A Russian We Trusted : Anatoly Dobrynin remembers four decades as the calm center in the drama of Soviet-American relations : IN CONFIDENCE, By Anatoly Dobrynin (Times Books: $30; 672 pp.)

A. Craig Copetas, a former visiting scholar at the Harriman Institute of Advanced Soviet Studies at Columbia University, is a special correspondent at the Wall Street Journal Europe and the author of "Bear Hunting With the Politburo."

"In Confidence," the vibrantly written autobiography of former Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin, is a growling beast of a nonfiction masterpiece that reads like J. D. Salinger going upriver with Joseph Conrad to find Uncle Wiggily wrestling with Nostromo.

The feast of reasons why "In Confidence" is so alluring--especially for those who ducked 'n' covered under dining room tables in hope of avoiding incoming Soviet nuclear warheads--begins on the opening page, when the Communist Party Central Committee drags Dobrynin out of an aircraft factory in 1944 to attend the Higher Diplomatic School because he had never studied the humanities.

"Our lessons resembled a theatrical performance," he writes. "We had to imagine ourselves at diplomatic receptions, luncheons, and dinners, of which none of us had the slightest experience. . . . We were usually seated at a large and well-set table with all the necessary spoons, knives, forks, and wine glasses. Everything was real except for one thing: No food or wine was served. . . . Imaginary waiters brought in imaginary dishes for which we had real porcelain plates, which, unfortunately, remained empty."

As did Josef Stalin's diplomatic corps, purged by the dictator and now seeking fresh meat. "Stalin wanted to be sure that the old ways of thinking would not return. When the call came from Stalin, you had no choice; you had to accept. . . . I was walking briskly along a Kremlin corridor to the Politburo hall when I suddenly saw Stalin and his guards slowly approaching from the other end of the long corridor. I quickly glanced first to the left, then to the right: There was neither a door nearby nor a side corridor down which I could disappear. So I pressed my back against the wall. Stalin did not fail to notice my confusion. Stressing his words by slowly moving a finger of his right hand in front of my face, he said: 'Youth mustn't fear comrade Stalin. He is its friend.' "

Not a page of "In Confidence" flips without Dobrynin serving up a chilling morsel of his 40 years as Moscow's most important and perhaps luckiest diplomat, a career that began in 1952, when then-Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinsky, the vitriolic prosecutor at the Moscow purge trials of the late 1930s, looked across a table of top Kremlin officials and sarcastically uttered what may have well been disguised as a death sentence: "Let's send Dobrynin as a counselor to our embassy in Washington. Our relations with the Americans are very bad, so let him try to improve them."

Although Dobrynin certainly did improve relations, "In Confidence" travels light years beyond a remembrance of crises past. There's a lot going on in this book, and be the subject a State Department Soviet expert being conned out of a gold watch by Leonid Brezhnev or Dobrynin's refereeing a drunken conversation between President Richard M. Nixon and Brezhnev, the author infuses each encounter with his fine understanding of how the curious and confused personality of Homo Sovieticus meshed with an American mentality that could concurrently fund death squads in Latin America and the Solidarity movement in Poland.

Dobrynin illuminates the often dull mechanics of the U.S.-Soviet love/hate relationship by weaving his tale around an enigmatic Russian expression that defies accurate translation: yest mnieniye ("there is an opinion"). Indeed, "In Confidence" is a gripping, 672-page definition of yest mnieniye --a political dynamic fueled on eerie power and secrecy that, as Dobrynin makes abundantly clear, was designed to allow the few like himself to control the many.

It's almost incidental--but no less fascinating--that the former Communist Party factotum provides kaleidoscopic insights on the minutiae of the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, the Prague Spring, Henry Kissinger's ego, Watergate and how Presidents Gerald R .Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan sacrificed early chances at ultimate nuclear peace to keep America's Cold Warriors happy at election time.

Dobrynin makes clear that every post World War II American and Soviet leader found it difficult to function without nuclear a dark prince to rail against. Dobrynin offers many examples of this deadly silhouette war between American leaders out to lambaste the U.S.S.R. and Politburo members who scratched their heads over why America believed the bankrupt Kremlin wanted to carry the Bolshevik flame to the ends of the earth. The Communist leadership, in fact, simply could neither fathom nor accept superpower agreements that chained Soviet domestic policy to nuclear disarmament. What if the Politburo had linked the reduction of Soviet ICBMs to a decrease in the number of convicts condemned to death in Texas?

Dobrynin perhaps provides no better example of the clash between America's tub-thumping conservatives and Russia's equally confused right-wing mob than an Oval Office meeting between Jimmy Carter and Andrei A. Gromyko to discuss a proposed U.S.-Soviet summit to which both sides had attached great importance. Upon entering the Oval Office, Gromyko is immediately hectored by Carter on the Kremlin crackdown on the dissident Anatoly Shcharansky. The scene makes it abundantly clear that Carter's bear-baiting had little to do with the noble quest for human rights, but everything to do with appeasing the Jewish lobby.

" 'Who is Shcharansky?' Gromyko asked me nonchalantly. Carter looked bewildered.

" 'Haven't you heard about Shcharansky?' he asked, amazed.

" 'No,' Gromyko replied.

"Carter was at a loss and dropped the subject. I remarked to myself that Gromyko had shown great diplomatic skill in handling such a sensitive subject by feigning ignorance of it . . . but as we got into the car to return to the embassy, Gromyko asked me in a low voice, 'Who really is Shcharansky? Tell me more about him.' "

Gromyko didn't know; but perhaps more astonishing was Carter's Oval Office gift to the Soviet foreign minister: a wooden set of toy Soviet and American missiles made to scale. Gromyko "handed the set to me," Dobrynin writes, "saying he did not 'play with toys.' "

"In Confidence" percolates with examples of how Soviet and American leaders never took the time to grasp the basic mechanics of each other's political system or culture. "The crucial difference in the Soviet and American approaches to the issue of emigration," Dobrynin concludes, "was that while the Americans wanted to export to the Soviet Union its free humanitarian and commercial values, the Soviet government simply wanted the commercial benefits of trade, but not the values."

And it is Dobrynin's puckish clarity in the darkness that makes "In Confidence" such a masterpiece of theater. Perhaps most important for those who know little about the history of superpower relations, Dobrynin takes the time to explain who the players are and why the script is important. And it's at the critical junction between boredom and fascination where Dobrynin the writer shines, giving guys whose names Russian experts have a hard time pronouncing the verve to capture the interest of the uninitiated. His accounts of the events that swirled around the administrations of Harry S. Truman to George Bush are mesmerizing, but my own favorite centers on Vyacheslav Molotov, the once powerful minister of foreign affairs (and namesake of the Molotov cocktail) and John Foster Dulles, the Bible-quoting moralist and Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state.

Dobrynin and his boss, Ambassador Georgi Zarubin, are assigned the task of ushering Molotov from New York to a meeting with Dulles in San Francisco to discuss how to avoid nuclear war. As their train pulls into Chicago, Molotov looks out the window to see a group of people booing him. Molotov turns to Zarubin and asks what booing means. " 'That is the American way of greeting,' the ambassador explains," and Molotov buys it.

"While interpreting the tough discussions between Molotov and Dulles," Dobrynin continues, "I had the feeling that they resembled a dialogue of the deaf and the blind. As long as people like them were endowed with power, the Cold War would never end."

Although Dobrynin was technically a "Red," he was never a shill for Soviet policy. And woe be to those Western politicians who thought Ambassador Dobrynin was a peddler of Marxist doctrine and Soviet disinformation. "In Confidence" explodes with dozens of the surreal diplomatic bombshells the United States and Russia lobbed into the Cold War trenches. The result is a marvelously rare book without malice or mercy, winner or loser. Despite 40 years of bilateral rhetoric on everything from human rights to NATO forces on the Polish border, Dobrynin clearly shows that both sides were morally bankrupt throughout the conflict, with U.S. politicians no more married to exporting American democratic values abroad than the Politburo was to erecting a statue of Lenin atop the Capitol dome. For both sides, the Cold War was clearly a cancerous game of using the threat of war to grease economies and whip up patriotic fervor for domestic consumption.

"No one in the Soviet leadership, including the most zealous supporters of communism, ever talked seriously about any concrete prospects for communism in the United States."

Yet an explosion almost came on Aug. 11, 1983. "My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes," Reagan joked during the test for the recording of his weekly radio address, not knowing that his microphone was on.

"The Soviet government was not amused," Dobrynin writes. "The State Department accused the Soviet Union of blowing the incident out of proportion. Perhaps. But of all the remarks I used in attempting to determine the President's genuine feelings and motives, it is unquestionably the one that everyone remembers most vividly."

According to Dobrynin, Reagan was the only American President who actually in his bones believed the Soviets were out to bury the world in communism. Yet Reagan's hatred of the U.S.S.R. ironically enabled him to see that the Kremlin wanted to defuse the threat of holocaust--a vision that sparked sheer fury among the hawks who circled around the Administration. Dobrynin's on-the-scene account of how America's coldest warrior de-iced to fly with the doves is moving, and it shows how Reagan--on his own initiative--unwrapped himself from the Yankee Doodle Dandy that got him elected to smother the nuclear nightmare.

Dobrynin warns that too many American and Russian leaders remain addicted to erecting ideological scarecrows in order to rouse popular sentiment and gain power. And it's that compelling and appalling message that Dobrynin wants boilerplated to the Contract With America and chiseled into the Kremlin wall.

But many--sadly--will chalk up "In Confidence" as the rambling of a Communist messenger, a retired political deliveryman now sitting in a crumbling warehouse of curiosity only to Soviet-era scholars. Don't be fooled. "In Confidence" is the parable of a man who risked his life to junk dogmatics and become the safety catch on the nuclear trigger when the scarecrows wanted to set the world on fire.

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