From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment twenty-four

Travel notes on visit to New York for a business symposium on Perestroika and International Business Perspectives

Sunday, 3 December 1989

It’s a rushed morning. At 11.45 Larisa drives me out to the airport for my flight to New York. Upgrading goes through and I fly first class to JFK – eating the whole way. Arrive in blustery cold New York – but to our good fortune, dry and light.  By 6.00pm, I am at the New York Hilton. Run-down, almost tacky room in the sort of over-sized hotel that I detest. Primitive bathroom.

Monday, 4 December 1989

An early start to the day at 5am. But at least I did get 6 hours sleep – more than I had expected. I phone London – but no news there for me. 

At 8.00, I go over to the McGraw Hill Building four blocks away to register for the symposium on Perestroika and International Business Perspectives that has brought me to New York. Day’s sessions are mixed. Opening address by Donald Kendall is surprisingly good. He argues for Americans not to apply pressure to  be allowed to teach the Russians how to create a mixed economy out of their state centrally planned economy, to be more modest and to focus on removing those obstacles which we have created to Soviet progress, namely to strike down the Jackson-Vanik amendment and to curtail the COCOM list. William Norris of Control Data speaks next – but this is thoroughly boring. Visionary, while at the same time he’s bypassed by events.

Interesting to hear from panelist Dennis Sokol, head of the US Medical Consortium. He’s the guy who recruited Fedex. That is clear. And he has promoted their talks with Vzlet – talks which he recently helped convene in Brussels.

During the break, Sokol comes up to me and asks if it’s true that I formerly worked for Fedex. Says he’d heard that from Fedex chairman Fred Smith. (So I have gained notoriety after all). At least they know now who’s screwing them.

At lunch I spot publisher and consultant Leo Welt and go up to say hello. He’s warm and touched by the recognition. We’ll meet and talk Tuesday at breakfast. Leo is generous in his description of me to another guy at the table. He is also discreet.

More important, at lunch I sit next to a bald-headed banker from Citibank who turns out to be an old buddy from Columbia. Now it slowly comes back to me. Steve was one of those leftists – student radicals, a guy who was easily comfortable with bullshit analysis. Absolutely wonderful that he should have moved so easily into banking. It was he, not the likes of me, who got to do 5 years of teaching in Vermont. There’s a guy whom my professor Haimson could back. And even this Steve was stymied by the collapsing university teaching market and the gender factor (women’s lib claimed all the available jobs). And so the guy slipped into banking – though he never took proper banking courses or training. Slipped in the back door as a consultant, as assistant to some senior VP. And now he has been given a post in the corporate banking group responsible for East Europe. Is there justice? Perhaps, if you accept that he can cause little trouble where he is. But what views does he hold? I suspect there has been no systematic re-evaluation of his old radical beliefs, only a cynical acceptance that banking is what you do to pay for your kid in Princeton. It pays.

Soviet speakers fall short of the plans of the organizers – due perhaps to the weekend summit in Malta. At least this explains the absence of USSR AmbassadorYuri Dubinin. Nonetheless, there are some interesting souls.

Among the old faces, I make contact with on the U.S. side are Hicks of Arthur Anderson and John Chambers of SATRA. Both have changed little in 10 years.

The place is thick with consultants – most very young. See slick and aggressive Gordon Feller of Integrated Strategies who had phoned me in London a couple of months ago. See Fuchs of “Bloc” magazine: he may prove an interesting contact – agrees on my speaking at a Symposium his magazine is organizing together with Columbia University on a panel dedicated to Transportation in Eastern Europe, where fellow panelists are Dizelic from Pan Am and someone from Finnair. Could be a good opportunity to build volume.

One last remark concerning the NY Symposium of Business Week: On day 2, I attend the luncheon at which Hedrick Smith is the keynote speaker. Smith was the Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times during the 1970s, then returned to Washington where he became bureau chief to ’87, when he retired. His book The Russians was a best-selling account of Soviet society and expose of the nomenklatura in the 1979-80 period.  Smith has been traveling throughout the USSR for the past 6 months in preparation of a book on the USSR under Gorbachev: glasnost and perestroika. He is an accomplished speaker who charms his audience with jokes for the first 10 minutes before launching into a serious and perceptive set of travel observations.

His thesis is that Gorbachev represents a whole stratum of Soviet society that was of university age when Stalin died, that experienced the exhilaration of Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th party congress, then the stultification of the Brezhnev years. Therefore what is happening now is not the work of one man alone but has support of thousands of like-minded people throughout the USSR.

Smith shows the depth of change in mentality in the USSR, even if at a superficial level all looks just as it did 15 years ago – as poor and shabby. The genie can’t go back into the bottle. A demonstration in the ‘70s meant 5 dissidents, 7 Western journalists and dozens of security men who bundled up the demonstrators into prison wagons marked “Bread” in a few seconds, even before they had managed to unfurl their protest banners.  Now it is hundreds of thousands of people. Now the Soviet public is treated to the spectacle of live TV broadcasts from the parliament – where they watch Gorbachev spend hours chairing sessions and responding directly to all kinds of questions about his own personal privileges and programs.

Can Gorbachev be overturned? If there were an attempted military coup, Smith can imagine Gorbachev going on TV and appealing to the populace to resist. Smith sees great importance in Gorbachev’s making the government and not the party his seat of power. Finally, Smith maintains that you cannot beat Gorbachev without a credible alternative leader: ‘it takes a horse to beat a horse.’ No one else on the scene can be a match for G – not Yeltsin, not Ligachev.

Smith acknowledges G’s brilliance as a politician. So far so good. But the last point contradicts all the foregoing. The real question comes back to relationship between leaders and history, between determinism and voluntarism. Without  appropriate preconditions, one man can do very little. At the right moment, one man is all-decisive. G. is appropriate to this historic moment. He has the intellectual and political skills to bring about a change of momentous proportions. He is the great toreador who holds out the red banner which the bull charges past and he is unhurt. Yes, he manoeuvers between right and left but through glasnost he has allowed both poles to emerge so that he can use their great force creatively.

Politicians by definition gravitate to the center. The task was to allow political thinking to emerge and be articulated so that a constructive middle ground could be found. This is the sign of a consummate statesman, who goes beyond politics to change the world.

Why is this not seen? Because journalists and commentators are vain and grudging in their admiration and because the Russian public is very shortsighted – as should be expected. After all, politics is about local issues and bread and butter issues. And it is these economic achievements which are so very difficult to bring about overnight. Some historical perspective is called for and that is hard to find anywhere.

Hedrick Smith is one of the very few journalists looking at these questions who sees beyond yesterday and even he mostly misses what I consider essential.

Tuesday afternoon I drop out of the symposia and do window shopping. Two hours go by in a flash and at 5 pm I take a taxi out to JFK. Crossing the Triboro with Manhattan behind me, I think over an old prejudice of mine against these chicken coop apartments in which New Yorkers live their cramped lives. It has dignity only at the very top. Even over-populated, noisy and polluted London has more human scale, lower density and none of the tower canyons that are so intimidating.

Fine flight back to London. After changing and showering at 10am I am back in the office catching up with the news, gossip and preparing for next morning’s departure to Moscow.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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