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Masterpieces of History

Svetlana Savranskaya
Thomas Blanton
Vladislav Zubok


Document No. 77: Record of Conversation between Aleksandr Yakovlev and Jack Matlock, July 20, 1989

Traduction de Svetlana Savranskaya

Texte intégral

1This memorandum from the Yakovlev files in the Russian State Archive highlights several significant points relating to U.S.-Soviet ties during the important early period of the Bush presidency. For one, it provides an indication of how extensive the “pause” in the relationship was in 1989 (despite the crush of events in Eastern Europe), when veteran U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock comments to Russia’s leading “new thinker”—“We have not met for several months.” One of the consequences of this lack of direct contact is the likelihood of misunderstandings. When Yakovlev complains about President Bush’s remarks in Poland, which raised the issue of withdrawing Soviet troops, Matlock assures him the statement was not “planned,” and that Bush had made a “mistake” which “he did not repeat.” (Compare this with Bush’s account of the incident to Jaruzelski in Document No. 76.) Matlock calls for “a constant dialogue between our countries in order to understand better the acceptable limits of statements”—a dialogue that would not resume, however, until the Malta talks in December.

2Another interesting revelation is the serious underestimation on Yakovlev’s part of the forces of nationalism within the USSR—“nobody is seriously planning to secede from the Soviet Union,” he insists.

3But the most astonishing exchange is the repudiation of the shared vision that Gorbachev and Reagan reached at Reykjavik in 1986, when the two leaders came close to agreement on the abolition of nuclear weapons. Yakovlev twice raises the subject, but Matlock does not pick up on it until the second mention. When Yakovlev says the most important subject is “how better to liquidate nuclear weapons,” Matlock corrects him, saying: “Reagan believed in the possibility of liquidating nuclear weapons. Bush thinks that we need to reduce them to a minimum, but we should not liquidate them.” Matlock goes on to say that even “an agreement in principle about the liquidation of nuclear weapons” would be “premature” at this moment, to which Yakovlev responds, “in five years it will be too late.”

4For Matlock, the key issue is Yakovlev’s comment on lifting travel restrictions to the U.S.: the only limit on visits is “the absence of the necessary financial means. There are no political limitations.”


5Matlock: Thank you for receiving me. We have not met for several months. During this time President [George] Bush has visited Eastern Europe and M.S. Gorbachev visited Western Europe. In our opinion, those visits were constructive. What is your assessment? I would also like to know your opinion about the overall state of Soviet-American relations.

6Yakovlev: From our point of view, the trips to Europe produced results that were not bad. One may say that there has been a change from a confrontational approach to cooperation. Both leaders in their statements avoided anything that could inspire hostile feelings with regard to the other side. One exception was Bush’s response to the question about withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland. M.S. Gorbachev emphasized the need for U.S. participation in the resolution of European problems.

7Gorbachev’s appeal to the “Seven” is an appeal for a transparency in policy. We need more trust in the relations among all countries. The absence of information sometimes leads to an aggravation of relations, when in reality there might have been no problem at all.

8I cannot avoid saying that the resolution NATO adopted in Brussels surprised us. The language in which it is written is at least ten years out of date.

9There is only one danger—nuclear weapons. As long as they exist, there exists a threat to peace. If we liquidate them, there will be no threat. Some people cite the fact that before the era of nuclear weapons, bloody wars took place as well. However, times are very different now, and it is impossible to compare the situation today with the prewar situation.

10Matlock: As far as foreign policy is concerned, there are no substantial disagreements between the political parties of the United States. There are some disagreements on secondary issues. For example, the Congress, which is dominated by the Democrats, wants the president to endorse more serious sanctions against China, and Bush stands by a more moderate policy. He also introduced changes in U.S. policy toward Latin America. But in general, in contrast to the first half of the 1980s, the administration and the Congress are working well together.

11The same can be said about U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. Here, too, Congress and the president are in agreement.

12Expressing my personal opinion, I would like to say that the statement regarding the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland was not planned by President Bush. It was asked at the press conference, and Bush expressed his opinion. Later he understood that he made a certain mistake, and he did not repeat it again.

13Of course there are issues of contention and different approaches. The United States is in favor of democratization, freedom, but we do not want a destabilization of the situation in the USSR or in other countries of Eastern Europe. The processes unfolding in Eastern Europe may not always be correctly understood in Washington. That is why it is important for us to maintain a constant dialogue between our countries in order to understand better the acceptable limits of statements, and to highlight those sensitive moments on which it would be better to abstain.

14We understand well that the issue of inter-ethnic relations is one of the most acute in the Soviet Union. It has not found a solution yet. It is also known that the United States does not recognize the inclusion of the Baltic states in the Soviet Union. However, we do not want this issue to be resolved forcibly. We believe sincerely in the goals of perestroika. We realize that if the perestroika process succeeds in the Soviet Union, it would be to our benefit as well. That is why we do not want to interfere with this process. But we would like to know more precisely what in our actions or statements could potentially, even unintentionally, harm this process, because sometimes we simply do not possess the necessary information.

15Yakovlev: Since our conversation is unofficial and quite sincere, I would like to say that I believe that the United States is not trying to destabilize the situation in the Soviet Union, because, simply speaking, it would not be profitable for you. But we all need to be more careful in any statements that touch upon the other side. Recently there appeared a resolution regarding the so-called captive nations. It resulted in demonstrations, rallies, and hunger strikes in support of this statement in the Baltics. However, if we look at the present situation in the Baltic republics, who is captive there? This word is not appropriate to the real situation. At the same time, the statement by the U.S. President made a certain impression on the extremist circles, which put forward an appeal to secede from the USSR. But speaking seriously, where would they go?

16Matlock: That statement was adopted in accordance with the resolution of the Congress, and it is adopted annually.

17Yakovlev: I am aware of that, but the situation is changing radically. And now the price of words has gone up significantly. We know it from our own experience.

18The USSR is really going through some difficult times now. Perestroika is passing through a critical stage, and the nationalities issue is one of the most acute. At the same time, the calls of the extremists notwithstanding, nobody is seriously planning to secede from the Soviet Union. For decades we accumulated problems, about which we could not speak publicly. Now we can do that, and we start from the assumption that we need to give these emotions an opportunity to surface. The people will figure out the situation on their own, and everything will stay within a reasonable framework.

19I think that for some time passions will rage in our country. However, I am an optimist. Beginning in 1990 we are introducing republic-level economic self-sufficiency, for some republics at first. Let them experience firsthand economic and political problems that need to be solved.

20The period of transition is a very complex one. In the economy, the reform has not been completed yet, wholesale trade has not been introduced, and our economists, citing different American experts, give contradictory advice.

21Matlock: We tell the following story as a joke: when Truman became U.S. president, he listened to the opinions of various economists, who always said, “on the one hand,” and “on the other hand.” Then he asked his aide to find him a one-armed economist, who would have only one hand.

22Yakovlev: Returning to the problems of foreign policy, I would like to say that we need to conduct negotiations on reducing both conventional and nuclear weapons more actively. Anti-nuclear feelings, which have always been strong, are becoming more acute now. If we continue perfecting nuclear weapons, then we will not be able to stop this process. We should find “one-armed” scientists, who could give us advice on how better to liquidate nuclear weapons.

23Matlock: One has to take into account that positions and approaches change slowly. Reagan believed in the possibility of liquidating nuclear weapons. Bush thinks that we need to reduce them to a minimum, but we should not liquidate them. He believes that without nuclear weapons the risk of war being unleashed would increase. For the time being the question of liquidating nuclear weapons has rather a philosophical, but not a practical, character. That we need to reduce the number of nuclear weapons substantially is clear to everybody. If conventional weapons are reduced, that would make the approach to the issue of liquidating nuclear weapons easier, although these problems are not directly linked. Nuclear weapons were developed in the United States as a counterbalance to the conventional weapons of the Soviet Union, in order to achieve a balance of forces and carry out the policy of deterrence. Reducing conventional weapons to a minimum would create a psychological climate, which would help to move on to the solution of the problem of nuclear weapons. I think that the proposals introduced in Vienna and Geneva are constructive and open the way toward an agreement. We are on the right track.

24I personally believe that it would be premature now even to achieve an agreement in principle about the liquidation of nuclear weapons in the future.

25Yakovlev: I, naturally, do not agree with this point of view. Our mistrust toward each other was the basis for the accumulation of nuclear weapons. Today, it seems to me, we have abandoned the previous stereotypes, and we don’t think that we want to destroy each other. And today we are talking not just about Soviet and American nuclear weapons, but in five years a number of other countries will possess nuclear weapons. A danger emerges that in the course of regional conflicts one of those countries will not be able to resist the temptation to use nuclear weapons. The USSR and the USA can achieve an agreement about liquidating nuclear weapons, but I am not absolutely sure that it would be possible to do that with all other countries. Today we can put nuclear weapons and their liquidation under strict international control. We could introduce a rule, according to which inspection visits could be arranged on the basis of any suspicion. In five years it will be too late.

26Matlock: What is your assessment of the work of the USSR Supreme Soviet, and what kind of relationship exists between the CC CPSU Commission on International Relations and the International Commission of the USSR Supreme Soviet?

27Yakovlev: So far we have not experienced any problems in discussing foreign policy issues. We have not thought yet about coordination of the actions of the Commissions of the CC CPSU and the Supreme Soviet. We believe that in contrast to economic activities, where one needs a separation of functions, as far as foreign policy is concerned they require a partnership.

28Matlock: Will the principle of party discipline work during voting on any Supreme Soviet resolutions on foreign policy issues?

29Yakovlev: This question remains open so far, but I think that it will not. It is natural that unity is needed on questions of principle and in approaches to the main course of foreign policy.

30Matlock: Do you need to change the CPSU Charter for that?

31Yakovlev: No, we don’t, because at least in theory we never rejected the pluralism of opinions. And besides, it is impossible to address all questions in charters or resolutions of any kind. Life itself will advise us.

32Matlock: I sent to Washington my ideas about the necessity to find some method for inviting Soviet leaders, especially those at the republic and oblast levels, to the United States. Of course, this proposal has to be thought through still, but I think that it will be done in two or three months. I think invitations will be sent on behalf of congressmen and governors of individual states of the United States. We need to expand channels of contacts between our countries.

33Yakovlev: Our reservations in developing extensive personal contacts with the United States can mainly be explained by the absence of the necessary financial means. There are no political limitations.

34Matlock: We in our Embassy have issued 30,000 tourist visas for visits to the United States in the last six months. We expect the number to reach 70,000 by the end of the year.

35Let me thank you for the time you have given me. I would like to repeat once again that in my opinion we are on the right track, we are trying to understand better the processes that are unfolding in the Soviet Union. I would like to have an opportunity to meet with you in the future from time to time.

36As far as the congressional resolution “On Captive Nations” is concerned, it would be hard to change it. I expect that a large number of members of Congress and U.S. Senators will come to Moscow. I will be talking to them about this problem.

37Yakovlev: The new times call for new terminology. We should be looking for non-standard ways of improving relations between our countries.

38Candidate Member of the CC CPSU, First Deputy Head of the International Department of the CC CPSU K. N. Brutents was present during the conversation.

39The conversation was recorded by senior staff member of the International Department of the CC CPSU E. S. Lagutin.

40[Source: State Archive of the Russian Federation [GARF], Moscow. Yakovlev Collection. Fond 10063. Opis 1. Delo 264. On file at the National Security Archive. Translated by Svetlana Savranskaya.]

© Central European University Press, 2010

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