Thirty years ago it appeared as though we were entering a brand new dawn in the waning days of the drawing of the iron curtain. I was busy drafting Congressional resolutions for the nation’s Mayors calling for the “peace dividend” which surely would allow us to reprogram policy priorities and hence budgetary allocations from defense to domestic agencies. I travelled to the Soviet Union on two occasions in 1991 and found the warmth of the Soviet people intoxicating, exhilarating, exciting, and we would convey through conversations which would last deep into the night our collective hopes of a new world, one based upon peace and cooperation not suspicion and fear. That now seems like a long, long time ago in a place far, far away. Are we heading for Act 2 of The Cold War?
The heartbreaking actions currently being pursued by would-be Czar Vladimir Putin upon the independent nation of Ukraine are testament to the changing fortunes in Russian-American relations over the past three decades. The current international order is being tested in a way not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly 60 years ago, when the two nuclear heavyweights came perilously close to an exchange that would have altered human existence on this planet. Luckily, diplomacy and resolute determination on the part of both parties prevailed. Unfortunately in today’s standoff we are not afforded the luxury of rational thought by Soviet wannabes led by Putin and whereas it only takes one to tangle, it does take two to tango.
Thirty years ago we were headed towards a genuine thaw in the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union offered great promise that the two nuclear giants might be able to work together to paint a portrait of cooperation that would benefit the world. The signals and signs all pointed towards peaceful co-existence. What happened?
There is little doubt and serious concern that one of the most dangerous circumstances when using the nuclear card as a bargaining chip is miscalculation and consequent escalation. Thus we are in the crosshairs of a potentially botched bluff that could lead to irretrievable disaster. Putin has rarely exercised anything short of saber-rattling and extended bravado and his latest efforts to threaten nuclear activation give slim solace to those who place their bets on rationality and diplomatic give and take. Given the path we were on three decades ago it is heartbreaking that we are currently in the dilemma we now find ourselves. We can only hope that in this time of hyper cyber activity and social media that protests in Russia and a valiant effort on behalf of Ukranian citizens reverses the course we are apparently heading towards.
I would like to harken back to some personal reflections of a visit to Moscow in the week leading up to Christmas in 1991 that painfully reflects how far US-Russian relations has slipped. I led a delegation of Mayors to a two-day conference on Federalism that included other governmental and non-governmental representatives including Senators Paul Wellstone from Minnesota and Slade Gorton from Washington, former Missouri Governor John Ashcroft, Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, academics in the fields of Economic policy, History, and Political Science, and former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Arthur Hartmann.
Representatives from Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev participated in the conference which was aimed at offering suggestions and experiences with concepts and practices that involved intergovernmental cooperation between the Federal, state and local governments and the working relationships between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government.
While the Russian participants were appreciative of our suggestions they made it quite clear that because of different historical perspectives it was unlikely that the same prescriptions that served the American experience might not actually work in what would days later become the former Soviet Union.
But with the backdrop of glasnost, which was designed to increase transparency and openness in Soviet government and institutions and perestroika, designed to fundamentally change the economic and political structures in the Soviet Union, both advanced by Gorbachev in the mid-1980’s, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the prospect of a thaw in the Cold War seemed in reach and a new era of cooperation between the two nuclear superpowers appeared to be within reach.
Certainly in the United States there was similar movement away from the need to fund the ravenous defense budget and amongst local governments there were resolutions endorsing a Peace Dividend that would reprogram monies from defense to non-defense domestic needs in America’s cities. As Executive Assistant Director of the US Conference of Mayors at the time and chief staffer for the Urban Economic Policy Committee I crafted numerous resolutions and initiated many policy meetings with economic and budget experts to develop a solid economic foundation for shifting budget priorities to the nation’s cities.
But one of the most powerful experiences I personally participated in during this exciting time period occurred in our 1991 trip to Moscow. The Soviet Union was experiencing a famine and there were long lines for essential goods like milk and bread. As the conference was ending I was alerted that the US military was going to deliver leftover food stuffs stored in Pisa, Italy from the first Desert Storm operation in the Middle East to Russia the following day. I contacted the US Consulate’s office in St. Petersburg and was told that two USAF cargo planes would be landing the next day for distribution.
After consulting with the 3 Mayors in our delegation to the conference about interest in going up to help in the distribution two Mayors from Massachusetts, Democrat John Bullard from New Bedford, and Republican Ted Mann from Newton, agreed to participate. I procured train tickets that would leave Moscow at midnight and arrive in St. Petersburg at 8:30 the following morning and arranged for staff from the Consulate to pick us up and drive out to the airport.
On the midnight train we made friends with a group of citizens who generously shared their Vodka with us and with the help of a young translator we persuaded to accompany us on the trip we talked and drank for several hours and then retired to our bunks. What struck us in not only those conversations but in the many other conversations I have had during two trips to the Soviet Union and one to Russia over the past 30 years is the desire to seek peace and to care for their families.
While in Moscow in 1991 we visited a grammar school where we talked with students who were all fluent in English and discussed once again what was on everyone’s mind: namely, peace and prosperity.
When we reached Pulkova Airport on the morning of December 20, off at the end of the airport, on a cold, gray, cloudy morning stood two dark gray military aircraft, a C-5A and a C-141 parked among the snow covered tarmac with American insignias. These were the only US military aircraft to have been given permission to land on Soviet soil. As we pulled up to a designated point at the edge of the airport there were numerous military trucks and roughly about 100 eager but wary Soviet soldiers, at the ready to help the American soldiers and us unload boxes of dehydrated foods off the forklifts which ferried back and forth to the planes.
It did not take long for a thaw in the attitudes to take hold. American and Soviet soldiers intermixing and joking around, accomplishing the unloading of foodstuffs designated for the largest orphanage in the Soviet Union about 20 miles away. When the transfer had been completed, soldiers posed for pictures, hats were exchanged for cigarettes, handshakes abounded, smiles were evident everywhere.
We proceeded to follow the military trucks to the orphanage in the town of Pavlovsk, where 750 kids either abandoned or mentally disadvantaged greeted us with wide eyes of amazement and we distributed little American flags for them as presents. We sat down with the caretakers and nurses to a bowl of hot borscht and discussed the dire need for food and the appreciation for our efforts.
By 3 p.m. it was already dark and snow was falling as we headed back to St. Petersburg where that evening we would be in the presence of Isaac Stern, who was visiting his homeland for the first time since he was 5 years old. However, on the way back we passed through the small town of Pushkin, where by luck I happened to notice a large edifice through the snow and asked the driver if we could swing by to take a closer look. We had stumbled upon the summer palace of Catherine the Great, such opulence amidst such misery. We paid a visit to the palace and went on our way.
In the rush we had not had any luck in securing return tickets on the midnight train back to Moscow and were relying on the help of the Consulate to secure those tickets as we would be leaving Moscow for the trip back to the United States the very next day. Luckily the tickets were procured and we all made it home for Christmas. On Christmas Day, 1991 the Hammer and sickle would be lowered for the last time and the Soviet Union was no longer.
The hope for a new era of cooperation was so palpable back then and what has transpired in the following three decades represents a huge opportunity lost for humanity. In Mr. Putin’s ego-driven quest for restoration of the Soviet State, not to mention his accumulation of what is believed to be in excess of $200 billion in wealth, and all this accompanying the hardships of a dismal economy, make a mockery of his presupposed ideological predisposition towards Marxist philosophy. He is a murderous thug who is threatening an international world order that at one point had tempered the wrath of a dictator.
In so many ways we have witnessed time moving backwards and while democracy is not a perfect instrument, echoing Winston Churchill’s admonition: “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”