Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment six

Tête-à- tête with a senior Russian diplomat, Oleg K., in the Hotel National, Moscow for a tour d’horizon, politics, business and personal lives.  24 February 1977

4.00 pm return to the hotel and prepare for meeting with Oleg K., first secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a good friend of Bettina’s. Note – Oleg accompanied [Meat and Dairy] Minister Antonov ‘s delegation on the trip to Swift and Beatrice last summer. Oleg shows up at my room a bit ahead of schedule at 6.15.  Very properly dressed, discreet, Ivy League cut. Soft-spoken. Asks at once about Bettina. Seems very pleased to get the book I have with me. We chat a bit. Obviously he has heard something about me before – his first question concerns my academic background  – what was my specialty? Economics? What degree do I hold?  I explain and then he asks if I went through a dissertation defense and whether it’s like a defense here. Next back to Bettina – what about her new Chinese venture, sale of beer? I reply in the affirmative and then we move on to our comparative tastes in beer. He likes Coors, dislikes beer in cans. Asks how long I’ve been with Bettina, then how long I intend to stay in this field. I say 5 years, and that Bettina herself suggested such a term.

We then leave for the National – I have reserved a table provisionally and we will start at the bar. Both of us take Scotch and once ensconced engage in far ranging discussion. First, he asks whether I do not feel uncomfortable in a new field for which I was not professionally prepared. I reply that I have spent too much time in a field where I had the analytic framework but insufficient raw material so that I would like to gather live data for a while. In the long run, he has pointed out a potential problem but I do intend to study economics on my own and so to become prepared. I explain how historical research was a bear-like existence, how my published articles resulted in only one crank note from a professor emeritus, and how it is good to be part of something vital. Also, that I feel I can make a strong contribution to my work by bringing an analytical eye and an open mind; this is important since the companies we deal with are overloaded with sincere and conscientious engineers who are incompetent salesmen in the international arena.

Next we turn to US politics and Carter, whom Oleg types as a student of Rickover, captive of the Jewish lobby and of the Trilateral Commission which preceded his candidacy. Oleg is very well informed on Washington doings and obviously enjoys the opportunity to discuss his ideas in English, to which we have now switched. A determinist, Oleg looks to economic factions and interests to explain the moment. Says Carter’s embracing dissidents and letter to Sakharov are really causing consternation here and indicate that the upcoming Belgrade meeting the US will take very hard line. Does not blame Brzezinski or Schulman personally, sees their conduct as following from the official position.

I say it’s a pity linkage theory shelved, but you must understand that some things Kissinger did had to summon a reaction. I relate to Oleg the whole talk Sonnenfeldt gave us at Harvard: the notion of accommodation now that Russia is emerging as an imperial power on the world scale, leaving its geopolitical interests and moving into Africa, South America, etc; the idea that at each time in history when such a new imperial power emerges there are tensions as it seeks membership in the imperial club; notion that in the interests of world peace we in US should make room for the Russians and admit them to the club as equals. Oleg listens with obvious interest. He has spoken to Sonnenfeldt on his own, and what I am saying appears new to him, but he does not deny its veracity. Instead, he takes issue with the concept which I introduced as not very flattering in address to the USSR and not very appealing to a patriotic US audience.

Oleg calmly denies that an imperial club exists, still less that Russia would seek membership. He says that talk of the USSR posing a military threat to the US is absurd, since their economy is one third of ours and in modern times what counts is economics and technical might. I respond – yes, so we thought till recently. But it has been the realization that the technological balance has changed, combined with the Soviet preponderance in numbers that has reopened the whole question of our relative security. I say that the whole recent debate on military strength has been predicated on the growing realization that old reasons for smugness are disappearing and that at a certain point numerical advantage becomes qualitative advantage. I say that, of course, this is only an opinion based on what is in the press, not on inside or privy information – that I have not contributed to Foreign Affairs. With calm, reassuring words, Oleg responds: ‘you will.’

Turning again to my career, Oleg supposes that by age 40 I’ll be back in academia, asks if I won’t be rusty. I say it is doubtful I will have missed much during my absence and that in any case, I will not be returning to the pre-Revolutionary period, rather to what I am learning now. We finish our drinks and go over to the restaurant where our table has been reserved. Seeing my calling card on the table, Oleg says he sees the Parker name carries weight here. The dinner is relaxed, over two bottles of Tsinandali, and we discuss both politics and personal fortunes. Oleg has visited most Soviet embassies abroad, is very well traveled and urbane.

He says that earlier his dream was to go to the virgin forests with a rifle in hand and live the wild life; that now, however, he has become urbanized, though he is very happy to talk of his experiences in the Far East, Vladivostok region in the postwar period. Father apparently was stationed there in the garrison. Looks about 37-39, a bachelor. Says he has a taste for English girls. I comment that this is understandable, since they, like Russian girls are very strong. He agrees, saying that when you leave an English girl there are no storms and crises – you part as equals. Seems proud to be talking from experience.

I ask permission to be a bit indiscreet and inquire of their thoughts on Ford, wasn’t he really a dolt. Oleg reports that they did respect him here – that the main thing was his willingness to learn; that what one wants from a chief is decency and Ford was decent. Earlier I had suggested that Carter’s fuss over Soviet dissidents was a smoke screen to cloud his pardon of Vietnam resisters, a very unpopular move on the right; however, Oleg declined to see it as a purely domestic matter.

On the way over to the National, I mentioned my Russian marriage. Now he asks quietly ‘was it difficult?’  I say it was not and the subject is closed. Oleg returns several times to the Jewish lobby – says he’s spoken to Vanek and they have found common language – same was true of Javits. I say this shows all the more that there is a political clout behind the public stands taken and that Russians cannot ignore these chords which find deep response in the USA. Earlier while at the bar Oleg reminded me that Russians never stood for pogroms, that these were special circumstances. I agree, while he is staring directly at me.

I ask why Russians take Harriman so seriously. Oleg also wonders about this, hints that Harriman was never such a good friend. I respond that having seen documents at Columbia I know Harriman was in ’43-44 one of those most responsible for worsening of tensions, that his word was heeded all the more because he had not been associated earlier with the anti-Russian Riga school of diplomats.

We discuss the Kennan Institute, about which Oleg has evidently heard.  He is interested to learn that Princeton is behind this and that its objective has been to bring scholars, business and government together. I tell about recent conferences of journalists stationed in the USSR since WWII and he wants to know of the aim was strictly historical – I answer in the affirmative. I tell him what it was like to graduate from Harvard in 1967, the age of Kennedy and Harvard ties. He is interested.

Oleg talks at length about virgin forests and hunting. I turn the discussion to problems of trade, explain how major US companies are fully aware of the difficulties of doing business here, especially the fact that no one will put up money for the engineering that goes into a proposal – and I ask Oleg what he would say to them if he were in my place to encourage them to come here. He says the following: that one deal leads to another and that there will be much business for them to do here. He says the USSR doesn’t seek credits – knows full well that they have to be repaid sometime. The chief key to foreign trade is political – the nature of our state relations. I say that in American academic circles there is the feeling that Russia has not shown good faith in détente because it has not committed resources to export-oriented industries. Oleg responds that it has shown good faith by taking the time and effort to deal directly with US parent companies whereas they could just as easily deal only with the European subsidiaries as has in the past. Then I respond that this favor not evident when we are negotiating at the Foreign Trade Ministry and must show that it is cheaper to buy US than to buy European.

I mention concern of US companies for up-front money before undertaking project design – how they have been burned, spending up to 500,000 on such proposals only to receive noncommittal thanks from a ministry leading to nothing. I ask about the Bendix deal – resale of product to the West. Oleg suggests this is definitely an indication of things to come, that such an export potential is a very important consideration.

Oleg speaks very highly of Bettina – respects her role in the Similac deal, putting together so many disparate pairs to bring it off. As to Similac itself, he expresses surprise that the Soviets bought it, doubting it was really needed. I say that from my experience it is necessary. Moreover, the related product which, peculiarly was not sold here – Isomil and Pedialyte – would be still more valuable because they overcome a very difficult problem of the child who cannot accept milk based formulae.  Oleg states proudly that Russian products still are unspoiled, unadulterated.

I respond by saying that when I last came over I passed through Geneva in the Christmas season. I was bringing Beatrice and their rather commonplace US sausage products and here in Geneva I saw so much very superior, mouth-watering products.  But those products are expensive and you cannot feed a nation of 250 million persons on sausage that costs $10/lb. Oleg agrees – says, yes, must produce much average product and only a limited amount of luxury items.  He himself was amazed to find when touring Safonov’s plant that very high quality beef pieces went into sausage. I say, yes, and there is overall a failure to categorize beef and utilize it more rationally. We discuss chicken and I remark that its cost ratio to beef should be 1:4 whereas here it is 2:1.  Oleg replies that here the price is kept artificially high to subsidize beef production. We part at 11.15 pm – take a short stroll up Gorky. He seems genuinely pleased with the meeting and opportunity to talk politics.

PS – Who is who

Bettina….Parker, chief executive of the New York based consultancy Parker Associates, my employer from August 1976 to June 1977

Averell Harriman – Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Stalin during WWII,  later governor of New York State, still an iconic figure in US-Soviet relations in the late 1970s

Marshall Shulman – US diplomat, scholar, founding director of the Harriman Institute of Russian studies at Columbia University

Helmut Sonnenfeldt – foreign policy expert, staff member of the National Security Council, served under Henry Kissinger with whom his is closely associated as strategist

Charles Vanik – member of the House of Representatives, co-sponsor with Henry Jackson of an amendment to the 1974 trade bill which made Soviet release of Jews wishing to emigrate a condition for normal commercial relations

Jacob Javits – US Senator from New York State

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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