From the Personal Archive of a Russianist, installment twenty

Diary notes – Visit to Uzbekistan for United Parcel Service –  24-30 June 1990

A very concentrated, very stimulating trip. This Soviet trip also has a large measure of tourism, but of a hectic, forced variety as we were the guests of the Uzbek Minister of Road Transport Larek Akhmetov and their hospitality was all-embracing.  Warm, but fatiguing beyond our strength.

By the time we departed Tashkent, the manager of the UPS Soviet Joint Venture Arkadi Borisovich Kurshin was physically sick and I was failing. Why? A combination of the heat (over 40 degrees C) and the feasting.

“We have a cult of dining.” This is how Ralf, chief of our service company Aral put it. And so we repeatedly sat down to five hour feasts consisting of multi-course meals and non-stop toasting on brandy and vodka. Add to this our hosts’ sincere desire to show us as much of the area as possible in our four days, meaning lengthy car trips this way and that.

From a business standpoint, the trip was successful: we concluded a contract with Aral, as foreseen, for servicing Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Central Asia generally at the affordable price of 7 hard currency roubles per pick-up or delivery. We had a proper signing ceremony at the Ministry with about 60 officials looking on and with the local press taking notes and photos. We met with the two recently opened Japanese representations in Tashkent and saw our first customers for both international and domestic services to Moscow. We blazed trails as the first express company to set up shop in Soviet Central Asia, thus finally pulling ahead of DHL and the Soyuzvneshtrans monopoly.

From a personal standpoint it is very exciting to be in the midst of the forces for decentralization , decomposition of the Soviet Union. A couple of months ago in Estonia and now in Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks just one week ago declared their sovereignty and primacy of their own republican law. They are more modest than the Baltics, but have the material resources to push for really great autonomy in the months ahead.

My single strongest impression is of the Ali Baba nature of this rich and fertile land. As they say, they mine the whole of Mendeleev’s table. We pass silver, gold mines, an enormous open pit black coal mine, the area of uranium mining and, as some say, of diamonds. Near Bukhara are oil and gas wells. Railway tank cars attest to the petroleum. A huge thermal electric station is fed on the coal about 100 km east of Tashkent.

The climate is continental in most of Uzbekistan, with hot summers and cold winters (down to minus 10 degrees) with plenty of snow. At the edge of Pamir, we find 6000 meter peaks with snowcaps and our valley has over 2 meters of white blanket in winter. However, in the Fergana Valley there is a subtropical climate with citrus crops and no frost.

The soil is very fertile, the type in which proverbially you put in a stick and find a tree growing the next day. It is mostly given over to monoculture, cotton growing, which is hailed officially as the wealth of the nation but is viewed locally as its poverty, because the state prices for raw cotton are miserably low. By local reckoning, the 150 grams of pure raw cotton that go into making a shirt are sold for 30 kopeks and the shirt itself comes back for 10 roubles. That is to say the cotton goes for only 3% of the value of the finished goods and they are made chiefly in the Ukraine and elsewhere outside of Uzbekistan. If given their head, the locals would cut back on cotton, which is overbloated at 6 million tons per year, and would use part of the land to grow melons and foodstuffs for their own consumption.

I ask about quality of cotton and am told that what is on the plant itself is of the highest quality. However, the harvesting machinery is crude (Soviet and apparently made here in Uzbekistan) so that it tears the delicate fibers and seriously reduces quality. They know this well and some part of the harvest is left for hand or less destructive machines, so that they do have a top quality material available for export. All export goes via Moscow till now and none of the benefit stays with the growers.

I tend to believe this explanation. Looking at the cotton fields, I am surprised at the state of the plantation. The rows of plants are as dense and orderly as in the West, which is a far cry from the sparse rows of most anything planted in Central Russia. Evidently the seeds and sowing apparatus are up to standard.

The cult of dining expresses itself in a very finicky attention to freshness and peak quality. Everything is offered in great abundance and only the newcomer dares to think it is all to be consumed. No, the Uzbeks only take a small part of what is put on their plate. Typically the tea or other beverage is served by the half cup, so that one can continually add. It is all quite subtle.

The table is groaning from fruits and garden vegetables as you sit down and these are nibbled between courses. Some of these staples are simple, like beefsteak tomatoes and cucumbers, others are rarer, such as pistachios, almonds, salted and roasted apricot pits, local herbal grasses, mulberries (like ripe blackberries only without pits and having sweet, velvety syrup).

The meal itself is a varied procession of dishes. First the cold soup (okroshka), then the hot soup (a kind of kharcho from lamb), then sautéed river fish (marinka, a sort of trout) in cottonseed oil, then plov (the national dish consisting of rice and lamb with onion and spices), then stuffed quails with garlic, and then watermelon for dessert. This is how we were treated by the Minister at his mountain retreat and it is only a variation on our other feasts.

In between courses, you can take a stroll or lounge on the khantokhta, an oversized sofa.

When we first arrived in Tashkent Tuesday evening and we had the opening dinner at our Hotel Uzbekistan, the feeling was of great luxury on the table after Moscow. The fresh apricots, plums, melons would be hard to find in a hotel anywhere in Eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia. They attest to a superior management. By the time we returned from Samarkand and again dined at the hotel restaurant, it looked drab and tame following our experience with the private feasts.

The other feature of the dining aside from its sumptuousness was the setting. Here alfresco dining is not merely out on the terrace. It is in the midst of the forest where a table is set up, chairs are brought in and the dishes appear as if from nowhere in splendid succession to the music of the nightingales. No, not just trees. There must be water, preferably the play of the narrow streams from fountain onto a pond. It is all so very reminiscent of the Courtyard of the lions in the Alhambra of Granada. Delicate streams of water tinkling in the background. Unimpressive unless you consider how rare water was in this part of the world.

Among the other surprises are that these local bosses have done very well for themselves. The director of one of the auto bases does not allow us to leave him without ‘crossing the threshold’ of his house. Once inside the plain concrete exterior wall, we are in a port cochère where his new Moskvich is parked. He throws a switch and there is the play of water on his swimming pool. To the left, he leads us into the 60 square meter guest area complete with piano. Across the courtyard is the main house.

Even the Samarkand auto base, which looks like our drab Butovo office building near Moscow from the outside, has a pleasant suite of rooms for guests including one that is air conditioned and has a sauna. A second base has a large sports hall with sauna and fresh, well fed swimming pool – here we take one of our feasts.

As to the family: a man with less than five kids is considered unlucky. Ten or more is common. Divorce is very rare. The husband must work day and night to provide for his brood, and in particular to find dowries for the daughters. It is expected he will give the groom clothing, furniture and food staples sufficient for 3 years of marital life and will host a wedding feast for 800 or more. So says Ralf.

On this and that. Ralf is a wonderful story-teller, including tall tales. Though he does suggest that camels are not to be had (they avoid built-up places and pollution!), I am firmly promised a horse and prepare my riding habit for the trip up to the minister’s retreat. When we arrive, the camp boss looks at me in bemusement. Horse? No horses here. But we do get to eat a horsemeat sausage that is very good.

From the reaction of our Japanese prospective clients to our promises of fast service, I can presume that Ralf is not the only one to tell stories in this part of the world. The Chori rep first asks: do you mean that if I give you a parcel in Tashkent on Monday it will be in Tokyo on Friday? I say yes. He then breaks into a smile which becomes hysterical laughter. “Отсюда до Луны ближе чем отсюда до Москвы” [from here the Moon is nearer than Moscow] He asks: and if I call, will someone answer the phone? We assure him they will. But he remains very incredulous. Nice guys, these Japanese reps, but they are evidently not having an easy time. Nonetheless, their office seems as well set up as anything in Moscow would be and their ‘assistants’ are lovely, well made up girls who seem to enjoy their work and know languages.

Maybe transport is slow but the music gap is no problem in Tashkent. Our hotel orchestra plays Lambada over and over again to the request of the locals. There is a nice new Coke machine in the hotel lobby. It does not seem to be used, but the bar is selling Coke and other Western drinks. Only Western cigarettes do not seem to be available.

And the good things in life go not only to the bosses. We visit the Samarkand market and prices for fruits and vegetables as well as for fresh and very attractive lamb meat are 3 – 10 times cheaper than in the market in Moscow. There is an enormous assortment as well. Moreover, the local women are nearly all wearing the silk fabrics which are made from cocoon to finished goods within the republic.

Politics :  All of the time our friends are concerned over the fate of Gorbachev. Larek Akhmetov is going to Moscow for the 28th Party Congress which opens next week and all are skeptical if Gorbachev can surmount the attacks coming from the left (Yeltsin) and from the right (Ligachev).

Giffen: On my way over to Moscow this trip I ran into Jim Giffen at the Lufthansa Senator Lounge of Frankfurt Airport. In the mid-70s, I had first heard of him as assistant to the Chairman of Armco who helped his boss (who later became U.S. Secretary of Commerce) on a major project that Armco hoped to put through, but which was eventually stymied by the embargo following the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan. In the early ‘80s, Giffen became president of the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council. Then in about 1987 he became chairman of the merchant bank Mercator Corp. and in that capacity put together the US Trade Consortium and its multibillion dollar package of deals which sees oil exports from the prospecting of some members offsetting the sales of industrial plant and finished goods of other members. Giffen has just gotten in from New York and is zonked.

These days he commutes back and forth between the U.S. and Moscow twice a month and it looks like this will continue indefinitely. We last saw one another at the river boat reception of the Trade Council in Moscow in May. I ask him how the dinner at the Kremlin went, since I had not been invited. At first he is slow, but then his enthusiasm takes over. He says that Gorbachev had spoken well there, but that it was nothing compared to Gorby’s brilliant speech in Minneapolis a couple of weeks later. Giffen was so excited that he taped that speech. He now opens his briefcase to show me photos of himself with Gorbachev in Minneapolis. This is really surprising: an American businessman who is putting together a file on Gorby! And then comes the real shocker. Giffen says he first met Gorbachev back in 1984 when he was still a dark horse. Together with Council chairman Andreas, of ADM, he had been invited to a chat with Mikhail which turned into a 90 minutes discourse at which Gorbachev set out his thoughts on most everything and his program for action down to the removal of the Berlin Wall. Giffen and Andreas were so impressed that when they returned to the USA they sought a meeting with Schultz and told him what they had heard. However, Schultz was disbelieving.

Note:  James Giffen continued his business activities in Central Asia into the 1990s and had a role in arranging the Chevron Oil deal for the Tenghiz fields in Kazakhstan. His service as adviser to the Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev brought down on his head accusations of engaging in bribery (Kazakhgate) which led to his arrest at JFK airport in 2003 and to court proceedings. These were finally dropped only in 2010 on technical grounds:  Giffen claimed that the CIA was informed in advance of his every move; but the U.S. Government declined to turn over its respective files to the court.  Given the geopolitical importance of the business deals he was pursuing in Kazakhstan it is entirely credible that he cooperated with U.S. intelligence.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperbfack and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

More on the Navalny case: Putin and the Opposition blogger are just balls in play

I am grateful once again to RT International for inviting me to give a Zoom interview yesterday. This exercise forced me to re-examine the unfolding story of Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, which, for obvious reasons, the Russian media are following much more closely than our Western media. For us, there are no open questions about the case: we in the West all know for certain that it was Novichok and the only point is how to respond to this latest Putin outrage. Meanwhile the Russians are considering every possible identification of the substance which provoked Navalny’s collapse and near death, including, as of this morning, the possibility that he had drunk some “bad vodka,” a potent and widespread poison especially common in the Siberian towns Navalny was visiting,

Indeed, taking The Financial Times for my marker, I see that in the past few days, the skeptical reporting of their own journalists about Kremlin involvement has been wholly overridden by the newspaper’s Editorial Board, who are now daily braying for the Russians to pay a price, lest Europe show a cowardly face. Fair and transparent investigation, you say?  Forget it! The German military doctors have conclusive proof that the substance was a new and more deadly form of Novichok (from which nonetheless the victim is being revived!) which only the Kremlin could have ordered (not to mention, the weapons labs in the UK, in Germany and in a number of other countries).

I have cast doubt on the reliability of those German medics, since simple logic tells us that had there been any chance of Navalny being given Novichok in Siberia at the start of this ordeal, the Russians would never have released him for travel to Germany.  This leaves us only with the alternative scenarios that Novichok was brought into play on the flight to Germany or following his hospitalization in Germany, or…that there was no Novichok whatsoever only a falsified medical report. 

However, none of these scenarios will be followed up. There will be no investigation into the Navalny case, just as none was carried out over the Skripal case two years ago.  This is so because the medical facts are only a decorative feature; the substance is on another plane:  geopolitics.

As I commented yesterday on RT, both Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Putin are just balls in play.  Had the interview been in Russian, I would have said, more pungently, “они не при чем.”  The identification of the poison as precisely in the Novichok family had one clear purpose: to turn what would otherwise have been a domestic Russia scandal into an international scandal entailing violation of the prohibition on use of chemical weapons, whereby Russia is painted as an outlaw state.  This is the context in which Chancellor Merkel has taken the Navalny case to NATO.

For Merkel, that is one of multiple benefits which accrue to her from the Navalny poisoning.  By taking the lead position in NATO on this matter, she takes the upper hand over France and its President Emmanuel Macron who had spoken of NATO as ‘brain dead’ and was making a power play to assume direction of European foreign policy at the expense of what appeared to be an ailing and stumbling Merkel.  Now Macron’s flirtation with the Kremlin was nipped in the bud and he had to line up with the other ducks around the NATO table in issuing threatening messages to Russia.

Another benefit to Merkel from the Navalny poisoning as it has been framed is that she can take the lead in Europe on prodding the Russian bear to retreat from impending intervention in the Belarus political stand-off.  She now has what many see as a potent weapon in her hands:  the fate of Nord Stream II.  By pinning the Navalny case on the Kremlin, she opened the way for members of her own party, not to mention the virulently anti-Russian Greens, to demand cancellation of Nord Stream II.  Since she has said many times that the pipeline is genuinely in the economic interests of her country, cancellation is out of the question.  But suspension of the project would suit her overall geopolitical calculations perfectly. 

Suspension would, one may argue, give her leverage over the master of the Kremlin, lest what is deemed to be his pet project is torn up, leading to multi-billion euro losses for Gazprom and a black eye for the Russian President before his nation.  At the same time, suspension would shut up the Americans, who have become recently very aggressive in pressing sanctions against Germany over the completion of the project.  A suspension of six months, for example, would take the question of restarting Nord Stream II past the November elections in the USA when a likely new Biden Administration could reconsider its opposition within a new approach to the European allies in general and to Germany in particular.

Then there is still another geopolitical benefit to Merkel in pushing the Navalny case against Russia: it aligns her at least for a time with the Poles and the Baltic States, rendering them friendlier to the German directed EU Institutions.

In summation, as seen from every angle in Berlin, pressing the story of Navalny’s poisoning with Novichok by the Kremlin serves the ever cynical Merkel very well.  However, in opening this Pandora’s box, in trying to blackmail a country that is vastly more powerful militarily than Germany, and possibly more powerful than NATO as a whole, the Iron Lady is acting irresponsibly.  Like war itself, the outcome in such confrontations is unforeseeable.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperbfack and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Unleashing the dogs of war: Chancellor Merkel has done it again!

A couple of days ago, several European news channels reminded us all of the fifth anniversary of Merkel’s opening the doors of Europe to mass uncontrolled entry of Syrian, North African, Sub-Saharan African, Afghani, Iraqi, Bengladeshi and other assorted migrants. They gave us heartwarming stories of the successful settlers, all of which would appear to validate the humanitarian concerns that the German Chancellor said motivated her action as it did in several other states, particularly Sweden and to validate her widely cited call at the time: “Wir schaffen das!” (We can manage it).

What they did not remind us is of the mayhem this open door policy stirred up between Member States of the European Union, deepening the divisions between the founding members and the most recently joined countries from Central Europe. Nor did they consider how this massive influx of peoples aroused strong populist movements in so many countries against the abandonment of Europe’s frontiers and identity as majoritarian white and Judeo-Christian for the sake of multiculturalism. In other words, how it stirred up nationalism, which had been the bête-noire of the European Union’s founders, who said it was the engine of war. And they ignored one further collateral effect of the uncontrolled violation of European borders: namely the outcome of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom which it tilted to ‘Leave.’ This all by itself put the future of the European Union experiment in doubt.

No one back then or since dared say the obvious: that the Iron Lady had not succumbed to feminine emotions of compassion and humanitarian zeal but was acting in the most cynical fashion possible to cover all traces of the truculence by which she had in the preceding two years overseen the rape of Greece and Portugal under the Troika for the sake of securing the finances of German and French banks now that the state bonds of these and other Southern European states on which they had stocked up were becoming worthless thanks to the 2008 financial crisis and application of the policy of austerity across Europe that she and her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble personally guided.

In the past couple of days, she has done it again: her announcement that German military experts had identified Novichok as the substance with which Alexei Navalny was poisoned defied all logic, as I called out in an essay yesterday that has been widely read.

Developments over the past 24 hours indicate that the German Chancellor has once again acted in the most reprehensible and irresponsible manner that threatens to unleash the dogs of war. 

A most interesting and, I believe credible, piece of information was released yesterday evening by President Lukashenko in Minsk. He said that his intelligence forces had intercepted a telephone conversation between German and Polish officials which point to Polish direction of the whole Novichok story with intent to put Russian President Putin on the defensive under massive NATO and Western pressure over the alleged violation of international rules on chemical weapons, and thereby prevent Russian intervention in the unfolding confrontation in Belarus between Lukashenko and his opposition.  The Polish agent was saying that “we are at war and all means are acceptable.” Such an explanation fits very nicely with the obvious designs that Poland has on Belarus, just as it meddled egregiously in the Maidan putsch in Ukraine. 

I do not mean to say that Mr. Lukashenko does not have his own interests in spreading this story, by which he shows his usefulness to his big friend in the Kremlin upon whom his continuation in power depends.  However, saying that does not cancel out the transcripts he claims to have and they must be investigated.

The question, of course, is why Chancellor Merkel would follow this script and ignore all the logic surrounding the collateral contamination of Novichok that has not been seen in the Navalny case, why she would ignore the logic telling us that the Russians never would have sent Navalny to Germany for treatment if there were any possibility of Novichok having been used and ultimately detected, why in general Vladimir Putin would ever sanction such a criminally inculpating action against a minor pest who posed no real threat to his rule. How could the diploma holding physicist that Merkel is fall for such nonsense?  The only plausible explanation is unadulterated cynicism along the lines of her ‘Wir schaffen das’ past.

Today’s news also brought to the fore a development in Washington which highlights the relevance of my observation at the close of my essay yesterday regarding the interconnected nature of Merkel’s new charges against Russia and her unwillingness to follow Donald Trump in a trade, political and military confrontation with the People’s Republic of China, which happens to be one of Germany’s top three export markets worth 96 billion Euros annually.

Whatever one may think of Donald Trump’s intellectual level, he understood the Chancellor’s bait and switch stratagem perfectly well and directly came out against it, saying that he has seen no proof of the Novichok poisoning and that for the USA the PRC poses a far greater security threat than Russia.

In summation, though yesterday and in recent weeks we have not seen Merkel suffering the shakes that set off speculation over her deteriorating health half a year ago, it is high time for her to leave the world stage before she further undermines European and global stability.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Novichok and Nonsense: From a post-factual to a post-logic world

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”  These words of sage commentary from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York State were overturned half a decade ago when we entered the world of “fake news” and facts became irrelevant to public discourse. Since then American political elites and their respective media outlets on both sides of debate have shamelessly invented the “facts” as suited their latest polemical position. The occasional modifier of what cannot be factually proven is “highly likely.”

Regrettably the latest news coming out of Germany yesterday regarding the Navalny poisoning case indicates a further ratcheting down of the possibilities for civil discourse in the direction of dispute resolution by brute force, that is to say, by war. Our leaders seem to have taken leave of their senses and are putting to us narratives that absolutely defy logic.

Chancellor Merkel announced that German military experts attribute Alexei Navalny’s poisoning to the Russian nerve agent Novichok, the same poison that was allegedly used by the Russian military intelligence forces against the Skripals in Salisbury.  We have heard a great deal about Novichok in that connection, but the single most relevant information to the present case is that it is a tightly controlled substance which only state entities might have access to and that its use would have to be approved at the highest levels. Given this background, given that the Russians were notified of the expertise findings on Navalny by megaphone diplomacy, that is to say without any prior warning via diplomatic channels, and given the insistent demand by Merkel, backed up moments later by the head of NATO, by the head of the European Commission and by a spokesman of the White House that the Russians explain what happened, what we have here is a very lightly disguised accusation that Vladimir Putin ordered the poisoning. All the ducks in the West are now aligned against Russia, with Mme Merkel leading the charge.

Russian counter-demands that the proofs of German toxicity findings be shared with them have gone unanswered, just as they were in the Skripal case.  Thus, a Russian “explanation” of what happened to Navalny in the Tomsk before his flight will almost certainly not satisfy their accusers in the West.

What we may expect next is a new round of Western sanctions against Russia, quite possibly entailing suspension of the highly contested Nord Stream II pipeline project. If that is so, then the Navalny poisoning will have turned around the German state position on relations with Russia – and with the United States, which has tried unsuccessfully to cancel Nord Stream II by bullying Germany – just as the downing of MH 17 in the summer of 2014 brought Europe on board the US-led sanctions campaign against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Ukrainian civil war in the Donbass.

The only problem with this entire scenario is that is makes absolutely no sense from start to finish. Even reputable mainstream newspapers like The Financial Times said in their reporting from the outset of the Navalny case that there were many oligarchs in Russia, including one or two whom they named, who would gladly have organized the murder of Navalny for their own reasons, whereas the Kremlin had every reason not to want this anti-corruption, anti-Putin campaigner to be harmed because the reaction in the West was entirely predictable. The Editorial Board of the FT was busy cooking up a wholly different case for sanctions against Russia which they released one day ago: should Putin order his forces to intervene in Belarus to crush the opposition to President Lukashenko.

Now the identification of Novichok as the poison takes the whole scenario to a level of utter absurdity.  Had the Kremlin wanted to silence Navalny, which is the basic accusation that Merkel delivered yesterday, it had a vast array of means to do so.  Given what we have heard about the tight controls applied to this military grade poison and its identification as specifically Russian in origin, the Russian President might just as well have had Navalny’s throat slit and written his signature on the blogger’s forehead.

But even this illogic passes muster in our media. We are told that Putin wanted to show that he can do whatever he likes, to thumb his finger at the West for its pusillanimity. To cut to the quick, we are being told that Vladimir Putin is a madman. And the message is coming from none other than Angela Merkel, still leader of Europe’s strongest economy, most populous nation, and determining force of policies in Brussels.  In which case, suspension of Nord Stream II would be a mere tap on the wrist. The logic, if any can be salvaged from her story, is that Putin should be physically eliminated, like Saddam Hussein, like Gaddafi….for “violating all of our fundamental values” as she claimed yesterday.

I found it most interesting that the BBC World reportage on the Navalny case yesterday evening explained to listeners that Russian state possession of the agent Novichok would be in violation of the convention on chemical weapons, which is why a domestic Russian crime becomes an international cause celèbre. At the same time they noted that both Germany and the United Kingdom have “small quantities” of Novichok in their military labs for control purposes.  Insofar as it has relevance in our post-logic world, I would suggest that both Germany and the United Kingdom intelligence forces are as likely to have had the means to poison Mr. Navalny as the Kremlin’s forces, and unlike the Kremlin, they had far more reason to do so.  It is scarcely believable that the Kremlin did it. It is scarcely believable that Russian oligarchs did it, since they would then be pointing a finger directly at Putin and would not survive.

One final point is that the Navalny poisoning comes at a moment in international relations that is vastly different from that which prevailed at the time of the Skrypal poisonings two years ago.  Back then there was only one Big Baddy in the world, Russia.  Today, the United States under Donald Trump has shifted the global villain’s label to the People’s Republic of China and in the run-up to the November elections, he has steadily raised the diplomatic, military and commercial pressure on the PRC in areas as diverse as uncoupling the economies to bolstering ties with Taiwan. Trump has been twisting arms in Europe to follow the American lead on China, but resistance on this issue has been surely much greater than resistance over sanctions on Russia.  As we learned during the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister to Germany two days ago, the PRC is one of Germany’s top three export market, with annual sales topping ninety-six billion euros. Given these facts, Mme Merkel has every reason to redirect Europe and America’s lust for sanctions to her neighbor directly to the East, the Russian Federation. That is to say, she has “every reason” if logic plays any role today in state behavior.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperbfack and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment nineteen

On the mutual contempt of academics and business people

Having come to business in 1976 from the milieu of professional academics, I quickly became aware of the mutual contempt that characterized relations between the scholarly world and the business world. From the standpoint of the businessmen around me, the academics were not merely impractical hence useless, but pitiful. In my mind’s eye I can still see the expression of impatience on the face of Babcock & Wilcox’s Vice President, International Arthur Tendler when our chat at a business event hosted by IREX was interrupted by Ivo Lederer, a sometimes professor, sometimes administrator who at the time was on the fundraising team of IREX. To Tendler, Lederer was just one more beggar from the academic community.

For their part, when professors recommended to their graduate students to look for employment outside of university teaching given the very poor job market for junior faculty, they thought first about seeking a position in the government, meaning in intelligence, or in think tanks. Banking was acceptable, because it was assumed one would enter their research departments, not become a grubby peddler of banknotes. 

These professors could not believe that someone like me who had received prestigious fellowships would turn his back irrevocably on the university. In this connection I think of my accidental encounter with Fred Starr of the Kennan Institute in September 1979 in a hotel in downtown Tbilisi. I was accompanying my client Castle and Cooke to meetings with the republic’s agriculture ministry for visits to fruit farms. He was accompanying Harrison Salisbury to a writers’ conference. Fred could think of nothing better than to congratulate me on the recent publication of “my” 1,000 page book, a listing of Russian archival materials in U.S. collections to which I was for a brief time in 1975 a minor contributor.   

Or I recall my chat with Marshall Goldman in the cafe of the Hotel National in Moscow on 24 November 1977. He was just completing a stay of several months during which he delivered lectures at Moscow State University.  His only interest in me was to ask whether I would yet publish my dissertation as a book.  That question was related not to the great importance of my scientific discoveries but to the loss of the several thousand dollars investment in me of the Russian Research Center, of which he was associate director. At that point, nothing could have been further from my mind.

Or still more to the point, I think of the puzzled look on the face of Harvard law professor Harold Berman when he ran into me in an elevator of the Intourist Hotel at the very start of the annual gathering of the US-USSR Trade and Economic Council in Moscow in early December 1978, an expression which plainly said “and what are you doing here?” as if I were an intruder at their party. 

Berman knew me well enough having four years earlier on campus advised me on whether it paid for me to apply to the Law School now that history had run to ground. In a way, he was justified in his perplexity, because I would have had to wait another 20 years in university life to be of the rank and reputation meriting an invitation to such august company. Had he known that I would be invited two days later to the reception in the Kremlin to mark Leonid Brezhnev’s 73rd birthday, whereas he was not, he would have fainted dead away.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Criminal culpability of our leaders for prevarication over face masks in combatting Covid-19

Last week at the Democratic Party National Convention, Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris lambasted President Trump for mismanaging governmental efforts to combat the spread of Covid-19. They have spoken of the tragic deaths among the population generally and among minorities and people of color in particular as if this were connected with the President’s lack of empathy and alleged racist inclinations.

They have weighed in against him for giving mixed signals and false advice over what individuals and local authorities should do.  Trump’s critics among politicians and the media have noted each time when he has appeared in public not wearing a face mask and when allowing his entourage to mix without social distancing.

There is much truth to the identified failings of the Trump Administration to stop the spread of Covid-19.  At the same time, however agreeable it may be to Trump’s many detractors foaming at the mouth over this devil incarnate, the fact is that the United States has had no monopoly on stupid and lying leaders trying to tackle Covid-19, including stupid and lying leaders in super-sophisticated Europe and not only in slovenly Latin American states or what is now seen to be Third World USA.

As I have mentioned repeatedly in my commentary on Covid-19, the United States would have to witness 270,000 deaths from the pandemic to reach the level of mortality per population that we have experienced in Belgium.  To be sure, the missing 100,000 coffins in the US may yet be filled if the country continues its blundering, although the likelihood of the U.S. following the Russian example and starting early vaccination before completion of Phase III tests remains high under this impetuous President who is desperate to win the election on November 4 and would use the vaccination program to show his boldness, contrasted to the wimp whom the Democrats have nominated.

And now I turn to the point made in the title to this article: the role of face masks in containing the pandemic from the beginning in March to today.                                                                                                                                                                                              

As we all know, in many countries there was active debate on the merits of face masks from the very moment that the pandemic took hold in March.  Scientists were brought before microphones to declare that the masks had no value.  Instead all countries were induced to put in place full lockdown, though the collateral damage to the economy in each country was unparalleled since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Painful, but good for public health we were told.

Here in Belgium the debate over face masks had a special political dimension:  under the leadership of the current Minister of Health, the Flemish politician and medical doctor Maggie De Block, a couple of years ago the government destroyed its stock of several million face masks purchased in the last virus epidemic scare nearly a decade ago. Presumably this act of destruction was part of the overall cutbacks in the medical establishment going on in Belgium to save money  in times of austerity and most evident to the public in the shutdown of hospitals in the communities and concentration of medical services in mega-hospitals at the city’s periphery.  Whatever the thinking behind the destruction of the masks, the country was left without this key Personal Protective Equipment when it needed it most, and replacement in short order was virtually impossible because the whole world was scrambling to purchase these items and the only source of product in requisite quantities was the People’s Republic of China, which was itself still reeling from the pandemic.

Instead of trusting the public with the truth, that masks were simply unavailable and that we should make our own at home, our national leaders chose to mislead the public about their value.  Was this any different from the smoke and mirrors performance coming out of the White House?  Not a jot.

With time, the world demand for face masks and other PPE has been substantially met. Even here in Belgium we learn that local manufacture of face masks was begun from scratch and is proceeding well. The headline across the front page of the weekend issue of Le Soir informs us that “Belgian Industry Will Produce 600 Million Face Masks this year.” In the meantime, the message coming from the government has shifted 180 degrees.  We are told that face masks are indeed very useful in preventing the spread of virus by retaining most of the small liquid particles of those who are infected.  For that very reason, cities like Brussels and Antwerp, which have seen spikes in infection after the “deconfinement” was phased in, now make it mandatory to wear face masks EVERYWHERE in public space, whether on the streets or in buildings open to the public.

And do the masks work?  Indeed, if you follow the trend of the infection rate here in Belgium, imposition of mandatory wearing of masks has been accompanied by steady reduction in the infection rate, in the hospitalization rate, in the mortality rate these past few weeks.  Similar regulations have been introduced across France in ‘red zone’ regions.

If it is true that democracy functions when there is an informed public, then the only conclusion we can reach, is that we do not have a functioning democracy.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment eighteen

A Day in the Life of…

Accompanying Baltimore-based global spice manufacturer McCormick & Co. to their first meetings in Russia

Thursday, 15 November 1979

10.00 – 11.30  Ministry of Agriculture     Kotelnikov, Kramskov + experts –  Rakitina (chief agronomist) and Ivanov from the All-Union Association Soyuzsortsemovoshch and  Kulikov, deputy head of administration of agro-industrial integration

Nearly all the discussion is between Dr. Hall and Kramskov

Kramskov explains that main target of his administration in Agriculture has been to raise production and consumption of fruits and vegetables. Says today USSR produces the same total vegetable and melon crops as the USA, leading to 90 kg per capita. Their task, as set by the Institute of Nutrition, is to raise consumption to 126 kg yearly. They at present import 250,000 tons of fruits and vegetables mainly from Eastern Europe.  Just starting now to look into raising production of rarer vegetable matter, namely spices and flavoring matter. Looking to mechanization. Kramskov says have good cooperation with FMC, also with Castle & Cooke. (I wince since we both know that C&C have cancelled their Soviet project)

Hall:  says we use and study local variety of onion and garlic – seed production could be interesting. Garlic and onion are both highly mechanized.

Kramskov – as regards onion equipment, we have run tests on Dutch equipment for onions, also FMC machines and Hungarian equipment. In 1976 I went to the USA and saw on display in NY a different technology.  Our own machines were developed for North-Central areas, where there is strong onion, with high dry matter content. This machinery is no good for the southern regions. Central Asia, some parts of Ukraine, Moldavia have larger, mild ‘salad’ onions. Here soils are higher temperature. These onions spoil faster.  How do you manage these warmer soils?  We do have possibility to exchange varieties. Some of our onion stores very well. We supplied England. It is good for processing. We have a good genetic pool.

As regards garlic, we produce 60,000 tons here annually. We have winter garlic and spring garlic. Winter variety stores badly. We specially need help to develop better spring garlic. Our weak point is that we have no machines for garlic and it is very labor intensive.  Nothing for herbicides, pesticides. We also want processing of garlic, which can be done within Agriculture. Need garlic paste, juice.

Our spices – we do want help with local types: coriander, majoram, basil leaf. We’re only just beginning now. Seek contact with your specialists. Exchange of delegations.

Hall – we have highly mechanized both onion and garlic production and processing.  15 years ago these were largely hand work. No longer.

Kramskov – interesting spices for us: dill, parsley, turnips, basil, horseradish, coriander, Melissa, fennel, caraway

Hall – We seek to start with onion and garlic then proceed to other, lesser crops which have been less mechanized. We suggest first question be genetics – start new test field for varieties

Kramskov – Yes, but development of new varieties is a long process. I suggest we go faster – the largest problems are 1)mechanization 2)application of chemical pesticides and insecticides, fertilizers 3) processing  Genetics comes later

Hall (at my urging)   – 1st year – set up a model farm to test the varieties and technology.   2nd year – model drying operation.  Then to further improve breeding and processing

Kramskov – (alarmed we are moving too fast): we need some time to think it over – exchange literature. Let’s arrange exchange of delegations. After this we can draft the program.  We want to bring in the Food Ministry. We need their participation as processors. We are the farmers – they are your counterparts.

Note – here Kramskov says we are talking with Pepsico about potato processing (Frito Lay).

Kramskov – give us literature on industrial flavorings. We see great use for garlic – for canned foods. But do not want to forget other crops – rarer herbs and spices.  We grow a lot of paprika – but it is for use fresh.

Hall – we will get samples and spec sheets to you

Kotelnikov – best next step will be to hold a seminar from beginning to end 1)seed production  2) principles of vertical integration 3) processing. Then we can find ways for cooperation – and then go on to exchange of delegations.  See McCormick visit to Soviet production areas this summer – all via Intourist

Note: at the conclusion Kramskov comes over to me and gives a big and friendly handshake – very satisfied with today’s talks.

2.00 – 3.00  Organizing Committee of the 1980 Summer Olympics    Kovalyov, Polnikov +1

Chief negotiator Polnikov is long delayed and while awaiting him we chat with older, less shrews Kovalyov, who tells us about existing agreements with other companies:  1) Brazilian State Coffee company – will donate 3 tons of instant coffee to be used at official receptions  2) Heinekens – beer and monetary contribution – 10,000 cases + $55,000  3) Philip Morris – cigarettes  4)  Seagrams – $100,000  cash + American wine, Scotch, Rye and Canadian whisky.  Asks what we can offer.

Jack:  black pepper, white pepper, salt in 3 – 4 gram packs, plus portioned mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, jams and jellies.

Polnikov enters and looks sternly at Kovalyov for talking too freely.  (Kovalyov had said – ‘we all know Doctorow quite well’)  Asks what we are prepared to put up, stressing cash and saying the Organizing Committee seeks $100,000 – 150,000.   Jack says what is the scope of your need in commodity.  Polnikov is evasive.  I say let’s reckon 30,000 units per day x 20 days = 600,000 portions.  Polnikov acquiesces.

Polnikov asks what products we could put up.  Jack says either small portions or bulk packed – eg., 2 kg containers of mayonnaise. Polnikov: send us catalogues and specs.   Jack: we wish to give some product – to sell more product and will not give any cash.   Polnikov looks irritated but says nothing. 

Caffey says he will have proposal to their representative Kartsev in New York by December 15. Will be back in Moscow in March.

Polnikov is slick, but less unpleasant than formerly. As Caffey says : “He’s no virgin.”  Caffey likes the idea I advanced during the meeting: that we seek two separate deals – to give away some supplies and sell others – since these would be needed by the City Council whatever happens – so why not buy from us.  Polnikov takes exception to my use of the word ‘donate’ – but I remind him that it is merely a translation of the word they use ‘взнос’ i.e., contribution.

“4.30 – 6.00   Dinner with Nesterin at his tiny office in the Nutrition Institute.   Nesterin is cautious with us – especially with me and it’s clear I inhibit him. He wants to show off for Dr.Hall. He treats this as social rather than a business visit.

“7.00  Evening at the Bolshoi seeing my favorite dragon lady Plisetskaya in a program quite familiar to me – Carmen Suite and Death of a Rose. She is unusually good tonight.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

From the personal archives of a Russianist, installment seventeen

When business travel with clients could be a pleasure:  visit to Warsaw, July 1979 together with senior management of McCormick & Company

Friday, 20 July

Early morning we part with Hall, who takes a direct flight back to the USA.  Jack and I make a visit to the Meat Institute, where they have already prepared typed memo on our meetings. Agree on schedule for presenting sample blends (late August), reviewing results (October), then to decide on seminar.

Caffey and I take lunch together, then I leave for airport and my flight to Switzerland. At parting, Caffey expresses his gratitude for a ‘superb job.’

Overall this has been one of the more pleasant trips in memory. Personal chemistry was unusually good. Several explanations present themselves:  the fact that both reps from the Company are the same age and rank (VP, International and VP, Science and Technology), absence of junior-level personnel which always feels threatened by outside consultants like me eliminated much of the tension that builds during these trips. Ivy League and Old School Tie also important: Hall is a Harvard man who really enjoys the fact and took pleasure in my connection; while Caffey is non-H, he is Stanford and need feel no shame. Group had more parallelism than hierarchy and authority. Caffey and Hall can good-naturedly joke with one another as equals from different sides of the company and could afford to respect my given expertise without doubts about their position in the eyes of others from the company. 

Curious closeness in the backgrounds of Caffey and Hall – both WWII flyers: Jack, a fighter pilot and Hall, navigator on a bomber stationed in Southern England. Hall left Harvard in ’43 for the forces, then returned after the war to complete his AB and take graduate courses; stayed on in Cambridge as resident tutor of Kirkland (or  Lowell) House until 1953; was unfortunate to come back in 1968 for his 25th reunion.  Knows William Bullitt – son of the first U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and ex Master of Quincy.

Both from the West: Dick Hall grew up in a Nebraska town of 180 which his father nearly owned – Scotch-Irish, turned from Catholicism. Jack Caffey is from Mormon Country – Salt Lake City: remembers the strange time he was in Helsinki for sales mission and was invited to join his hosts in a sauna; thought at the time, while he sat stark naked with people whom he was seeing for the first time and seriously talking about opportunities for McCormick: “Caffey, you’ve really gone mad. What would friends back in Salt Lake City think of this!”  

Dick admits that no matter how many years he has been East, whenever he makes a visit to the West, he knows his real home is there.  Their Western figures of speech are also pleasant to hear: for example, a politician was likened to a certain shallow local river which was “6 miles wide and 2 inches deep at the mouth.”

 Dick Hall has proper, natty Harvard dress – Brooks Brothers look; bow-tie would be scarcely out of character. Caffey is less conservative, less careful in dress, more conservative in politics. Caffey knows his worth: has the self-confidence of a top salesman. Their constant repartee as Dick suggests Jack could never have made the grade as a scientist and Jack suggests Dick lacks imagination and daring. Their banter makes for a real pleasure.

Curious that neither of these former fly-boys likes small private planes. Quote Jack: “a friend keeps on inviting me to join him and I find reasons why I can’t make it; one day I’ll put my two hands forward and say ‘look, they don’t match.”  Caffey also a nervous back-seat driver: says after requesting one taxi driver in Warsaw to slow down, “ I don’t want to end up in the hospital in some half-assed city like this!”  Caffey on management: “some managers are afraid of taking good assistants, but a good man can only move his boss upstairs.”

Over-all both are impressed that Poland looks better than they had expected. This size market is worth an effort. Still Jack wants to see some consumer product sales. Both feel slight embarrassment: “if this were a normal market we’d send in the troops, and not just have the two of us with Doctorow here holding the cane.”

Evening at the restaurant Bazylyszek in the Old Town square: heated political discussion as Caffey expresses long held resentment against the week-kneed liberals and especially at university administrators for failing to hold back tide of radicalism in the late 1960s.  Hall more tolerant of administrators’ failings as nonprofessional managers – points to the randomness of the radical explosion, something that would break out in one place or another. I suggest the radicals were lightning rods for genuine dissent and anger of broad student body over conduct of the war and the possibility of serving and dying.

Caffey seems to think we were never in jeopardy. Caffey points to the University of Southern California, which held fast during the tide and kicks..   Dick happened to be at Harvard in ’68 during the worst of the rioting, when he came for the 25th reunion. He feels the Pusey administration didn’t know what to do – reacted poorly.  According to Hall, you must be fully prepared to deal with radicals and disrupters – gives example of his own conduct during this period as chairman of a food congress. When some radicals stormed the meeting demanding the floor, he said ‘we’re a democratic organization and we’ll put it to a vote whether to interrupt our program and hear you or to have you wait till we are done. The viva voce ‘no’s’ were overwhelming and put an end to this nonsense.”  Anomalies in politics: Jack grudgingly favors ERA while Dick opposes it out of feeling that in practice it will not work.  Both have strong feelings of pride over their roles in WWII.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

From the personal archives of a Russianist, installment sixteen

Soviet-Russian Studies in terminal decline.  Fly on the wall observations at the 20th anniversary celebrations of the International Research and Exchanges Board, Washington, D.C.

Papers from the IREX conference, 10-13 May 1979 “Conference on Scholarly Exchanges with the USSR and Eastern Europe: Two Decades of American Experience”

Venue:  Washington, D.C. – at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University

“…it is an appropriate occasion to examine critically the ways in which these exchanges have served, and can serve, the interests and needs of concerned Americans, including academic experts and policy-makers in government, business and the media.”

Attendance limited to 100 participants.

“A comprehensive review of what American researchers in Eastern Europe and the USSR have produced to date is made even more urgent by the current public interest in the present complexities of East-West relations, the pros and cons of SALT and our new contacts with the People’s Republic of China. In the 1950s we were able to study and analyze the USSR and Eastern Europe only from a distance.  Today, however, over 1000 American exchange alumni have lived and conducted research in these difficult societies for extended periods. They teach in our leading research universities and colleges, and work in business, law, journalism and government. They command the languages of the area and have a sophisticated understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet bloc countries.

[note – among the panelists are Edward Keenan, Stephen Cohen, Istvan Deak]

Diary Notes

Thursday, 10 May 1979

Trip to Washington, DC for IREX  20th year anniversary gathering

Lunch with Soviet deputy consul designate Kulenkov. Excellent rapport, shows interest in helping to arrange meetings with Arbatov, Demichev and others. Invites us to lunch at consulate on Monday – he had traveled with Nixon party in 1972, knows and respects Gleistein – when he was consul in Leningrad. Knows Bob Barry.

At the IREX reception meet Gene Milosh, Operations Director at the US-Soviet Trade Council, who looks somewhat lost. Also Ivo Lederer, who is now with IREX in its corporate fund-raising effort.  Sit down to dinner with Dan Matuszewski, who is genial and kind, semi-interested in what I am doing.

The after-dinner speech by Senator Church is rather empty – his speech writers have disturbing leaning towards evocative and emotional language topped off by alliteration – all is more colorful than important. Sonnenfeldt pours over his copy of the address as if awaiting meat for his cleaver – later he spurns my greeting – he has not moved very far from academic boorishness.

Briefly chat with Carl Marcy of East West Accord, who does ask about the progress of my article for their “Common Sense in US-Soviet Trade.” Says he expects a capacity attendance Monday for the opening of his film showing Survival or…Suicide. His own approaches to Mondale were unsuccessful, however Ted Kennedy jumped at the invitation. Harriman will also most likely come.

After dinner I engage John Chambers of SATRA in chat – he heads corporate lobbying work here in DC – not only for the Department of Commerce but also for tax, import-export, EPA and other government agencies connected with SATRA work. Major project for the company now is the LADA.  Chambers own background: graduate of the Naval Academy, 10 years in the service, then IBM early in the 70s, then to SATRA. Specialty is technology transfers.

Note: snub by Helmut Sonnenfeldt. When I approach him outside the hotel after the Church speech to introduce myself as a sometimes correspondent with him during the past year, he smiles wanly, then walks away.

Friday, 11 May 1979

Morning address by McGeorge Bundy (Ford Foundation chairman) opens by caveat that he has not prepared a ‘major address’ and he then proceeds to demonstrate this by a rambling and hastily prepared talk in praise of the exchange, choosing to ignore any doubts about the value of the scholarship produced. It is merely congratulatory, all-in-the-family talk, with only a mild warning that however meritorious any one project like IREX may be, Ford, like other foundations, is duty-bound to move on to other challenges and therefore IREX must find other sponsors. Lackluster and unworthy of his intellect. Rather frivolous comments about how Merle Fainsod, the father of Harvard’s Russian Research Center, got his start by a visit to Russia on his honeymoon – through real contact.

First panel leads off with Robert Legvold, Columbia assistant professor of 35, former student of Marshall Shulman whom I saw as a fat slob at the RRC, now also serving as project director of the Council of Foreign Relations. Shulman introduces Legvold as exceptional within his generation, a ‘leader in the field,’ etc. Also on the panel: Fred Starr; Bill Odom, military adviser to Brzezinski. Legvold ably summarizes points in his paper which are that the US study of Soviet foreign policy has been declining over the last few years while Soviet studies of the US have greatly expanded and while sources for field study have at long last become available.

Odom notes that Legvold has failed to consider reasons for the phenomenon he has so ably described – can there be a tie between declining study of Soviet foreign policy and détente?  Can it be that we may not need all the gaps in our knowledge filled, on the basis of Henry Roberts’ idea that absence of study on a topic is not itself justification for studying it.  He then asks if field study indeed is worthwhile in the USSR – after all the scholar easily becomes attracted to his subject and maybe towards tendency to see discontinuity when indeed continuity is dominant. Also what is the value of meeting with the Institute of the USA people and others who may know the USA well but have a weak knowledge of their own country and when asked to comment on it will be no more informative than Pravda.  

Legvold counters that the field study may at least enable one to be more discriminating when reading Soviet commentary – to know who is authoritative and who is not on the USSR side; also that he had had in mind not the ‘two week wonder’ but long term contacts with a select group of people.

Other panelist Shulman notes that Soviet written sources tend to be misleading because they are far more stereotyped and cautious than the spoken word; Soviet officials are wary of making any unorthodox commitments on paper lest the times change and they will be compromised.  Several people in the audience raise questions of why one should expect young people to go into the field when obstacles are so steep and rewards so dismal given the present job market. 

Legvold insists that jobs exist for those trained in Soviet foreign policy but that the people are lacking. However, he admits he has in mind a total of several dozen openings for the whole country – and what kind of profession is that?  Otherwise the talk of job crisis is cut off early by senior people, who direct attention to using more effectively the trained human resources already in the field.  Fred Starr insists that the cadres are there – in the fully trained historians who are ready at any time to apply their talents to foreign policy.

The point is that these senior administrators wish to write off completely graduate students and junior faculty and to take unto themselves what little money remains in the field.

Note the appearance of Byrnes, granddaddy in the field, who strikes out at the generally self-congratulatory air of his colleagues and says sharply that the growing American awareness of Russia is due more to the journalistic community than to those present. He cites Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians” as having been more widely read and had greater influence than all of the scholarly works put together.  

I find especially distasteful the pompous self-esteem of these administrators.  Indeed all scholars present are here not for their publications but for their administrative positions.  Saying that they are the salt of the earth who made it all possible.  These ‘one book’ professors who say that their failure to publish is a measure of their self-sacrifice in devoting themselves to the critical administration and fund-raising work.  All quite disgusting.  And Ned Keenan fits the script perfectly.  Had I gone into teaching, as a ‘parish priest’, I would scarcely find myself in their company today.  The Survivors are most pitiful and unattractive lot, whose sanctimonious behavior covers a moral vacuum.


Robert Byrnes- long time professor at Indiana University, widely published, formerly served for several years in the CIA

Fred Starr – at the time still directing the Kennan Institute in Washington; soon to take up the position of President of Tulane University. While still at Princeton, in 1975 had been on the jury at my dissertation defense.

Robert Barry – Consul at the American Consulate in Leningrad in 1972 and witness to my marriage there. Eventually left the State Department to take up a management position in Voice of America.

Robert Legvold – remained at Columbia as tenured professor;  till he recently stepped down, Legvold was for twenty years the book reviewer of Foreign Affairs magazine in their Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Republics section, thereby exercising a significant influence across the profession.

Bill Odom – his remarks highly critical of the field experience in the USSR, meaning critical of IREX’s basic mission, are important given his position serving Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Ad visor. In the summer of 1978, apart from cancellation of several major export licenses, the Carter administration announced it was considering curtailment of educational exchanges with the USSR as its response to the harsh sentence meted out to the dissident Sharansky.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Belarus: why the ongoing political confrontation is unlike Maidan and what lessons are there here for Putin’s Russia

In the past couple of weeks the  mass demonstrations protesting the obviously falsified Belarus presidential elections became featured news reporting in Western media, edging out coverage of the Coronavirus pandemic and of street disorders in the USA following yet another shooting of some unarmed black man by white police. In this context, I was invited twice to give Zoom interviews on both RT’s live 24 hour news broadcast from Moscow and on the Belarus state television whose local crew had interviewed me at home in the past before Covid19 drove us all into virtual reality.

Given that these Zoom interviews were put on live news programs that are not reposted on, where you, dear Reader are more likely to catch them, and given that my observations are rather different from what the herd of both mainstream and alternative news commentators are saying, I set out here what it is I have to say about Belarus at this crucial moment in the nation’s history, when the outcome of the power struggle is by no means clear.

First, I make reference to the very special characterization of the Belarus protest movement by The Financial Times from the very beginning, namely that unlike the Maidan protesters in Ukraine in 2014, the Belarus protest movement is not pro-EU, pro-NATO and anti-Russian; it is seeking only new elections conducted under transparent and fair conditions, on the assumption that will lead to the removal of President Lukashenko.  This reporting may seem obvious, but it is remarkable in its own right.  I compare it to the latest militant and self-righteous statements coming out of the Polish government in Warsaw to the effect that the Belarus protesters are standing up against Russia.

Be that as it may, all reporting from all sides is missing the other outstanding feature that distinguishes the present day situation in Belarus from Maidan in 2014:  President Lukashenko is a vastly different personality from Ukraine’s President Yanukovich.  Yanukovich had been ousted from power once before and he knew perfectly well that the two-thirds of the country outside his power base in Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine was ready to oust him by force. On 22 February 2014, he rather timidly accepted an EU offer of mediation with the leaders of the rebellion that promised new elections in a year’s time. As we all know, the next day the  Opposition ripped up the agreement and Yanukovich fled the country. His life was saved only by quick and skillful Russian intervention.

The outstanding feature of Mr. Lukashenko over recent days has been his hyper-activity in public and his personal courage in standing up to the protesters. He has gone to the high risk hot spots to take them on.

Lukashenko said plainly that the only way the protesters will get new elections in the days ahead will be over his dead body, and this was not empty rhetoric. He has denounced the offers of mediation coming from grandstanding Western leaders like Emmanuel Macron, deriding the hypocrisy of the man who has directed the vicious police repressions against the Gilets Jaunes protesters in his own country over the past two years.

Having tossed this bouquet to the Belarus President, I add that the problem he is facing is largely of his own making by his actions and inaction over the past 26 years in power.  The situation is so dire precisely because his regime has suppressed all political opposition, has quashed civil society for the purpose of staying in power.  To be sure, he might have justified this truculence by the good he was doing for his nation by the conservative, statist economic policies he pursued, by refusing to go along with the fads of privatization, by staying close to the country’s main export market, Russia. Indeed, over his time in power, Belarus has made impressive achievements in raising GDP and national prosperity.

Thus, when a transition committee formed in the past week claiming to speak for Belarus society and nominating itself to oversee free elections, Lukashenko could say, with justice, that they represented nobody, and he would not negotiate with them.  The calamity is that there is no one to negotiate with to resolve the crisis, which means it will be resolved only by force and/or persistence by one of the sides, and may drag on for months.

In the interviews alluded to above, I was asked to comment on Lukashenko’s calling out the risks of trouble coming from NATO along the country’s Western borders. As we know, the President used his visit to Grodno a few days ago to visit the Belarus troops that are on maneuvers there at his order. 

In my view, Lukashenko’s attention to the Western borders is reasonable, but not because of any invasion threat from Polish or Lithuanian forces.  Rather, the risk is one of infiltration across that border by those carrying cash or arms for the Opposition in general and for paid professional trouble makers in particular.

Belarus television is interested in the question of possible Polish direction of the disturbances in Belarus. Surely in the public domain, Poland has made clear its support for the removal of Lukashenko.  I have no doubt this is the case.  For Polish President Duda, taking a strong stand in defense of human rights in Belarus puts his government in a favorable light within the European Institutions and distracts from Poland’s notoriety as a black sheep that is dismantling its own independent judiciary and putting in jeopardy rule of law.

Then there is the question of what Russia can and may do as the Belarus scenario unfolds one way or another. Again, from the get-go, The Financial Times took a Realist position as opposed to the ideologically colored position that so much of our media disseminate. It noted that Belarus is squarely in the sphere of Russian influence and better not to put its dominance in question.

Many of our media outlets have looked to Belarus for insights into what may be ahead for Mr. Putin’s regime. They have asked whether the kind of resistance to the Kremlin that arose in Khabarovsk after the removal and arrest of its elected leader from the LDPR party Furgal might not be spread further in Russia with encouragement from the mass protests in Belarus.

In my view such contagion is improbable, because there are fundamental differences in the way the Belarus “regime” and the Russian “regime” operate vis-à-vis their electorates and civil society more generally.  This is overlooked by so many of our media because they are willingly blind to the meaning of the Duma parties. In Russia 20% or more of the electorate belongs to the Communist Party.  Fifteen percent or more are supporters of Zhirinovsky’s nationalist LDPR. 

Even Vladimir Putin showed in his answer to a journalist’s question a couple of months ago that he did not quite fathom that the LDPR is a party that exists outside the persona of Mr. Zhirinovsky and will likely continue to exist after he leaves the scene. It is not to be compared with the movements of people like Navalny or Nemtsov, who were, are nothing more than lightning rods for popular frustration, without clearly defined party policies. The Furgal affair has driven this fact home: the entire Far East has high levels of support for the LDPR for reasons which may well have to do with their policy stands, not just personal popularity of individuals.

The net result of the foregoing is that if there were to be serious abuses in elections like those in 2011 in Russia or in Belarus today, the Kremlin would easily find an Opposition to negotiate with, whereas Mr. Lukashenko finds himself at the center of a political desert that he himself created.

These, I believe, are strong reasons for Vladimir Putin to go back to his courting the Opposition parties as he did back in January during his state of the nation address to the legislature.  The ambitions of Speaker of the Duma Volodin to play dirty and to monopolize the political stage for the United Russia party works against a peaceful transfer of power in the future and so is against the national interest.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]