the leaders of nine out of the 15 republics. It was the first time, I thought, that Gorbachev had accepted the notion of the Soviet Union that was less than 15 republics. It wasn't a formal acceptance, but it looked like that to me.
LAMB: How long have you been with the Washington Post?
KAISER: Forever. Started as a summer intern in the summer of 1963 and never left.
LAMB: What do you do now?
KAISER: Now the deputy managing editor, which is the third position in the newsroom, the hierarchy in the news department.
LAMB: How has the Post changed since you first went to work for it?
KAISER: Enormously. Ben Bradley invented the modern Washington Post. He came two years after, I did -- I like to tease him and remind him -- in 1965. The paper then was not a very good small provincial newspaper. It had two or three foreign correspondents. It had a staff altogether of less than 300 journalists and wasn't that good.
LAMB: Anybody ever say you look a little bit like Ben Bradley?
LAMB: Not even on that picture there.
KAISER: Maybe a little bit in that picture. But, you know, it really has been transformed. We've now got 22 foreign correspondents or 23. We've got 650 journalists working on the paper. Circulation has more than doubled, and it's a much better paper, in my biased opinion.
LAMB: I've got in my hand here that paperback we showed earlier on your former book. One of the things I noticed in reading this, this came out in 1975?
KAISER: January of '76.
LAMB: There's an update in the back about 1984.
KAISER: Yes. A funny moment. They wanted to put out a new edition and raise the price, Pocket Books. They asked me to put in a new chapter just after Andropov died, so it was during the Chernenko era, which lasted about 11 months. I put out a new chapter. It's sort of funny now.
LAMB: Tell me if I'm wrong, but I notice when you get near the end of these you're a little skittish as to what's going to happen next. For instance, on page 405 here you write of the book you currently have on the market, "I'm finishing this book before I can learn what really happened to Gorbachev after the 28th party congress as I'm writing in early 1991," and you go on. Then in here again you say, "I'm not sure what's going to happen next." Is this a tough subject to write about?
KAISER: Well, it sure is. It's a real tough subject to write about. On the other hand, if I asked you what was going to happen at C-SPAN next month, I'm not sure you can tell me that either. I think that we kid ourselves about our ability in general to foresee the future.
But, particularly, in these fast moving Soviet situations, it was obvious when Chernenko came to power that he was a sick old man and wasn't going to last very long, so over the next hill something different was going to happen. Right now anybody who's paying any attention to the news realizes that the whole Soviet situation is wildly in flux, so I don't think it's hard to be sympathetic with this profession of uncertainty on my part.
LAMB: The reason why I wanted to bring it up -- maybe I missed it -- but I don't think I found Mr. Gorbachev's name in it.
KAISER: No, you didn't. No, you didn't. In 1975, when I finished writing that book, he was still in Stavropol. That little chapter I wrote at the end -- he might have made that, actually, I don't remember.
LAMB: I don't think so. It's not in the index and I've looked through.
KAISER: Actually I remember this now. I wrote this new chapter in the spring of '84, and then I went off that summer to Moscow, the trip I described earlier, and that's when I first heard about Gorbachev and realized how important he was, so he probably didn't make it there.
LAMB: There's lots of things that I underlined in your other book to ask you about. You wrote this near the end of this. This was in the chapter you up-dated. "It is conceivable that the United States will abandon what has been a thoroughly foolish and fruitless attempt to cow the Soviets into submitting to American demands. An American policy that offers the Soviets no reasonable way out, no prospect of relaxation on remotely acceptable terms is doomed to fail, but other American policies are at least theoretically possible." Do you think we let them out?
KAISER: Sure we did. One of the really interesting moments in modern history to me was that fabulous coincidence of interests between this new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and this troubled American president, Ronald Reagan, after the Iran-Contra affair. You remember the first summit of Reagan and Gorbachev occurred in Geneva in November of '85, just seven or eight months after Gorbachev came to power, and just when Reagan was beginning to worry, I think, about his place in history.
Anyway, they hit it off very well, and then in the subsequent two years and as Reagan's position at home got a little dicey because of Iran-Contra and other things, suddenly the evil empire rhetoric disappeared and Reagan was very eager to make deals and Gorbachev for his own reasons was very eager to make deals and suddenly we had a very different kind of relationship than the one I described there.
LAMB: You mention SDI in your book. What impact did SDI have on them? Positive?
KAISER: I think SDI had one critically important psychological impact on the Russians. Brezhnev and his cronies had kidded themselves into thinking that they'd really accomplished something enormously significant during the Nixon administration. They concluded that because of our failure to prevail in Vietnam and because of Nixon's willingness to come to Moscow and make deals -- the first SALT treaty and so on -- with the Russians that what they called the correlation of forces in the world had shifted to their advantage and that they were now on the winning wicket.
They'd established military parity with the greatest super-power the world had ever known. They had figured out how to build these exotic MRV, multiple reentry vehicle, rocket targeting devices and all this other high-technology weaponry. They were playing our game and they were full of themselves and very excited about it. SDI, introduced by Reagan dramatically as it was in the spring of '83, was a real shock to this view of the world because suddenly what Reagan was saying to these guys was, "You think you've caught up with us.
You think you're playing on an even field with us now. The hell with you. We're going to take our ball and go over on a different field altogether and start a whole new game. Let's see if you can play this one." Interestingly, the Soviet scientists -- two of them at least were friends of mine -- understood that Reagan's dream of an invulnerable shield was at best a very long way off and a great expense before it could be achieved if it ever could be, and they sort of doubted it could. They went to the politicians and said, "Don't worry about this. This is just talk."
But the politicians couldn't accept that, I think now. They were scared by it. They really were scared by it. I think it encouraged those like Gorbachev, whose underlying position was, "This game isn't worth it. Playing this game of trying to keep up with the Americans has bankrupted our country. We have a lousy economy. We've got a lousy economic infrastructure. It's because we're putting all our resources into this exotic weapon which we'll never be able to use. Let's get out of this game," which has been Gorbachev's policy from day one, I think. I'm sure it helped the reformers in that way.
LAMB: Back to Jennifer Long. You say her biggest accomplishment, her greatest triumph was finding the full text of Gorbachev's December 1984 speech in the bowels of the Library of Congress after the ordinary search process had ended in failure. Why is that such a big deal?
KAISER: This is my one scoop in this book that I'm really pleased about. We discovered a speech -- actually a friend of mine, a Russian friend, a very smart, well-informed guy who helped me a lot with this book, said, "I have this speech that Gorbachev made at the end of '84. I remember it well. It was a really interesting liberal speech", as my friend put it. It was very unusual for him to make it at that time because Chernenko was still the leader, still alive.
Actually Gorbachev knew how sick Chernenko was at that time. We didn't yet know it. But he said, "Look up that speech." So I went back and we started hunting around for it and we found some references to it. Yes, it was a very interesting speech, but we couldn't find the speech. Then -- I can't remember how; some scholarly citation in a British journal, as I recall -- we discovered that a pamphlet had been published in Moscow by a political publishing house, which appeared to be the full text of the speech which we couldn't find anywhere else.
Then Jennifer discovered that the Library of Congress card catalog said that the library had this pamphlet. I know how this works because when I was in Moscow, I used to know the young diplomat in the embassy in our embassy in Moscow who was a book buyer. That was his whole job, and he had to go from bookstore to bookstore in Moscow whenever anything came out of remote interest. He bought it and sent it back to the Library of Congress or to the CIA or to some archive in Washington. So there it was supposedly.
We began writing out these request slips, find us this pamphlet, and they couldn't find it. They couldn't find it. I called a friend of mine in the librarian's office. Can you help? They got some elaborate search and they never found it. Jennifer found some guy in the European reading room over there -- I'm still not sure who he was -- told this guy her problem, said they had this thing but couldn't find it. He said, "I think maybe I could find that. Give me this afternoon. I'll see what I can do." At the end of the day, he came back and he found it.
He knew some stack of Soviet material that somebody put out of order or something, but he found it. Turned out to be a really interesting document. December '84 -- four months before Gorbachev is elected leader. It's an ideological meeting in Moscow, and he gets up and lays out a platform. It's kind of an election manifesto. "I am for perestroika, " he says and uses the word. "I am for glasnost," he says and uses the word. Both words didn't show up for a long time after he came into power, not for years. He talks about democratization, about giving people a sense of participation in their own society, giving them a stake in it.
He talked about economic reform. Really the whole general line of his program was in this speech. Then we went back and carefully looked at how the speech had been received when it was given and discovered that Pravda had reported on the speech but given a highly censored account, tendentiously censored, so that you didn't really understand the scope and the sweep and the radical nature of what he'd said. What they put on television was even worse.
Television made it sound like some absolutely standard piece of official claptrap, nothing interesting in it at all. So clearly there were powerful people that didn't want the readers, the consumers of the mass media to know what it was that Gorbachev was really proposing. He was then a member of the Politburo. He had, obviously, a lot of influence of his own. It was probably through the power he had that he was able to get the full text published and no doubt circulated to key party officials. I think it was a very important sort of signal of the kind of fight that was going on then about who should lead and where should he lead.
LAMB: You write, "I will resist the temptation to speculate on the effects of his grandfather's arrest, his father's absence from home during the war." Why will you resist that?
KAISER: This is a response to a book by Gail Sheehy that you may know about Gorbachev that came out some months ago. Gail is a very courageous soul who does a lot of psychological theorizing and she has developed quite an elaborate theory of Gorbachev which strikes me as pretty far-fetched, most of it. As a reporter, as a journalist, I've just never been comfortable with that, and I guess I was responding.
I'm sure some of the readers of this book will have read that book. She actually didn't find out as much as I was able to find out -- thanks to Gorbachev himself -- about these interesting aspects of his history. The business of his grandfather--I'll digress for a minute if I may.
There had been rumors that Gorbachev or at least one of Gorbachev's grandfathers had been arrested in the Stalin terror times. Never pinned down. One of his aides told Rick Smith that yes, he had been arrested and was sort of vague on the details. I started sending messages. I actually met Gorbachev's new press secretary here late last year. I said, "You've got to clear this up for us. We got to know the truth about these grandfathers. What really happened?" Finally in November of last year, Gorbachev made a speech, a really interesting speech in a lot of ways, in which he revealed the whole story.
First his paternal grandfather in the early '30s, when the first terroristic arrests began, was picked up. Then in 1937, the really horrible time, his mother's father was picked up and taken away and fiercely interrogated and called an enemy of the people. He said, "Then our house was a plague house and no one would visit it for fear of following in Grandfather Gopkalo's steps." In other words, people thought that if they came around after he had been arrested this way that they could be tainted by it, too. I think this is extremely important in the story of Gorbachev as a de-Stalinizer, as an anti-Stalin leader who was able to expunge the Stalinist ghosts from the Soviet past by getting them out on the table, by dealing with it, speaking openly about it. I'm sure that this secret history of the families was part of the reason he did that.
LAMB: I want to ask you about Lenin and Stalin because they come up all the time in the book. In a short paragraph, tell us who was Josef Stalin and who was Lenin.
KAISER: Utterly different people, of course. Lenin was a very well-educated man whose older brother had been killed after trying to assassinate the czar in the 1860s or '70s and was one of the young revolutionaries of the late 19th century, romantic figures. This obviously had a big impact on young Lenin. He became a revolutionary. He ended up exiled in Zurich in Switzerland. He missed the revolution. Actually, he arrived in what's now Leningrad, then Petrograd, after the revolution. Very charismatic, very strong. Quite vicious and cruel when he had to be, too, but a really interesting, large figure.
Stalin was this thug who grew up in Tbilisi, had gone to a religious sort of a monastery high school, didn't finish. Got early on into revolutionary activity -- for profit or for politics was never clear to me nor to his biographers. A very cruel, very tough, very resourceful character who Lenin was scared to death of. There's a famous document now called "Lenin's Testament." Lenin had a stroke, you remember, in the last couple of years of his life. He's ineffectual but still the leader. He writes this testament to his comrades saying, "Don't pick Stalin. Stalin's not the right guy." But nevertheless, Stalin seized power and then really changed everything. In the last years of Lenin's life, he saw that it was going to be very hard to create a socialist economy and he actually had started what they called the new economic policy which allowed for a little free enterprise -- quite a lot of free enterprise -- co-ops and so on.
Then Stalin came in the late '20s and crushed all that and did the first five-year plans and really militarized the society and put it on this highly disciplined footing. Then in the '30s he went crazy and starting killing people and wiped out, in the purges of the '30s, all the original communists -- all of Lenin's comrades, all of his own early comrades -- and became, really, the maddest, craziest, cruelest dictator of the 20th century. Worse than Hitler in my view, although it's a close call. They're both monsters.
LAMB: What's the best estimate on how many people he killed?
KAISER: The number of people that died in the Stalinist era, including the war, is more than 20 million. He probably was responsible for the deaths of 10 million, 8 million, who knows. I mean, just an enormous number of people.
LAMB: When you go to the Soviet Union now and talk to your friends that you still have over there, do they still revere Lenin and do they all denounce Stalin?
KAISER: No. Stalin is really a discredited figure. That's one of the really important things that's happened in the last six years. Lenin is also now becoming much more openly debated and discussed. There's been a lot of stuff published raising questions about Lenin's attitudes, particularly toward what we now would call human rights issues. Lenin had no qualms about killing people, about sending people to Siberia, about really treating his enemies very crudely, roughly and cruelly. There's been a lot of debate now about that. Lenin is still a symbolic sort of father-of-his-country figure for a lot of simple ordinary Russians. But my sense is that he's much less both popular and significant than he was just a few years ago.
LAMB: One line on page 406 of your book about president Gorbachev: "He has been acting for more than 40 years." What did you mean?
KAISER: My colleague, David Remnick, who is in the Moscow bureau of the Washington Post went out to Gorbachev's home turf in December of '89 and wrote an absolutely fabulous, very long story in the Post "Style" section about Gorbachev's early life, which I've stolen from wholesale in this book. David found a woman who was Gorbachev's high school sweetheart. She told a marvelous tale of their lives together as student actors.
There was a teacher in this little country high school who just loved the theater and loved teaching her kids how to put on plays, and they did quite elaborate student productions of many Russian classics. Young Mikhail emerged as the matinee idol of his high school. He was really good at it, apparently, and he loved it. He actually, according to this woman, seriously considered a career in the theater. He thought about, instead of going to Moscow State University, going to a theatrical institute where he could begin an acting career. It struck me, when I read this, that this was key to a lot of his behavior, that he really is a gifted political actor. He's wonderful on a podium; he's wonderful in a debate.
The very first month he was in power in '85, he electrified the country by going to Leningrad and walking around on the streets of Leningrad and engaging people in serious conversation on the street on camera -- television finally used in the Soviet Union the way politicians like to use it. Suddenly the whole country saw that they had a new leader who could do this, who could actually in a very vivacious and engaging way interact with people, take some guff if they wanted to give him some guff, give it back. This is Gorbachev the actor, and we've seen it again and again. I think it makes it hard, as it should -- any gifted politician is an actor in a way -- to see beyond what he wants us to see to try to figure out what's really going on.
LAMB: Similarities to Ronald Reagan?
KAISER: Of course, a wonderful, wonderful similarity. You know, people that worked for both of them have told me that when they had idle moments together, they fell silent. They didn't have much to say to each other in a genuine personal way. It was only when it was the scripted situation, a negotiation was going on or something formal was going on. Then they'd get engaged. But when there was no reason to do that, they didn't do it, which I find intriguing.
LAMB: In the back of the book, notes on sources, you say, "I have kept precise citations for all quotations. If any scholar has trouble finding one, I will reply to all queries." Is that taking on more work than it's worth?
KAISER: Well, I did this in the first book. You have this choice to make as an author. Do you want to put in those hundreds of footnotes. Every time you quote somebody from Pravda do you want to say what date it was or what page it was on and so on? You know in your bones that if there are 100,000 people that read this book, there aren't going to be 100 who care about that footnote. Someone made this suggestion to me 15 years ago when I wrote the first book, just to say that if anybody wants to find something, they should write you. So I put in a very similar offer in the back of this book. I got one query in 16 years, so I don't think there will be too much work here. It's easier now in the computer age and in my computer typescript of the book, I've got those citations in place.
LAMB: You also credit the Foreign Broadcast Information Service for a lot of information. What is it?
KAISER: FBIS is a wonderful tool. It's a CIA product and it's one of the biggest little cottage industries in Washington. Every night -- I don't know where they are, these people -- they're producing instant translations of the press and the broadcast media, not just from the Soviet Union, but from almost every country in the world. It comes out in about 10 different volumes every day.
You get Southeast Asia, South Africa, North Africa and so on, the Middle East. It's a terrific tool for researchers. The problem with it is, at least in the Russian service which I know the best, I have the strong sense that the translators are mostly Russians. They must be emigres who have come out in the last 20 years, and their English isn't all that hot. They're doing this at breakneck speed and sometimes they really screw up seriously in the translations. They do misleading translations. So whenever I used anything important, I went back and retranslated it myself.
LAMB: Is the British Broadcasting Corporation shortwave broadcast monitoring service the same thing?
KAISER: Similar. Smaller, less ambitious.
LAMB: We're about out of time in the last minute. How long is he going to last?
KAISER: For a while. I think the real question is can he hold onto any meaningful power as the president of this federal structure. I think Yeltsin's game now, and the other republics, too, is to draw the power away from the center to themselves so that the individual republics have the real power and let the center have the ceremonial. Let them have the foreign policy. There'll be a fight about monetary policy eventually when they realize how important that is, which they haven't yet. But I think it's possible that Gorbachev could stay in power quite a while as a leader of steadily diminishing power and influence. But it's also possible that next week some angry bunch of generals or KGB cops or who knows who will rise up and say, "Sorry, Mac, this is it. You're out of here."
LAMB: From what you know, the Russian people, the Soviet people, if the military were to move in, what would the people do?
KAISER: I think now that the military would be just as unsuccessful as Gen. Jaruzelski was in Poland when he did that in 1981. I think we could see a period of attempted retrenchment and real nastiness from the army or the police or both, but that it wouldn't work. The people wouldn't cooperate with it. It wouldn't solve any of the underlying crises, so we'd start again after a few years in a new ferment.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It's Why Gorbachev Happened: His Triumphs and His Failures. Robert G. Kaiser of the Washington Post. Thank you for joining us.
KAISER: Thank you.
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