35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

The Chernyaev Centennial

Published: May 25, 2021
Briefing Book #764

Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya

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

100th Birthday of Anatoly Sergeyevich marked with latest translated excerpt of his “irreplaceable” diary — the year 1981

Architect of “New Thinking,” champion of glasnost, prolific historian, hero of the end of the Cold War, key source for scholars

Even as Polish Solidarity crisis peaked, Brezhnev "apparently never seriously considered" sending in troops

If Sovietologists got to be a “fly on the wall at the Politburo,” nobody would ever believe this fly

Washington D.C., May 25, 2021 – The National Security Archive marks the 100th anniversary of Anatoly Sergeyevich Chernyaev’s birth with the publication of the first English-language translation of the Chernyaev diary (described as “irreplaceable” by Pulitzer-Prize-winning author David Hoffman) for the year 1981.

The new Chernyaev diary publication is the latest in a series of the Archive’s translations and postings covering not only his extraordinary years from 1986 to 1991 at the right hand of Mikhail Gorbachev as his senior foreign policy adviser, but also Chernyaev’s unusually frank view at the highest levels of the Soviet Union over its last 20 years.

A trained historian, educated at Moscow State University where he then taught for a decade, a combat veteran of what Soviets styled the Great Patriotic War, a deeply literary member of the Moscow intelligentsia, and a high-level Central Committee official, Chernyaev put his most candid thoughts into his diary, written almost daily from 1971 through the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Translated by Anna Melyakova, and edited by Savranskaya, the Chernyaev diary, as David Hoffman has written, “is one of the great internal records of the Gorbachev years, a trove of irreplaceable observations about a turning point in history. There is nothing else quite like it, allowing the reader to sit at Gorbachev's elbow at the time of perestroika and glasnost, experiencing the breakthroughs and setbacks. It is a major contribution to our understanding of this momentous period."

Similarly, Chernyaev’s view of the 1970s and 1980s before he came to work for Gorbachev provides irreplaceable observations about the era of stagnation under Brezhnev, the hopes raised by Andropov and dashed by his illness and death, the reality of life for even a privileged Central Committee apparatchik that would convince him (like Gorbachev) that “we can’t go on living like this.”

Subsequently, Chernyaev helped lead the Gorbachev Foundation into its exemplary role in the 1990s shaming other governments (like the U.S.) for their reflexive secrecy, opening thousands of primary sources to public view, and himself writing multiple books and articles while guiding foreign historians and even lowly graduate students through the vast archival files of the Gorbachev era.

Chernyaev served as the national security adviser to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev from March 1986 through the end of the USSR in December 1991, preparing, participating, and often taking the official Soviet notes at summit meetings with U.S. presidents Reagan and Bush, and with world leaders ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Rajiv Gandhi.

A fount of wisdom about new ways to understand real security and competition in international affairs, Anatoly Sergeyevich drafted and co-authored many of Gorbachev’s most memorable speeches and statements, including the landmark “anti-Fulton” speech at the United Nations in December 1988 that for many observers marked the actual end of the Cold War.

Previously, as a senior member (from 1961) and as deputy director (from 1972 to 1985) of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, Anatoly Sergeyevich played a leading role in the group of experts and consultants on foreign policy on whom Soviet leaders Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko relied for speech drafts, talking points, and ideas about reform.

His diary for 1981, published for the first time in English today, provides remarkable insights into the Brezhnev era at a crucial turning point – the first year of the Reagan administration – and especially into one of the most critical issues of the year, whether or not the Soviet Union would invade Poland to suppress the Solidarity movement, as it had in 1968 to suppress the Prague Spring, or in 1979 to put its favored Communist in charge of Afghanistan.

In perhaps the most remarkable passage from the 1981 diary, he remarks, “if the Sovietologists and Kremlinologists’ fantasy came true and they got to be a fly on the wall at a session of our PB [Politburo], later nobody would ever believe this ‘fly.’ They would think he is fooling them or has lost his mind.”

According to the Chernyaev diary, the year 1981 finds the Soviet Union and its communist leadership at the bottom of the stagnation period, exacerbated by the further decline of its ailing general secretary, Leonid Brezhnev. Chernyaev dutifully documents the total lack of initiative and fresh thinking at the top, where many party officials seem to focus only on the spoils of the office and remaining in their seats. One important exception to the Brezhnev inability to govern and his general “distancing” from decision making is the leader’s strong preference not to intervene militarily in the Polish crisis.

This year had a great potential as the year of the XXVI Communist Party Congress, which convened every five years and was conceived as a celebratory gathering of 5000 party representatives from all parts of the country – and the international communist movement (ICM) – intended to review the domestic and international situation and lay plans for the future. Chernyaev was not invited to the “theoretical” dachas to prepare materials for this congress as he was for the two previous congresses. However, he was, unexpectedly for himself, elected a candidate member of the Central Committee. The congress was uneventful except for quarrels with the foreign communist party representatives. The Politburo decided to award the “good” parties (who did not criticize the invasion of Afghanistan) with the privilege of speaking at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses, and punish the “bad” Eurocommunists, like the Italian Communist Party (PCI), who were critics.

1981 is also the year when Chernyaev turns 60. He feels old and tired, and when reading Dostoyevsky, he exclaims: “My god, I am so old, and Dostoyevsky is so eternal!” During this year, he reads and thinks a lot, and comes to the conclusion that in the USSR literature was becoming the place where real issues were discussed, and where censorship was becoming less severe. Chernyaev remembers how 25 years earlier he was listening to Khrushchev’s report to the XX Congress, where he revealed Stalin’s crimes, and how the country was filled with hopes, “[b]ut the radical changes everyone expected then – the right, the left, and the swamp of the intelligentsia – did not happen.”

In his official capacity, Chernyaev travels to Italy, Spain, Great Britain, and other countries, meets with representatives of the ICM at home and abroad but sees more and more hypocrisy and splits within the movement. Strong and popular parties, such as the Italian Communists and the French socialists, are drifting away from the Soviet Union, whereas small and weak third world parties, who are completely dependent on Soviet support, show their continued allegiance. He writes with disgust about racist attitudes prevailing among many Soviet advisers and specialists working in Africa. He cites his conversation with Karen Brutents, his closest friend at work, who calls the Soviet State Committee for Foreign Economic Relations a “mafia,” who only care about making money for themselves and who “despise black and yellow-skinned people, they treat them as an inferior race.” 

The main tension of 1981, for Chernyaev and all the thinking people in the Soviet leadership, is the ongoing standoff between the Polish communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski and the independent labor union Solidarity. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, many Soviet observers expected the USSR to take forceful action against Poland. Chernyaev is very worried about such a possibility in the first part of the year, citing conversations that implied that Defense Minister Ustinov and Foreign Minister Gromyko might be in favor of such solutions. However, after Brezhnev’s traditional meetings with leaders of socialist countries in Crimea, it became very clear to Chernyaev (who read the memcons) that “Brezhnev is not planning on, and apparently never seriously considered, sending troops to Poland.” On August 10, Brezhnev talks on the phone with Polish leader Stanislaw Kania and tells him: “our relations with Poland will depend on what Poland will become. If it will be socialist – the relations will be internationalist; if it will be capitalist – our state, economic, and political relations will be different.” He said the same to several other socialist leaders, according to Chernyaev. That also meant that Brezhnev could envision a non-socialist Poland. Chernyaev shows great appreciation that even the declining and incompetent Brezhnev had enough sense to say “no” to other socialist leaders, like Ceausescu and Husak, who were trying to push him toward an invasion.


1981 diary English translation



Chernyaev-politician, Chernyaev-historian,
and Chernyaev-humanist.

by Svetlana Savranskaya

Anatoly Sergeyevich Chernayev was an absolutely unique and special person in my personal and professional life. I was very lucky—I got to meet Chernyaev at the exact moment when I was starting to write my Ph. D. dissertation at Emory University. Meetings with Chernyaev, work with him at conferences, conversations in the kitchen over tea and of course all the books, documents and diaries, which he so generously shared, to a large extent formed me as a historian. In a short essay, it is impossible to describe everything that Anatoly Sergeyevich did for me and for all those who are interested in the end of the Cold War; I can only touch on the most important moments and memories.

When I hear the expression “Russian intelligent,” Chernyaev’s image immediately appears in my mind’s eye. For me he was an embodiment of a true intellectual, who cared deeply about Russia and the world, who possessed deep knowledge of and love for literature and art of many countries, who stayed abreast of all the latest debates and remained actively involved in the political and cultural life of his city. A deeply decent, educated and cultivated person with unusual warmth and generosity, he touched those who were around him by the total absence of arrogance and boastfulness about his achievements. Chernyaev was a humanist, a true deep-down liberal, who managed to preserve his internal freedom even in the harsh framework of the surrounding reality. This is the Chernyaev I knew.

I met Anatoly Sergeyevich for the first time in the summer of 1994 when I came to the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow to do research. He struck me with his willingness to give his time to an unknown graduate student; he listened to my questions and arguments, and explained things patiently; he was willing to help me with documents and interview contacts. And there was not a drop of bureaucratic formality in this man. He treated me absolutely seriously, and I was not the only one. Young scholars were coming to the Gorbachev Foundation in order to learn and understand how Gorbachev and his associates hoped to change the world (and later—to learn and understand what an opportunity the world had missed). Chernyaev, a historian by education (we shared the same alma mater—the Moscow State University History Faculty, and even the same department) and by the way of thinking, understood how important it was for the new Russia to learn the real history of perestroika. He, like no one else, understood the importance—moreover, the necessity—of access to documents in order to write this history. Being an open and transparent person himself, he believed in the openness of sources. I know that many of my Russian, American and European researcher-colleagues owe their success to him in great part.

During his six years with Gorbachev, Chernyaev made a significant contribution to changing not only his country, but also the world. In many ways, he was half a step ahead of Gorbachev, in that Chernyaev could imagine and outline in his notes deeper and more radical reforms of Soviet foreign policy and the Soviet political system. Probably those thoughts came to him many times before during the times of deep stagnation, and now they just poured out on paper, and then became part of his and Gorbachev’s program. Just one example of such progressive vision are his proposals for Gorbachev’s meeting with Reagan in Reykjavik. Chernyaev not only supported, but also sometimes nudged, his boss; sometimes he openly expressed his disagreement, especially later, in 1990-1991. He reacted emotionally to the use of force in the Baltics in January 1991, and even wanted to resign, but eventually understood that he was needed where he was. In his memos to Gorbachev, we see a principled position, which argued for a deep democratization of Soviet society and a full integration of the new Soviet Union into Europe. Chernyaev fully shared Gorbachev’s idea of the necessity to build a common European home, where a democratic Soviet Union would become an equal and valued partner. It pained Chernyaev deeply that a common European home has never become a reality, at least not for Russia.

The end of the Cold War and the hopes of building a common European home were actively discussed at a Critical Oral History Conference in May 1998, held at the Musgrove Conference Center on St. Simons Island in Georgia. The National Security Archive organized this conference to provide an opportunity for eyewitnesses and historians to discuss Soviet policy toward Eastern Europe during the years of perestroika. Historians and former decision makers from Russia, the United States and East European countries took part in this conference, telling their side of the story, asking questions of the others, and trying to explain what has been called the “masterpieces of history”—the peaceful revolutions of 1989, which essentially ended the division of Europe and the Cold War itself. None of those who were present at that conference will ever forget Chernyaev's presentations—detailed, deep, analytical—and his often ironic answers to historians' questions. He was simply irresistible.

And in my personal memory, one episode stands out. One afternoon, after the conference sessions, the participants decided to take a walk along a beach. I mentioned that the conference was held in early May, on the Atlantic coast of Georgia. The water temperature was no higher than 64F and it was quite windy. No one dared to enter the water above the knee. But Chernyaev just said that he had not swum in the sea for a long time. He walked into the water and started swimming. So we stood and watched as he, 77 years old at the time, swam and swam in the blue-grey Atlantic waves.

And then someone remembered how in August 1991 in Foros, when the coup plotters put Gorbachev under house arrest and cut his communications, Chernyaev suggested to Gorbachev that he would swim to the mainland to deliver audio recordings from the Soviet leader. The distance was 4 kilometers. Now it became obvious to everybody on that Georgia beach that he could have easily done it. Many years after that swim in 1998, Anatoly Sergeevich told me that it was the last time he swam in the sea, and that he remembered that conference fondly and often thought about it.

I participated in (and organized) several conferences where Chernyaev spoke, and he was always by far the most memorable participant—with his life experience, his talent for formulating his arguments sharply and clearly, for asking insightful questions, and for respecting the opinions of others.

In the beginning of the 2000s, when access to Russian archives became more problematic, the Gorbachev Foundation remained one of the last bastions of openness—and that was to a great extent thanks to Chernyaev. The diaries, which Chernyaev started to write systematically in 1972, are one of the most interesting and revealing sources for study of the end of the Cold War, of Gorbachev’s perestroika, and of the Soviet political system of the 1970-1980s. Anatoly Sergeevich shared excerpts from his diaries generously with researchers and started preparing a Russian edition of the political part of the diaries.

At the National Security Archive, we believed that his diaries are a true world heritage—a unique document that should be available to historians around the world. We offered to translate the diaries into English and to preserve the originals. To our great joy, Chernyaev agreed to donate the handwritten originals of his diaries to the National Security Archive as a free gift for scholars. We are proud to say that today almost no English-language study of the late Soviet period appears without quotations from our translations of Chernyaev's diary.

In my work, I often came to seek Anatoly Sergeevich’s advice. I used to come to the Gorbachev Foundation, sit in his office for a long time, work in the archive, show him drafts of our articles and books, and always asked his opinion about what was happening in Russia. In recent years, especially after he retired, I started to visit him at home. Every time I came to Russia, for work or personal reasons, I went to visit Anatoly Sergeevich. He always told me about new books that he read and old books that he reread and rediscovered. I guess I just don't know a person who would read like Chernyaev—so widely and with such deep pleasure. It seemed that not a single important publication went unnoticed by him. He continued to write, publish articles and books, and be deeply engaged in the heated discussions of the day. His home study amazed me with its abundance of books, photographs, memories, and a certain special warmth and intellectual aura. Every minute of these meetings is dear to my heart.

Chernyaev was deeply concerned about the state of Russia in the beginning of the 21st century. He wrote about it in his book Did Russia Have a Chance? He was very sad that his and Gorbachev's dreams of a new democratic order in Russia and in the world did not materialize, that the use of force still prevails over political solutions in today’s world, and that the new Russia has not found a place for itself in this new world order.

In the early 2000s, Anatoly Sergeevich introduced me to Lyudmila Pavlovna, who was both his muse and his dedicated friend and editor, and to his daughter Anna, who was always very warm and hospitable. Later I got to meet probably his most beloved creature, his dog Yashka, a small affectionate terrier. The last time I came to visit Anatoly Sergeevich, which also turned out to be the last time I saw him, was at the end of September 2016. He was in excellent shape, laughed a lot, joked, and at the end of the long evening walked with me and my husband and co-author Tom Blanton to the door to say goodbye. He was standing there, at the door of the apartment, with Lyudmila Pavlovna and Yashka in her arms. This is how I will always remember him—his wide smile and sparkle in his eyes, telling us to take care of ourselves and come visit soon.

Anatoly Sergeevich Chernyaev was an outstanding political figure, thinker, and simply a very decent and generous person who did so much for those around him.

Svetlana Savranskaya

Director of Russia Programs

The National Security Archive

[a version of this essay was published in My Nazyvali Ego Grafom: Pamyati A.S. Chernyaeva (We Called Him The Earl: In Memory of A.S. Chernyaev), edited by Dmitry Belonogov (Moscow: Lyubimaya Rossiya, 2019)