Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist, installment eight

Diary notes, 3 – 8 September 1986. Celebrating Harvard’s 350th anniversary, many speeches and the inevitable Russian connections

We arrive in Boston to very disappointing weather – cold mist, cloud cover, threat of rain and low temperature – exactly what we had left behind in Brussels. We take a taxi through Boston, which is congested by police escorts for Prince Charles, who is visiting the city today. We reach Cambridge, where a kind of inflatable McDonald’s arch floats over the Charles near the Weld boathouse, part of the preparations for the anniversary. I drop in to the athletic building to pick up my registration papers, which are all in order. Then we continue our taxi ride to Lowell House J-entry. A student porter helps with the bags and we are shown to a second floor suite. Larisa is instantly shocked by the Spartan conditions – even worse than she had supposed and corresponding to Mother’s shock in 1967 that Harvard  would be so bare and uncomfortable. Indeed, paint is peeling off the walls; the furniture is suitable for army barracks and toilet fixtures as well.

The main impressions Wednesday afternoon – Sunday morning of Harvard’s 350th:

Weather, which is dismal on arrival steadily improves so that all ceremonies in the open air are a grand success.

There are events in the Tercentenary Theatre – the open space in the Yard between Widener Library and Memorial Church, the space where commencements are held  – there are events here each day. The first day, Thursday, the theme is the university among institutions of higher learning – and Harvard is saluted by Prince Charles, representing Cambridge in England, by presidents of Berkeley and Yale, representing public and private higher education in the US.

Charles delivers a curious speech. He is humorous at the outset and it is well received by the audience. Tells us ‘the suspense’ around this event was killing him; that it’s the largest gathering he has spoken to since his address to 40,000 buffalo farming Indians some years back. The audience loves this. He explains his uncertainty over educational theory, having been himself given a program of training suitable for ‘an anachronism.’ Then he turns serious and talks about the importance of keeping technology under control of moral and ethical values, importance of psychology in this day and age – all questions which are not very current, least of all in America where they are really a restatement of the obvious. He does not know the States, it is obvious, and he has not had very professional help with his speech. But he clearly is trying.

The President of Yale gives a short and humorous talk on behalf of the school that came into being when dissident group of Puritans, fed up with laxity at Harvard moved on to reestablish the faith. The university historian delivers a talk on Harvard’s attempts in the 1760s to get a subsidy from George III by writing craven volume of poetry flattering the Sovereign. The class orator of the class of 86 gives a stirring address from memory in which he says he thought about talking of environmental crisis or other major issues facing us, then looked back over similar addresses for 200 years and understood that Harvard speakers have always spoken of crises. He defends his generation – which is usually described as selfish, careerist, apathetic,  saying they are really neo-Puritans striving for excellence, success for themselves and the community. A clever turn of logic.

The Friday event has for a theme the University and the World. It is the politicians’ day. Tip O’Neill, Senators Kennedy and Moynihan, Secretary of State Schultz, Governor Dukakis, Cambridge mayor – all give short speeches at the level of the Rouen officials parodied by Flaubert in Mme Bovary.. Dukakis has a smart alecky talk. O’Neill gives a sentimental salute to Harvard from one who first knew the yard as a grass-cutter. (O’Neill is retiring from the House this year and the son of RFK is a contender for his seat). Schultz was said to plan a major policy address (new Marshall Plan?) – but after opening remarks about the Daniloff affair (arrest of Harvard alumnus of the class of ’57, journalist for US News & World Report in Moscow) his talk fizzles out into an appeal for the US not to hide in neo-isolationism by setting protectionist trade measures and slashing the budget for the Foreign Service.  [note the persistence of the question – isolationism versus engagement in the world. Who else fights out such an artificial issue?]  Schultz’ presence has given cause for student demonstrations against US policy on South Africa and against Harvard’s continuing investment in firms that do business in South Africa. The demonstrators blocked an anniversary dinner last night, while university administrators did not do anything.

Today the demonstrators are an insistent. They have a single engine plane buzz our meeting – the plane circles and circles, to the annoyance of all, while trailing a sign calling for action to pull out of South Africa. Bok has chosen the coward’s way out. The presence of Nathan Pusey, who in his early 80s looks excellent, is a reminder of the danger of taking physical action and using police against the students. But how far, after all, can protesters go? Where does the rule of reason end? Schultz speaks against this moralizing and self-congratulatory view; he reiterates Administration policies – a rather brave and self-assured thing to do.

The Saturday event is for the Harvard Alumni Association. As representatives of Belgium, I have been invited to participate in the procession and sit on the dais. But ennui has set in, together with the urgent desire to do some shopping – and Larisa and I spend the day instead downtown in Boston, the Back Bay and the Quincy market area.

Apart from these major convocations, there are symposia throughout the university. I have tickets for 3 organized by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The first is on Russian Bureaucracy with Pipes and Ulam. It’s a good reinforcement to my old decision to leave the field. Pipes is characteristically superficial and complacent that Russian bureaucratism is a universal constant. Ulam is characteristically abstract. A lady from California, a former student of Pipes, gives a boring talk on the growth of bureaucracy in the early years of Lenin – a talk imbued with Communist claptrap. She is the generation of new professors in Russian/Soviet history. A person with good formal training but insipid analytic abilities and a mind absorbed in questions set up by Soviets, questions not relevant to us.

 The second symposium is the Holmes Lecture given by Justice Brennan of the US Supreme Court. He speaks to an eager crowd in Sanders Theater. Aristocracy all around. Arthur Schlesinger Jr sits behind Larisa and me.

‘Wendell Holmes Lecture – Sanders Theatre. Chief Justice Brennan.  Subject: Capital punishment and the 8th amendment’

In an extensive legal argument, Brennan summarizes his dissenting opinion against capital punishment on the Supreme Court. Central point is this: the 8th amendment prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. These four words were left deliberately vague by framers of the Bill of Rights, who took over the language of British 1689. Though some say that the authors didn’t specify the death penalty because it was considered usual in the 18th century of their day, such an interpretation is not satisfactory. If the Constitution could be interpreted merely by revealing what existed in 1786 America, we would need historians and not judges on the bench….Brennan is the only holdover from the Warren Court and champions rights issues

There are also little artistic events in the yard – music and dance. We accidentally catch a bit of this as we go through the Fogg Museum. And there are private dinners for benefactors – thus we catch David Rockefeller leaving one such meal.

However, the joy of this occasion is only partly in the formally organized events. For us it is chiefly in the party-like atmosphere, the chance to meet with dozens of people over dinner and engage in open and stimulating talk.

We see the stress in several speeches on the role of Harvard as defender of freedom of inquiry. Brennan’s mention that he had learned at law school to ‘think for himself.’ And then also the mention that the university is not a warehouse for knowledge, it does not store up knowledge and transmit it to students. Rather it gives a process for using knowledge, for discovering new knowledge. Also see stress on the obligation of the individual to serve society as best as one can. All of these are themes too easily taken for granted, empty phrases in this society. Thinking for yourself, adjusting one’s views on some things and on others about new view to attain and maintain an overall consistency of in one’s mind – that means an openness and honesty that very few people possess.  It means to be at constant war with the inconsistency and contradictory nature that man has.  Veritas and freedom of inquiry means more than defending the university from zealots and from strong arm of the state. It means courage to follow one’s discoveries to all logical conclusions.

I at times grow dewy eyed during this week and barely conceal my tears. This reunion summons nostalgia because it celebrates not so much Harvard University but Harvard College and it revolves around the undergrads, the elite to which I belong. It is not about those two dark and painful years we spent at the Russian Research Center on postdoctoral fellowships.

I go to one Class of 67 function – preparatory to the 20th year reunion next spring. See a few familiar faces, in particular lawyer Jim Esdaile from Quincy House. It is striking how much range there is in the way we look. Several guys still look like their late 20s, others are in early to mid-40s. Unhappily I am in the latter end of the spectrum with my grey hair. Our little ‘breakfast’ in the Faculty Club is niggardly. And what is worst, it is not very friendly. My classmates are snotty, looking through you. See Jim Foster, eg., son of former technical director of ITT in Brussels; I stand next to him at cocktails and for 5 minutes he studiously ignores me.

By contrast, at meals we enter into lively and balanced chats with the over 50 crowd, who are relaxed, ready to listen and behave more or less normally – finding Larisa and me to be sufficiently exotic birds. Indeed, I have the feeling that there are very few graduates living the sort of life that we lead – abroad and happy.

Meeting with Arthur Hartmann, US Ambassador to Moscow – Russian Research Center – Coolidge Hall 4 – 5.30

Together with Larisa we move to head of the table in this small room for 20 participants. Also here are émigré historian Nekrich, Prof. Bergson, Prof. Adam Ulam (RRC director and moderator), professor Marshall Goldman

The meeting is delightful for showing us the serious, well-informed personality of the Ambassador, who is 5 years in his post and who understands comprehensively and in depth the country where he is posted. He knows how to handle Russia. Speaking of the Daniloff affair, Hartmann says that we must not respond to such crises by breaking ties, though pressures for such a break immediately arise – rather, we should meet with the Soviets and use such meetings as a forum to press hard to get satisfaction. Hartmann evidently had an RRC affiliation, as did Daniloff, who was a member of the graduating class of 1956. Is Gorbachev a reformer? Not by any measure at present, despite his advancement of Aliyev, who is said to favor market mechanisms.  Gorbachev is merely tightening up the existing system and aiming at the excesses of cronyism. See broad collegial principles behind the system’s operation.

Hartmann tells of his frustration that the past year’s work preparing for a summit is now put in jeopardy by the Daniloff arrest.  He tells of one of the job’s ‘perks’ – receiving distinguished guests such as Vladimir Horowitz, who spent two weeks at the Spaso House this summer. Calls Horowitz a magnificent big child, who gets up each day at noon, has his main meal at 10.30 pm and watches video tapes of horror films until dawn, practices only half an hour per day unless hosts press him to play for them. Then there were the visits from Horowitz’s niece, who was the daughter in law of Liebermann and talked for hours about the difficulties that liberal economic reformers had in accomplishing anything.

Hartmann detects important changes in the Soviet attitude to Chinese reforms. While these had formerly been dismissed out of hand as inapplicable because no diminution of central authority, now the Soviets say they are studying the Chinese moves closely.

There was the time recently when Hartmann took a phone call on his private line and had a 12 year old Russian school kid on the line. The kid asked for a meeting to chat and when he came over he spoke with the ambassador for a couple of hours, asking like an adult for an explanation of a full range of US foreign policy moves. At the conclusion, he explained to Hartmann where he had gotten the secret phone number: he had paid a classmate 5 rubles to obtain it.

During the past year there were a number of ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations outside the US Embassy in Moscow. They did not always playout to the end as the Soviets expected. For example, when Muslims started demonstrating, the Embassy personnel invited them inside to present their petition. This done, they stayed on to discuss the situation in Central Asia. The Embassy brought in a Kirghiz speaker and the visitors were delighted.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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