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Perestroika in the Soviet Union: 30 Years On

Documents show extraordinary achievements, Spectacular missed opportunities

Newly published records include report on Chernobyl, Gorbachev meetings with Mitterrand and Bush, and Gorbachev appeal for international aid in 1991

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 504

Compiled and edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Anna Melyakova

Posted March 11, 2015

For more information contact:
202/994-7000, nsarchiv@gwu.edu

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The Reykjavik File
October 13, 2006

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May 25, 2006

Alexander Yakovlev and the Roots of the Soviet Reforms
October 26, 2005


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(L to R) Vice President George H. W. Bush, President Ronald Reagan and President Mikhail Gorbachev during the Governorís Island summit, December 1988. (Credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Washington, DC, March 11, 2015 – Thirty years ago today, in the Kremlin, the Soviet Politburo unanimously elected its youngest member, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the pinnacle of Soviet power — General Secretary of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This election ushered in the "perestroika" period of revolutionary change, which led to the end of the Cold War, democratization of the Soviet Union, and ultimately — to the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire, as detailed in an extraordinary selection of documents from Soviet, American and other sources published today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).

Gorbachev had come to Moscow only a few years earlier, in 1978, to serve as the party secretary for Agriculture. His rise was indeed meteoric. Under General Secretary Yuri Andropov (1982-84), Gorbachev essentially became number two in the party and a perceived successor to Andropov. According to the documents as well as diaries and memoirs, Gorbachev was a straight arrow, not a dissident, but a reformer within the system. His top priorities were to reform the Soviet economy, end the war in Afghanistan, and end the nuclear arms race to direct the peace dividend to domestic reform. It helped him that at the time, the entire Soviet elite was ready for change and saw in him the potential to make the Soviet system stronger and more vibrant. The documents published here show Gorbachev's first efforts to achieve his goals — from the conversation with Afghan Communist leader Babrak Karmal to the launch of the anti-alcohol campaign, to the first conversation with President Ronald Reagan (Document 6).

This selection of documents from all seven years of the perestroika era attempts to give the reader a sense of the scope of this revolutionary transformation, not just of the Soviet Union, but of the world. The documents cover the most important issues that confronted Soviet leaders in this period — the reform of the Warsaw Pact and relations with socialist allies from the beginning and to the crumbling of the Pact (Document 10), arms control and the key U.S.-Soviet interactions, relations with West European countries, and Soviet activities in the Third World.

Domestically, a key theme is the opening of the political system and the first free election of 1989 (Document 20), which preceded free elections in Eastern Europe and the August coup of 1991. Much of the dynamic and changing vision of Soviet domestic reform is presented in Gorbachev's conversations with the Polish leadership (Documents 18 and 25). His views on religious tolerance and his understanding of the role of the church is expressed in the remarkable conversation with Pope John Paul.

In addition to tremendous achievements of perestroika, the documents also shed light on great missed opportunities, such as the last conversation in Reykjavik with President Reagan, coming close but missing the goal of nuclear abolition (Document 12). The selection of mainly Soviet documents is enriched by several U.S. intelligence and diplomatic assessments of the state of Soviet reform and Gorbachev's ultimate predicament (Document 27).

(L to R) Vice President George H. W. Bush, President Ronald Reagan and President Mikhail Gorbachev during the Governorís Island summit, December 1988. (Credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Several of these documents are published here for the first time, such as the first report to the Politburo on the Chernobyl nuclear accident of April 1986 (Document 9), minutes of Gorbachev's conversation with French leader Francois Mitterrand in July 1986, and minutes of Gorbachev's meeting with leaders of the G-7 in London in the summer of 1991 (Document 28), where he appealed to the international community for financial assistance for his reform. Published here also for the first time is the memorandum of conversation with President George H.W. Bush at Gorbachev's last summit in Madrid, where he explains his concerns and hopes for the new Union Treaty and his rival Boris Yeltsin's nationalist rhetoric (Document 30).

These documents are the result of the National Security Archive's 20 years of efforts to collect and study documents on the end of the Cold War. This search produced a multi-national, multi-archival collection that supported many groundbreaking conferences and publications, including the award-winning book, Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989 (Budapest/New York: Central European University Press, 2010) and the forthcoming The Last Superpower Summits (Budapest/New York: Central European University Press, 2015).



Document 1: Minutes of the CC CPSU Politburo Session, Gorbachev's Election, March 11, 1985.

Source: Russian State Archive of Contemporary History, Fond 89

Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary at a special Politburo session convened less than 24 hours after Konstantin Chernenko's death. The election was pre-decided the day before when he was named the head of the funeral commission. At the Politburo itself, Gorbachev's name was proposed by Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, one of the members of Brezhnev's inner circle. Gromyko praised Gorbachev's human and business-like qualities, and his experience working in the party apparatus, in terms that were less formal than similar speeches at the elections of previous general secretaries. There were no dissenting voices at the session, partly because of Gromyko's firm endorsement, and partly because three potential opponents — First Secretary of Kazakhstan Dinmukhamed Kunaev, First Secretary of Ukraine Vladimir Shcherbitsky, and Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Russia Vitaly Vorotnikov — were abroad and could not make it to Moscow on such short notice.


Document 2: Memorandum of Mikhail Gorbachev's Conversation with Babrak Karmal, March 14, 1985

Source: Dmitry Volkogonov Collection

Ending the war in Afghanistan was at the top of Gorbachev's priorities. In his first conversation with the leader of Afghanistan, who was installed by the Soviet troops in December of 1979, Gorbachev underscored two main points: first that "the Soviet troops cannot stay in Afghanistan forever," and second, that the Afghan revolution was presently in its "national-democratic" stage, whereas its socialist stage was only "a course of the future," thus undercutting the theoretical rationale for the occupation. He also encouraged the Afghan leader to expand the base of the regime to unite all the "progressive forces." In no uncertain terms, Karmal was told that Soviet troops would be leaving soon and that his government would have to rely on its own forces.


Document 3: Minutes of Gorbachev's Meeting with CC CPSU Secretaries, March 15, 1985.

Source: Russian State Archive of Contemporary History, Fond 89

In these notes of a conference of Central Committee Secretaries, Gorbachev discusses the results of his meetings with foreign leaders during Konstantin Chernenko's funeral. He notes the speeches made by the socialist allies, especially Czechoslovakia's Gustav Husak; Polish leader Wojtech Jaruzelski's suggestion for the Pact members to meet more often and informally; and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's opposition to the renewal of the Warsaw Pact for another 20 years. Among his meetings with Western leaders, Gorbachev speaks very highly about his conversation with Margaret Thatcher, which had "a slightly different character" than his discussions with other Westerners. A two-hour session with Vice President George Bush and Secretary of State George Shultz left only a "mediocre" impression, but an invitation to visit the United States was noted. Describing his meeting with President of Pakistan Zia Ul Haq, Gorbachev for the first time uses a phrase usually dated to the XXVII party congress: he called the war in Afghanistan "a bleeding wound."


Document 4: Minutes of Politburo Session on launching the anti-alcohol campaign, April 4, 1985

Source: Russian State Archive of Contemporary History, Fond 89

Among Gorbachev's earliest domestic priorities was putting an end to what was known as the Russian scourge. This Politburo session discusses the issue of "drunkenness and alcoholism" and adopts one of the most controversial resolutions of all the perestroika period, which when implemented became a source of great public outcry and resulted in significant losses of productivity in wine-producing areas in Southern Russia, Moldavia and Georgia. Vitaly Solomentsev makes the official presentation to the Politburo producing shocking statistics of the level of alcoholism in the Soviet Union. In unprecedented fashion, even though the main presentation was strongly supported by the General Secretary, there was opposition among the other Politburo members. Notably, Deputy Finance Minister Dementsev spoke about how a radical cut in the level of production of alcoholic drinks could affect the Soviet economy, and prophetically stated that "a significant decrease in the production of vodka and alcohol products might lead to the growth of moonshine production, as well as stealing of technological alcohol, and would also cause additional sugar consumption." The discussion reveals the sad state of the Soviet economy, which would be incapable of providing goods for the excess rubles held by the population if vodka production were to be cut.


Document 5: CIA Intelligence Assessment, "Gorbachev's Economic Agenda: Promises, Potentials, and Pitfalls," September 1985

Source: National Security Archive FOIA request to CIA

This U.S. intelligence analysis presents a dire picture of the Soviet economic situation that the new Soviet leader had to face after his election, and calls his new economic agenda "the most aggressive since the Khrushchev era." Gorbachev is expected to show willingness to reduce the Soviet resource commitment to defense, legalize private-sector activity in the sphere of consumer services, and try to break the monopoly of the foreign trade apparatus. However, the assessment is very cautious, suggesting that if Gorbachev continues to rely on "marginal tinkering," it would mean that he "like Brezhnev before him, has succumbed to a politically expedient but economically ineffective approach."


Document 6: Memorandum of Conversation, "Reagan-Gorbachev Meetings in Geneva," November 19, 1985, Secret/Sensitive

Source: Reagan Library FOIA release

In their first private meeting Reagan and Gorbachev both leaders speak about the mistrust and suspicions of the past and of the need to begin a new stage in U.S.-Soviet relations. Gorbachev describes his view of the international situation to Reagan, stressing the need to end the arms race. Reagan expresses his concern with Soviet activity in the Third World — specifically, Soviet aid to socialist revolutions in developing countries. Gorbachev does not challenge the President's assertions actively but replies jokingly that he does not wake up "every day" thinking about "which country he would like to arrange a revolution in."


Document 7: Alexander Yakovlev Memorandum to Mikhail Gorbachev, "The Priority of Political Development," December 25, 1985 [Excerpt]

Source: State Archive of the Russian Federation, Yakovlev Fond

In this memorandum to Gorbachev, Yakovlev outlines his view of the needed transformation of the political system of the Soviet Union. Yakovlev writes in his memoir that he prepared this document in several drafts earlier in the year but hesitated to present it to Gorbachev because he believed his own official standing at the time was still too junior. Yakovlev's approach here is thoroughly based on a perceived need for democratization, starting with the Soviet Communist Party. The memo suggests introducing several truly ground-breaking reforms, including genuine multi-candidate elections, free discussion of political positions, a division of power between the legislative and executive branches, independence of the judicial branch, and real guarantees of human rights and freedoms.


Document 8: Letter from Reagan to Gorbachev, February 22, 1986

Source: Reagan Library FOIA release

This lengthy (almost eight pages) typed letter contains Reagan's formal endorsement of nuclear abolition, in response to Gorbachev's January 15, 1986 proposals. The letter suggests a series of specific steps, starting with the 50 percent cut in warheads the two leaders discussed at Geneva, then getting rid of INF missiles by 1989 (the deal would be done in 1987), then bringing in the other nuclear powers after the U.S. and USSR demonstrate their seriousness by going first, while linking the process of nuclear cuts to reductions in conventional forces in Europe, and so forth. Most interesting is Reagan's explicit endorsement of Gorbachev's January proposals as "significant and positive" — at a time when other U.S. officials are dismissing the abolition initiative as propaganda. But here we see Reagan taking the idea very seriously. Yet the delay between the mid-January proposals and this late-February response left Soviet officials, such as Chernyaev, believing the U.S. was not interested. Some of the delay clearly arose from differences between President Reagan and his bureaucracy over embracing abolition; but part of it also stemmed from the Soviet insistence on including the test ban as part of the abolition program even though that was a non-starter both for Reagan and his bureaucracy. So despite the high-level meeting-of-the-minds on nuclear abolition visible in this letter, any breakthrough towards a summit would not come until September.


Document 9: USSR Ministry of Energy, "Regarding the Accident at Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant," Urgent Report to the CC CPSU Politburo, April 26, 1986

Source: Russian State Archive of Contemporary History, Fond 89

This is the first internal Soviet report about the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which became a tragedy and a watershed in Gorbachev's perestroika. The accident reinforced Gorbachev's beliefs in the necessity of abolishing nuclear weapons and his desire to get to a summit with Reagan. Chernobyl also helped Gorbachev crack open the Soviet system of secrecy. For the first time the Soviet authorities provided information about the accident to foreign governments and international bodies.


Document 10: Memorandum from Mikhail Gorbachev to the CC CPSU Politburo on Topical Questions Regarding Collaboration with Socialist Countries, June 26, 1986

Source: Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation

This rare personal memo from Gorbachev to the Politburo addresses the sore question of what to do with the Warsaw Pact and how the alliance should change along with the Soviet reform. Drafted by Georgy Shakhnazarov, the document candidly admits that "Moscow was viewed as a kind of conservative power that hindered reforms;" that the Pact's integration is "sharply behind" that of Western Europe; and that "we continue to be at the commodity exchange stage" in economic relations. "A genuine turning point in the entire system of collaboration with our allies is needed," Gorbachev believes, including "a radical perestroika of the economic cooperation mechanism." An important point is Gorbachev's statement that the USSR should use the force of example rather than the example of force: "[W]e must fulfill this role not through exhortation and especially not through directives, but through ideological-political influence, constructive initiatives to deepen collaboration, [and] the power of our example."


Document 11: Minutes of Gorbachev's Conversation with Mitterrand, Moscow, July 7, 1986

Source: Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation

This conversation takes place in Moscow during Francois Mitterrand's visit. France was the first Western country Gorbachev visited in 1985. On that visit the two leaders developed a warm relationship and found that their thinking on many international issues was similar. Here Gorbachev is very critical, even harsh, on the policies of the Reagan administration, which he believes are driven by the military-industrial complex. Mitterrand, who since their meeting the year before has tried to be an intermediary between Gorbachev and Reagan, has a more positive assessment of U.S. policy but shares Gorbachev's views on U.S. actions in the Third World. This document shows Gorbachev's still very ideological thinking about the United States and its role in the world. That would change in Reykjavik.


Document 12: Last Conversation between Gorbachev and Reagan in Reykjavik, October 12, 1986

Source: Reagan Library FOIA release

This historic conversation is evidence of probably the greatest missed opportunity in U.S.-Soviet relations in the perestroika period. Reagan and Gorbachev discuss elimination of strategic offensive weapons and make a leap of imagination — to complete elimination of nuclear weapons. This was Gorbachev's ultimate goal for the Reykjavik summit, yet he cannot accept Reagan's position that work on SDI would continue. Reagan pleaded with his Russian counterpart to agree on keeping SDI as a "personal favor," but Gorbachev refused. He later described the interaction at the summit in his memoirs as filled with "Shakesperian passions." The idea of nuclear abolition was not acceptable to most of the U.S. administration or the NATO allies, but the great "what if" remains: what would have happened if Gorbachev had simply accepted Reagan's apparently sincere offer to share SDI technology rather than dismissing this as ridiculous when the U.S. would not even share "milking machines." If Gorbachev had "pocketed" Reagan's offer, then the pressure would have been on the U.S. to deliver, in the face of a probable firestorm of opposition from the U.S. military and foreign policy establishment. Working in the opposite direction in favor of the deal would have been overwhelming public support for these dramatic changes, both in the U.S. and in the Soviet Union, and especially in Europe.


Document 13: USSR CC CPSU Politburo session on results of the Reykjavik Summit, October 14, 1986

Source: Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation

In the first Politburo meeting after Reykjavik, Gorbachev reports on the results, starting with a standard ideological criticism of Reagan as a class enemy who showed "extreme primitivism, a caveman outlook and intellectual impotence." He goes on, however, to describe the summit as a breakthrough, marked by the attainment of a new "higher level from which now we have to begin a struggle for the liquidation of and complete ban on nuclear armaments." The Politburo agrees with the assessment and approves the General Secretary's tough posturing.


Document 14: Politburo Session, November 13, 1986

Source: Russian State Archive of Contemporary History, Fond 89

This is the first detailed Politburo discussion of the process and difficulties of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, which includes the testimony of Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev. Akhromeyev admits that the war is not winnable militarily, but at the same time the Soviet Army cannot just retreat and leave its southern border vulnerable. Withdrawal of forces should only be done when there is a stable and friendly government in Afghanistan, the leadership concludes.


Document 15: Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, March 30, 1987

Source: Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation

Gorbachev and Thatcher enjoyed their conversations greatly, and this one was probably the most expressive of all. Thatcher grills Gorbachev on practically every issue of world politics, accusing him of exporting revolutions in the Third World. Of her many assertive statements, one in particular has a great impact on Gorbachev — when Thatcher speaks of the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. Looking at Soviet behavior through Thatcher's eyes seems to have made Gorbachev acutely aware of how threatening Soviet actions in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan looked to Western Europe. He mentions this several times in subsequent Politburo sessions.

The March 1987 meeting includes a forceful delineation of positions on arms control and the role of nuclear weapons. Thatcher also speaks about Soviet conventional superiority in Europe, again emphasizing the perception of threat this has created throughout Europe. Gorbachev would later repeat Thatcher's point in a Politburo discussion of deterrence — which in turn would have a significant impact on the development of the new defensive emphasis in Soviet military doctrine.


Document 16: Text of Yakovlev's Presentation at the CC CPSU Politburo Session, September 28, 1987

Source: State Archive of the Russian Federation, Yakovlev Fond

This presentation to the Politburo comes after the January and June Plenums of the Central Committee, which outlined comprehensive programs of reform of the political (January) and economic (June) system. The presentation also comes after Yakovlev himself has been promoted to full Politburo membership (in charge of ideology). This is the first time he unveils his views on democratization — which he considers at the time to be the most important task of perestroika — to the Politburo.


Document 17:Gorbachev's Gameplan: The Long View [By Robert M. Gates, Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency], November 24, 1987

Source: CIA National Security Archive FOIA request

On the eve of the Washington summit, the top U.S. intelligence analyst on the Soviet Union — Robert M. Gates, then the deputy director of CIA — gets Gorbachev almost completely wrong. In this memo (forwarded by CIA Director William Webster to Vice President Bush and other top officials), Gates predicts that the Soviet reforms are aimed merely at creating a "breathing space" before the resumption of the "further increase in Soviet military power and political influence." Gates misses Soviet recognition that the Stalinist economic system has failed; he incorrectly predicts that Gorbachev will only agree to arms reductions that "protect existing Soviet advantages;" he claims the Soviets are still committed to the protection of their Third World clients (only three months later, Gorbachev would announce the pullout from Afghanistan); and he sees any Gorbachev force reductions as a threat to "Alliance cohesion" rather than a gain for security in Europe. This hard-line assessment of Gorbachev is not shared by President Reagan, who would rescind his "evil empire" rhetoric while standing in Red Square in May 1988.


Document 18: Memorandum of conversation between Gorbachev and Polish Politburo member Jozef Czyrek, September 23, 1988

Source: Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation

This extraordinary conversation provides evidence that Gorbachev changed Moscow's relationship with the Eastern Europeans much earlier than is usually assumed. Here, Polish Politburo member and former Foreign Minister Józef Czyrek has a lengthy discussion with the Soviet leader in Moscow, not asking for his permission but informing him that the Polish communists have decided to start the process of Roundtable negotiations with the opposition, including the Catholic Church and Solidarity. The Polish Politburo discussed opening such negotiations at Czyrek's initiative on August 21, and passed the formal resolution on September 2. According to the Polish transcripts, these discussions did not even mention the Soviet factor, which indicates that by August, probably as the result of Gorbachev's visit to Poland in July, the Polish leadership was not concerned about the possibility that the USSR would resort to force or other outright pressure.

Here, Czyrek respectfully informs Gorbachev about a decision that has already been made. In turn, the Soviet leader treats his visitor not as a supplicant but as a peer. Gorbachev is mainly listening and learning about the situation in Poland. But he also gets involved in the discussion of personnel issues — something he usually avoided — in this case, the consideration of candidates for the position of prime minister. Despite the vice of excessive ambition, Politburo member Mieczysław Rakowski seems to be the best candidate, both agree. (The pattern of this conversation would repeat in Rakowski's own phone call to Gorbachev on August 22, 1989. Contrary to press reports of the time, which would claim that Rakowski had to ask the Soviet leader's permission to allow a Solidarity-led government, the actual discussion would consist of Rakowski informing Gorbachev and the latter agreeing.)

In this conversation, Czyrek tells Gorbachev that the Polish leadership hopes to split the opposition by "co-opt[ing] the banner of Solidarity along with Wałęsa." Thus, the June 1989 elections to the Sejm will allow for opposition candidates while preserving 40 percent of the seats for the ruling party (the PUWP), with the result that the government will be formed with representatives from the opposition. (In fact, after an overwhelming victory, the opposition would form the government.) Gorbachev expresses his full approval for the Roundtable approach and the program of Polish reforms. Czyrek thanks him with the telling phrase, "Poland is your testing ground."


Document 19: Minutes of the CC CPSU Politburo Session, December 27-28, 1988

Source: Russian State Archive of Contemporary History, Fond 89

This December meeting is the first after Gorbachev's return from the United States following his speech to the United Nations, having cut short his travels in order to deal with the results of the disastrous earthquake in Armenia. Gorbachev devotes much time to summaries of the increasingly grave forecasts for his perestroika program by foreign analysts, but then dismisses their seriousness. Part of the context for Gorbachev's lengthy monologues and Shevardnadze's proposals for a "businesslike" withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe is the growing bewilderment of certain military and KGB leaders who were not fully informed in advance about the scale and tempo of Gorbachev's announced unilateral arms cuts. Still, there is no trace of real opposition to Gorbachev's course. The Soviet party leader has learned a lesson from the military's lack of reaction to the previous discussions of "sufficiency," and he is now ramming change down their throats. Ever obedient, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov states, "everyone reacted with understanding," even after Shevardnadze aggressively attacks the military for retrograde thinking, for directly contradicting the U.N. speech, and for proposing only "admissible" openness rather than true glasnost. Ironically, when Shevardnadze and Yegor Ligachev suggest announcing the size of Soviet reductions "publicly," Gorbachev objects: if the Soviet people and party learn how huge the Soviet defense expenditures really are, it will undermine the propaganda effect of his U.N. speech. In yet another call for strategy vis-a-vis Eastern Europe, a conservative Politburo member, Vitaly Vorotnikov, says, "I consider the situation in a number of socialist countries to be so complicated that we should clarify our thinking in one document or another." No such integrated strategy ever appeared.


Document 20: Minutes of CC CPSU Politburo Session "Outcome of the USSR People's Deputies Elections," March 28, 1989

Source: Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation

This weekly Politburo meeting follows the March 26 vote for the USSR's first popularly-elected national Congress of People's Deputies. The discussion features both Gorbachev's positive spin and a thinly veiled sense of shock on the leadership's part. The new super legislature of 2,250 members — elected by 170 million voters — would meet from May 25 through June 9, elect a standing legislature — the new 542-member Supreme Soviet — and become the focus of national and world attention thanks partly to live telecasts spotlighting noted dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov in their extraordinary new roles as elected deputies. At this session, Gorbachev lays claim to achieving the Politburo's goals of advancing democratization and successfully holding free elections. Yet there is a serious discordant note: some 20 per cent of party candidates lost — even with no opposition — including the top party leaders in Moscow and Leningrad. The Leningrad party chief drew only 110,000 votes while 130,000 of his constituents crossed out his name — a practice that would become epidemic in the June Polish elections. And Boris Yeltsin, the reformer bounced by Gorbachev from the Politburo in 1987, won overwhelmingly as Moscow's at-large candidate. As in Poland, the CPSU went into the elections without a sense of how dramatically it had squandered its legitimacy. In the short term, this new reformist Congress would strengthen Gorbachev's agenda; but subsequently it would become a platform for the radical democrats.


Document 21: Gorbachev's address to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, July 6, 1989

Source: Vital Speeches of the Day, vol. 55, Issue 23

This document may be seen as Gorbachev's cri de coeur for Soviet integration into Europe and the strongest expression of his vision of the new Europe. When he charged Zagladin with preparing a draft in early February 1989, he intended this speech to be the equivalent of his December 1988 United Nations address, but aimed at European audiences. In it he lays out the meaning and the intended structure of the "common European home," repeatedly emphasizing that the Soviet Union belongs with the Western democratic community.

Significantly, Gorbachev begins by quoting the French poet and novelist Victor Hugo, who in the 19th century predicted that "all the nations of the continent ... will merge inseparably into a high-level society and form a European brotherhood." The Soviet leader maintains this theme, using phrases such as "European unification" and "co-creation of all nations," which go beyond the simple idea of integration. The speech further links the idea of an integrated Europe with the inadmissibility of the use of force and attempts to limit the sovereignty of states, a vision with wider meaning for the world as Europe should be "seeking to transform international relations in the spirit of humanism, equality and justice by setting an example for democracy and social achievements." Importantly, the transformation of Europe is to be achieved on the basis of European common values and is intended to "make it possible to replace the traditional balance of forces with a balance of interests."

The common European home would be built on four main cornerstones: collective security — ruling out the very possibility of the use or threat of force; economic integration — "the emergence of a vast economic space from the Atlantic to the Urals;" protection of the environment; and humanitarianism — respect for human rights and a community based on laws.

Gorbachev also calls for a summit of signatories of the 1975 Helsinki Accords and hopes to use that model to build a European Community of the 21st century. This summit was eventually held in Paris in November 1990 and produced the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Gorbachev's passionate dream of Europe was eventually overtaken by events in the heart of the continent — Poland had already had elections which brought about the defeat of the communists, and Hungary had begun its Roundtable negotiations leading to a multi-party system. But Germany had not yet moved toward unification, and thus the vision of a Europe without military blocs and borders still sounded quite realistic to its supporters.


Document 22: Minutes of Yakovlev's Conversation with Brzezinski, October 31, 1989

Source: State Archive of the Russian Federation, Yakovlev Fond

The leading Soviet reformer on the Politburo finds surprising agreement on the German question in this meeting with the Polish-American observer, Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom the Soviets had vilified as an enemy of détente when he served as President Carter's national security adviser in the late 1970s. (Cementing his reputation for iconoclasm, Brzezinski would subsequently endorse Ronald Reagan for re-election in 1984.) In a tribute to glasnost, Brzezinski thanks Yakovlev for permitting a ceremonial visit to Katyń, the site of the World War II massacre of Polish officers by Stalin's NKVD, which Soviet propaganda had long blamed on the Nazis.

This frank discussion of the future of Europe features Yakovlev's repeated notion of the mutual dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw Pact versus Brzezinski's argument that the blocs should remain stable, and even the new governments of Poland and Hungary should remain part of the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Like Gorbachev's quotation of Giscard d'Estaing, Yakovlev foresees a Europe with "a common parliament, common affairs and trade relations," along with open borders. He warns against any intervention by the U.S. or Western Europe in the processes underway in the East; and he declares that the lesson of Afghanistan is that "not one Soviet soldier should be in a foreign country with the purpose of conducting warfare." Yakovlev wants the "same understanding" from the American side.

For his part, Brzezinski makes a number of prescient observations, contrasting the state of reform in the USSR (a "rift" between political and economic reform, with the former much further along) to that of China (economic but not political change), predicting that Czechoslovakia would soon follow the path of Poland and Hungary (this would happen only seven weeks later), and warning that any crumbling of the East German regime would soon lead to German unification — a development that "does not correspond to either your or our interests." Here we see the Polish nationalist worried about "the Prussians" and preferring to keep Europe divided into two blocs rather than deal with "one Germany, united and strong." The next day, Gorbachev would compliment Brzezinski for possessing "global brains."


Document 23: Minutes of CC CPSU Politburo Session, November 9, 1989

Source: Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation

On this historic day featuring the breaching of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Politburo pays no attention at all to Eastern Europe. The leadership's regular weekly meeting mentions not a word about the changes in East Germany, but the reason becomes understandable when one realizes that the subject is the even more chilling prospect of the dissolution of the USSR itself. There is a sense of fatalism in the air about the inevitability of the Baltic countries seceding, and even Gorbachev can propose only a media strategy to try to convince the Balts that separating from the USSR will "doom their people to a miserable existence." As he often does, Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov plays the role of the panicked Cassandra: "What we should fear is not the Baltics, but Russia and Ukraine. I smell an overall collapse. And then there will be another government, another leadership of the country, already a different country." This time, his prediction would come true.


Document 24: Transcript of Gorbachev-John Paul II Meeting, Vatican City, December 1, 1989

Source: State Archive of the Russian Federation, Yakovlev Fond

On the way to the Malta summit, Mikhail Gorbachev stops in Vatican City for his historic meeting with Pope John Paul II, the Polish pontiff from Krakow who has been such an inspiration to the Solidarity movement. Only the second time a leader of Russia has met with a pope (the first being the meeting between Tsar Nicholas I and Pope Gregory XVI in 1845), here the Soviet leader and his wife Raisa would hear the Vatican band performing the Internationale first and then the Papal Hymn. In this conversation, the Pope raises concerns about religious freedom in the Soviet Union and the Vatican's relations with various Orthodox and Catholic denominations, while the Soviet leader talks about issues that he plans to discuss with President Bush in Malta, such as the concept of universal human values, particularly objecting to the use of the phrase "Western values" as the basis for world order. Gorbachev describes his vision of Europe and the new world where "universal human values should become the primary goal, while the choice of this or that political system should be left up to the people." That vision would also include a gradual change of structures with respect for human rights and freedom of conscience. The Pope responds that he shares Gorbachev's vision, especially as far as values are concerned — "[i]t would be wrong for someone to claim that changes in Europe and the world should follow the Western model. This goes against my deep convictions. Europe, as a participant in world history, should breathe with two lungs."


Document 25: Gorbachev's Conversation with Jaruzelski, April 13, 1990

Source: Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation

This warm conversation between Gorbachev and the East European leader he respects the most, Polish President Wojciech Jaruzelski, provides an epilogue to the process of change in the relations between the Soviet Union and its socialist allies. Here, Jaruzelski thanks Gorbachev for the way Moscow has received Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, head of the first Solidarity government. The former Polish dictator comments that Mazowiecki is a "realist" who is "pro-West but not anti-Soviet" and that "[h]is positions have solidified as the result of his visit to Moscow. He felt the attention and respect for him from the highest Soviet leadership."

Perhaps the most poignant moment occurs near the end, when Gorbachev summons the specter of the "Romanian version" (the violent overthrow of Ceauşescu) to defend his program. "My innermost aim, the chief strategic goal, is to complete perestroika, the democratization of society, and for once to have a renewal take place in Russia without blood, without civil war." In this conversation, it is clear that Poland has become a testing ground for what would come next in the Soviet Union, just a short while later. By December 1990, Jaruzelski will have lost his position as president and been replaced by Solidarity activist Lech Wałęsa; only a year later, Gorbachev would in turn disappear from the Kremlin along with the red flag of the Soviet Union. But the red stars on the Kremlin towers would remain, likewise the hammer and sickle on the insignia of the Russian airline, Aeroflot; and in Poland, the young — post-communist — politician Aleksander Kwaśniewski, whom Jaruzelski recommends to Gorbachev in this meeting, would replace Wałęsa for his own two terms as president of Poland.


Document 26: Cable from U.S. Embassy Moscow to U.S. Department of State, May 11, 1990

Source: Bush Library FOIA release

This remarkable cable from U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock in Moscow just weeks before the Washington summit describes for the summit planners in Washington the severe "crisis of political power" facing Gorbachev, who seems "less a man in control and more an embattled leader." The cable details the many signs of crisis, which is "of Gorbachev's making, if not of his design" because "[f]ive years of Gorbachev's perestroika have undermined the key institution of political power in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party" without replacing it with any coherent, legitimate governance system. Full of specifics about "the powerful social forces his reforms have unleashed" and prescient about the various possibilities to come, the Matlock cable implicitly signals that Gorbachev would be coming to Washington on the downward arc of his power and his ability to deliver any of the items on the American agenda. In effect, the arms race in reverse that has been on offer from Gorbachev at the previous summits with Presidents Reagan and Bush now will be slowed to a crawl.


Document 27: Memorandum on the Gorbachev Succession, April 10, 1991

Source: CIA National Security Archive FOIA request

On April 10, 1991, David Gompert and Ed Hewitt, who has just replaced Condoleeza Rice on the National Security Council staff, ask the CIA for an analysis of the Gorbachev succession, the actors involved and likely scenarios. The request was probably inspired by a series of fast moving events in Moscow and on the periphery of the USSR. On March 17, the referendum on the new Union treaty was boycotted by six of the 15 republics, Yeltsin asked the Russian parliament for emergency powers in early April, raising his political profile, and Georgian parliamentarians voted for independence. The report opens quite drastically: "The Gorbachev era is effectively over." The scenarios outlined by the report have an eerie resemblance to the actual coup of August 1991. This might be the most prescient of all the CIA analyses of the perestroika years.

The report finds that Gorbachev is likely to be replaced either by the reformers or by the hard-liners, with the latter scenario being the more likely one. The authors point out that "there is no love between Gorbachev and his current allies and they could well move to try to dump him." Then the report lists possible conspirators for such a move - Vice President Yanaev, KGB Chief Kryuchkov and Defense Minister Yazov, among others. The analysis predicts that the "traditionalists" are likely to find a "legal veneer" to remove Gorbachev: "most likely they would present Gorbachev with an ultimatum to comply or face arrest or death." If he agreed, Yanaev would step in as President, and the conspirators would declare a state of emergency and install "some kind of a National Salvation Committee." However, the report concludes that "time is working against the traditionalists." This turns out to be prescient — the August coup followed the process outlined in this report and foundered because the security forces themselves were fractured and the democratic movements gained strength.


Document 28: G-7 Meeting with President Gorbachev, London, July 17, 1991

Source: Bush Library FOIA Release

As John Major puts it in his opening remarks, this is indeed a "historic meeting - the first of its kind." Speaking as President of the Soviet Union to the top club of industrial capitalist nations, Gorbachev presents a detailed outline of economic reform and describes a "crucial political choice" transitioning from one system of values to another. His ultimate priority and the request to the G-7 leaders is the integration of the USSR into the world economic system. The reform cannot succeed without such integration, he says. He implores his counterparts, "let me be frank: will you be well-wishers, onlookers, or active supporters? I'll answer your questions, but [I] want you to answer mine." At this time the new Union treaty is almost completed with nine republics willing to sign. Gorbachev reaffirms his commitment to paying Soviet debts and does not ask for rescheduling - "We accept the rules of the game, but bear great burdens and need solidarity." Solidarity comes in the words of other speakers but there are very few actual commitments to help the Soviet Union out of its predicament.

Alone among the speakers, Mitterrand reminds his colleagues, "the USSR needs serious, sensible assistance." He advises Gorbachev not to move too radically with privatization, but to choose a "middle path," a "happy synthesis between private enterprise and the role of the state." He concludes: "This is not the moment to refuse your interest in integrating yourself in our common history." Other leaders have more questions for Gorbachev, implying that he should move faster toward a market economy. In his reply, the Soviet leader addresses the speed of reform, citing the social factor: "I would like to speed it up, but can't go any faster. Society could not stand it. … Economists like Leontief or Galbraith will always say, 'why have a ministry to move to a market.' But there is no pure, unregulated market economy." Very soon, Russia will try to move to a pure market economy with disastrous results for the society. At the end of the session, Chairman John Major outlines six ways to help the USSR, but the proposal falls far short of what Gorbachev was trying to achieve.


Document 29: Transcript of the First Extraordinary Session of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, August 21, 1991

Source: State Archive of the Russian Federation

This document brings the reader into the halls of the legendary Russian White House, to the extraordinary session of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation at the exact moment of the triumph of the democratic resistance to the August coup. The discussions show the resoluteness of the democratic opposition and the decisive role of the Soviet army, of which key units ultimately disobeyed orders and sided with the democratic forces.


Document 30: Record of Conversation between Bush and Gorbachev, October 29, 1991

Source: Bush Library FOIA release

This is the one-on-one conversation that Gorbachev has been so hoping for. The Presidents start with a discussion of the upcoming Madrid conference, which they agree is "unprecedented" in that the two superpowers worked together to bring representatives of all parties in the Middle East conflict to the negotiating table. In the Middle East, in Yugoslavia, in Cyprus, their joint efforts are producing real results. However, the main issue in this meeting is the Soviet domestic situation and Gorbachev's urgent need for financial aid. Bush expresses his concern about Yeltsin's intentions, and asks his Soviet counterpart a very perceptive question — "[d]oes Yeltsin's Russia want to take over the center?" — which shows his keen understanding of Gorbachev's predicament.

The meeting takes place on the day after Yeltsin makes his key speech to the Russian Supreme Soviet asking for emergency powers to implement radical economic reform. Gorbachev points to earlier republics' reactions to Yeltsin's statement about frontiers and that it stirred "separatist movements and talk about Russian empire." Still, Gorbachev is generally positive about cooperating with Yeltsin and even about his speech (or maybe he just tries to make lemonade out of his lemons). Gorbachev desperately asks his U.S. partner for loans, repeating his plea several times during the conversation. He says he needs $10-$15 billion and emphasizes that [i]f the current crisis escalated than we — you and us — will pay much more later." But Bush and Secretary of State James Baker are not focused on later — the President says that the Congress' concern is in Chicago, not in the Soviet Union, referring to the electoral campaign of the following year. The U.S. is willing to provide only $1.5 billion and even that amount would have to go as agricultural and medical assistance.


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The State Department Kissinger Telcons: The Story of a FOIA Request

January 20, 1977 - Henry Kissinger's last day in office as Secretary of State. He had stored his telephone call transcripts at Vice President Nelson Rockefeller's estate in Westchester County, but on threat of a lawsuit Kissinger deposited them at the Library of Congress. There he had made arrangements to preserve copies of his White House and State Department office files, which would be closed to the public until five years after his death.

March 3, 1980 - The Supreme Court announced its decision on a FOIA lawsuit filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press against Kissinger for copies of telcons created when he was National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. The Court ruled that the FOIA could not be used to recover records that were no longer under executive branch control. The Reporters Committee lacked standing to file the lawsuit and that under federal records laws only the U.S. Government could take legal action to recover the telcons. In his opinion on the case, Justice John Paul Stevens commented that the FOIA was relevant: "the fact that the documents had been removed by the head of the agency shortly before the expiration of his term of office raised an inference that the removal had been motivated by a desire to avoid FOIA disclosure."

January 25, 2001 - On behalf of the National Security Archive, pro bono counsel Lee Rubin and Craig Isenberg (of the Mayer Brown law firm) sent a draft complaint to the State Department and the National Archives arguing that they were in violation of federal records laws by allowing Kissinger to keep records that had been improperly removed from government agencies. During the following months, after meetings between the Archive's lawyers and agency representatives, including Legal Adviser of the State Department William Howard Taft IV, the Bush administration convinced Kissinger to return copies of all of the transcripts.

August 8, 2001: The Department of State announced that it had reached an agreement with Henry Kissinger to turn over copies of his telephone conversation transcripts to the National Archives and the Department of State.

August 10, 2001: The National Security Archive filed a FOIA request with the Department of State for declassification review and release of the Kissinger telcons from his Secretary of State years.

September 21, 2004: The State Department submitted its first substantive response to the Archive's FOIA request. Having broken up the case into sixteen segments, the Department released over 3500 documents in their entirety, excised over 340 and withheld in their entirety another 30. Hundreds of other documents were coordinated with other agencies (CIA, White House, etc.).

October-November 2004: The Archive filed appeals for the excised and exempted documents.

June 6, 2005: In response to the Archive's FOIA appeals, the State Department's Appeal Review Panel released 86 documents in whole or in part, including some of the previously exempted documents.

May 8, 2006: The State Department released 22 documents coordinated with other agencies, some of them excised.

June 11, 2007: The State Department released over 900 coordinated documents in full, excised over 200, and denied in their entirety over 870. Almost all of the denials and many of the excisions were on the basis of the "executive privilege" and/or "predecisional (b) (5) exemptions.

July 7, 2007: The Archive appealed the excisions and denials.

April 14, 2008: The State Department released 76 more coordinated documents, either in whole or in part.

April 24, 2008: The Archive appealed the latest excisions.

November 20, 2013: In response to the Archive's July 2007 appeal, the State Department released 76 documents, most in their entirety.

March 4, 2015: The National Security Archive filed a suit against the State Department challenging the unreasonable delay in processing the nearly 700 telcons denied since 2007.