Kremlin hotline fails to sizzle

My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze
August 22, 1997

It takes some time to work out what is wrong with this book. For the first few chapters the re-appearance of old Soviet euphemisms, such as references to the KGB as "the competent bodies", are merely puzzling. Why is Mikhail Gorbachev's former interpreter still writing in the coded language of a previous era? I suggest few readers waste their time discovering the answer. This book, with very few revisions, was written in 1992.

For all the plaudits of former secretaries of state on the dust jacket, Pavel Palazchenko's book has few revelations for any reader in 1997. For those who have read the various memoirs of Gorbachev, Anatoly Chernayev (his foreign policy adviser), of George Schultz and James Baker, to name just a few, this book provides a light recap of the story - and little more. For those who have not, it is not the place to start.

I am sorry to have to be so rude. Palazchenko once helped me get a filmed interview with President Gorbachev. The truth is he is not merely hampered by when he wrote this. Books by interpreters are inhibited by the very nature of their access. As he admits on the first page: "I am bound by the trust of those men and women (for whom I interpreted). This has to affect the book that I write. There are things - human things and secrets of governments - that I will not mention". Unwilling to provide the two things most readers would want from a memoir, Palazchenko does little but confirm truisms about Gorbachev and Edward Shevardnadze that are commonplace.

On the rare occasions he goes further there are signs of his passionate identification with his employers. There is the tale of how in the spring of 1991 Gorbachev set out to persuade Richard Nixon that "the answers lie in moving ahead with democratic changes" and not swinging back into the hands of the conservatives. Nixon replied "You have been awarded the Nobel peace prize and you deserve it. After talking to you I feel reassured." An outraged Palazchenko reports how Nixon on his return to the United States "published a series of articles whose message was exactly the reverse of what he had said to Gorbachev". Tricky Dicky struck again.

The chapters on Palazchenko's early life could come from that of any professional Muscovite, a story of keeping your head down while making a career - in this case as an interpreter at the UN and in the foreign ministry. There is the almost obligatory "I made no effort to conceal my views - and that was probably noted". But clearly nothing was said to prevent access to the highest echelons of government. What is missing is any sense of the way in which any such careers required not only party membership but a happy KGB, and what that meant in practice. Shevardnadze has revealed how the security services operated separately, often effectively controlling the professional diplomats. And while Palazchenko does touch on the way in which the ministry of defence both obstructed change and then cheated on arms-control agreements, there is little new here to help us understand the motivation of such fascinating characters as Marshals Yazov and Akhromeyev.

There is some sense of the struggle that went on in the foreign ministry as Gorbachev began to formulate new policies. The account of the Gulf war illustrates that the conflicts were not simply generational but often geographical. Arabists in the department had huge problems accepting the new pro-American line, which meant ditching not only a string of old allies but also a position that afforded the Soviet Union real leverage in the world. The account of the split between Shevardnadze and Yevgeny Primakov over whether to deal with Saddam Hussein, serves to remind one of the tortuous loyalties of the present Russian foreign minister.

It is difficult not be moved by the story of the betrayal of Gorbachev, first by the right-wing coup plotters and then by Yeltsin's secret agreement to dissolve the Soviet Union in November 1991. As with so many Gorbachev supporters, it is Yeltsin's betrayal that really hurts - in part because it destroyed the very thing which these men had worked so hard to transform. But Palazchenko's account adds little to the sum of our knowledge. Others have already told it - and better.

Angus Macqueen is a documentary filmmaker who is working on a film about Lenin.

My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze

Author - Pavel Palazchenko
ISBN - 0 1 01603 5
Publisher - Penn State Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 394

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