Georgy Arbatov, adviser to the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who believed that cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union was possible, died on October 1 at the age of 87. He was a master of compromise who sought to introduce a touch of human rationality to the totalitarian system.
Arbatov was director of the Institute of United States and Canada Studies from 1967 to 1995. He paid many visits to the United States and saw grounds for cooperation, recognizing the absurdity and artificiality of each side’s claims against the other, and the endemic suspicion that hindered any such cooperation.
The standoff between the USSR and the United states, which was to a great extent contrived by bureaucrats or orchestrated by Russophobes and Anti-Americans in each country, appears particularly absurd against the backdrop of the Cold War threat of a nuclear conflagration and the subsequent terrorist attacks that have, in recent decades, claimed thousands of lives.
These contrived positions rolled back in the face of real danger. In the 1970s they were replaced with détente after a long drawn-out arms race, the 9/11 tragedy in the United States was followed by cooperation in Afghanistan and the list goes on. The détente of the 1970s was Arbatov’s moment of glory and one of the main achievements in his career.
Arbatov was born in 1923 and took part in the November 7, 1941 military parade in Red Square from which the troops went straight to the front to fight the Nazi invaders. His was one of the most deprived generations in Soviet history, having witnessed the cultural and economic devastation of the country as a result of the civil war , the subsequent collectivization period, the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 which only 3% of his peers survived, the difficult years of post-war recovery, and the period of the Brezhnev stagnation.
While in hospital suffering from tuberculosis in 1944, Arbatov read a newspaper report mentioning that a state institute of international relations (MGIMO) was being established in Moscow. His fate was sealed: he decided that he simply had to enroll at the institute, which after all, promised to open up the world to him.
After graduating from MGIMO he worked for the Kommunist magazine and the English-language magazine New Times. Otto Kuusinen, a Finnish-born Soviet politician who hoped to become president of Finland once the Soviet Union had won the ill-fated Winter War of 1939-1940 and who led the international communist movement after WWII, noticed this talented young journalist.
By the time Leonid Brezhnev came to power in 1964, Georgy Arbatov was a 40-year old highly respected intellectual with frontline experience, who spoke fluent English and had an open mind.
Although not often seen as such, Brezhnev was in fact a highly receptive man and by no means a simpleton. A straight-talking man of the people, he had little time for book-learning, preferring frank conversations with people instead. Brezhnev also made a clear distinction between public and private life.
Officially, he continued to use Stalinist phrases about the “aggravation of inter-imperialist contradictions” and “the historical advantages of the Soviet regime.” Unofficially, he took boyish pleasure in the car that U.S. President Richard Nixon presented to him and never sought to prevent his son, or the children of his closest associates, from getting soft jobs at the ministries of foreign trade and international affairs.
To Brezhnev, words were part of a separate realm that had no connection to reality. It was under him that Russia’s current crop of officials and business elite learned the art of “dual” thinking. They promised the country would overcome every crisis that beset it, while sending their children abroad to study and transferring their money to bank accounts overseas.
Brezhnev’s advisers were similarly divided. Brilliant intellectuals such as Georgy Arbatov, Alexander Bovin and Oleg Bogomolov advocated progressive ideas. Brezhnev listened benevolently but was in no rush to implement them, believing instead that theory and life were two distinct entities and “never the twain shall meet.”
“Did you get the furniture ok?” That was the only question Brezhnev asked Arbatov after the establishment of the Institute of the Untied States and Canada.
Brezhnev told Bovin, who tried to draw the communist leader’s attention to the plight of the low-paid sectors of the population: “Alex, you don’t understand the real world. Nobody in this country lives on their salary alone.”
Of course, this behavior could be described as progressive if compared to Stalin, who tried to reduce human life to mere distribution according to strict state rules. The deadly famine that hit Ukraine in the 1930s was provoked by “Uncle Joe,” who ordered that the entire grain harvest be collected from peasants and subsequently redistributed ‘equally’. As a result, the amount collected was not enough to feed everyone.
Then again, Brezhnev’s practical acceptance of the fact that “Russians never live on their salaries alone” was not particularly helpful either. It generated the shadow economy and “unofficial” capitalism in the country.
And yet, as Russian writer Ivan Turgenev said, “A good word is also a good deed.” The language of the U.S. political life, which crept into dissertations and subsequently newspapers thanks to Arbatov’s institute, was changing the Soviet Union and preparing it for democratic reform.
Arbatov addressed the country’s practical problems such as the need to cut military spending, balance internal and external stability, and improve relations with the United States and West European countries. This was a language that Soviet leaders understood and, happily, there came a day when the pragmatic Nixon administration also started speaking the same language.
The results were the détente of the mid-1970s and the Helsinki Accords. When signing the accords, Brezhnev’s government wanted to improve relations with the West without improving the human rights situation in the country. (Something the current negotiators with the Untied States and the European Union also often hope for.) But then came Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in the late 1980s, giving the Helsinki Accords a new lease on life.
Détente had breathed its last by the end of the 1970s. The octogenarian Soviet leaders, who had long since forgotten all about pragmatism, instead becoming ever more paranoid about security, approved the invasion of Afghanistan to preempt the alleged deployment of U.S. troops there.
Arbatov was pushed back into the shadows, only reappearing during Gorbachev’s perestroika.
In the 1990s, Arbatov had to fight another aspect of excess in Russia’s politics: the radical reform program. He criticized the idea of Russia’s “accelerated Americanization” proposed by Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, who suggested importing foreign managers instead of training Russian ones.
Indeed, it is much simpler to wave a magic wand and wish to “have everything they have” than to work hard to find rational solutions to problems and train local managers.
Under Arbatov, American studies in Russia became a science, and science does not accept simple solutions without explanation, instead demanding that they are tested in practice before being applied. This was one of Georgy Arbatov’s main achievements.
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