Commentary

Key personal & political events

1983 Sep 8 Th
Thatcher memoirs

Cold War: Chequers Seminar on future of the Soviet Union [memoirs extract]

Document type: Press
Document kind: Memoirs
Venue: Chequers
Source: Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (1993), pp450-53.
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: -
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 1,787 words
Themes: Foreign policy (USSR & successor states)

Reassessing the Soviet Union

[extract from Margaret Thatcher The Downing Street Years, pp450-53]

As 1983 drew on, the Soviets must have begun to realise that their game of manipulation and intimidation would soon be up. European Governments were not prepared to fall into the trap opened by the Soviet proposal of a "nuclear free zone" for Europe. Preparations for the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles went ahead. In March President Reagan announced American plans for a Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) whose technological and financial implications for the USSR were devastating. Then, at the beginning of September the Soviets shot down a South Korean civilian airliner, killing 269 passengers. Not just the callousness but the incompetence of the Soviet regime, which could not even bring itself to apologise, was exposed. The foolish talk, based on a combination of Western wishful thinking and Soviet disinformation, about the cosmopolitan, open minded, cultured Mr Andropov, as a Soviet leader who would make the world a safer place was silenced. Perhaps for the first time since the Second World War, the Soviet Union started to be described, even in liberal Western circles, as sick and on the defensive.

There was a new chill in East West relations. We had entered a dangerous phase. Both Ronald Reagan and I were aware of it. We knew that the strategy of matching the Soviets in military strength and beating them on the battlefield of ideas was succeeding and that it must go on. But we had to win the Cold War without running unnecessary risks in the meantime.

The Cold War itself had never really ended, at least from the Soviet side: there were merely variations of chill. At times, as in Korea and Vietnam, it had been far from cold. But it was always, as I never forgot, a conflict of one system against another. In this sense, the analysis of the communist ideologues was right: ultimately, our two opposing systems were incompatible though, because both sides possessed the means of nuclear destruction, we had to make the adjustments and compromises required to live together. What we in the West had to do now was to learn as much as we could about the people and the system which confronted us and then to have as much contact with those living under that system as was compatible with our continued security. In a cold as in a hot war it pays to know the enemy not least because at some time in the future you may have the opportunity to turn him into a friend.

Such was the thinking which lay behind my decision to arrange a seminar at Chequers on Thursday 8th September 1983 to pick the brains of experts on the Soviet Union. The difficulty of tapping into outside thinking even in our own open democratic system of government shows just why closed totalitarian systems are so sluggish and mediocre. I had been used to wide ranging seminars from our days in Opposition and had always found them stimulating and educative. But instead of the best minds on the Soviet system I now found myself presented with a list of the best minds in the Foreign Office, which was not quite the same thing. I minuted on the original list of suggested participants:

This is not the way I want it. I am not interested in gathering in every Junior Minister, nor everyone who has ever dealt with the subject at the F.O. The F.O. must do their preparation before. I want also some people who have really studied Russia the Russian mind and who have had some experience of living there. More than half the people on the list know less than I do.

Back to the drawing board.

In fact, by the time the seminar went ahead I felt that we did have the right people and some first class papers. The latter covered almost all of the factors we would have to take into account in the years ahead in dealing with the Soviets and their system. We discussed the Soviet economy, its technological inertia and the consequences of that, the impact of religious issues, Soviet military doctrine and expenditure on defence, and the benefits and costs to the Soviet Union of their control over Eastern Europe. The one issue which, in retrospect, we under estimated though it figured briefly was the nationality question, failure to solve which would ultimately lead to the break up of the Soviet Union itself. Perhaps for me the most useful paper was one which described and analysed the power structure of the Soviet state, and which put flesh on the bones of what I had already learnt in Opposition from Robert Conquest.

Of course, the purpose of this seminar was not ultimately academic: it was to provide me with the information on which to shape policy towards the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the months and years ahead. There were always right up to the last days of the Soviet Union two opposite outlooks among the Sovietologists.

At the risk of over simplification, these were as follows. On the one hand, there were those who played down the differences between the Western and Soviet systems and who were generally drawn from political analysis and systems analysis. They were the people who appeared night after night on our television screens analysing the Soviet Union in terms borrowed from liberal democracies. These were the optimists, in search of light at the end of even the longest tunnel, confident that somehow, somewhere, within the Soviet totalitarian system rationality and compromise were about to break out. I remember a remark of Bob Conquest's that the trouble with systems analysis is that if you analyse the systems of a horse and a tiger, you find them pretty much the same: but it would be a great mistake to treat a tiger like a horse. On the other hand, there were those mainly the historians who grasped that totalitarian systems are different in kind, not just degree, from liberal democracies and that approaches relevant to the one are irrelevant to the other. These analysts argued that a totalitarian system generates a different kind of political leader from a democratic one and that the ability of any one individual to change that system is almost negligible.

My own view was much closer to the second than to the first of these analyses, but with one very important difference. I always believed that our Western system would ultimately triumph, if we did not throw our advantages away, because it rested on the unique, almost limitless, creativity and vitality of individuals. Even a system like that of the Soviets, which set out to crush the individual, could never totally succeed in doing so, as was shown by the Solzhenitsyns, Sakharovs, Bukovskys, Ratushinskayas and thousands of other dissidents and refuseniks. This also implied that at some time the right individual could challenge even the system which he had used to attain power. For this reason, unlike many who otherwise shared my approach to the Soviet Union, I was convinced that we must seek out the most likely person in the rising generation of Soviet leaders and then cultivate and sustain him, while recognising the clear limits of our power to do so. That is why those who subsequently considered that I was led astray from my original approach to the Soviet Union because I was dazzled by Mr Gorbachev were wrong. I spotted him because I was searching for someone like him. And I was confident that such a person could exist, even within that totalitarian structure, because I believed that the spirit of the individual could never ultimately be crushed in the Kremlin any more than in the Gulag.

At the time of my Chequers seminar, although as I have explained East/West relations were worsening and would become worse still when the Soviets pulled out of arms control talks in Geneva in response to the stationing of Cruise and Pershing missiles it did seem that there would soon be important changes in the Soviet leadership. Mr Andropov, though he was no liberal, did undoubtedly want to revive the Soviet economy, which was in fact in a far worse state than any of us realised at the time. In order to do this he wanted to cut back bureaucracy and improve efficiency. Although he had inherited a top leadership which he could not instantly change, the high average age of the Politburo would present him with the opportunity of filling vacancies with those amenable to his objectives. There were already doubts about Andropov's health. If he lived for just a few more years, however, it seemed likely that the leadership would pass to a new generation. The two main contenders appeared to be Grigory Romanov and Mikhail Gorbachev. I asked for all the information we had about these two. It was not very much and a good deal was vague and anecdotal. It was soon obvious to me however, that attractive as was the idea of seeing a Romanov back in the Kremlin there would probably be other unpleasant consequences. Romanov as First Secretary of the Communist Party in Leningrad had won a reputation for efficiency but also as a hard line Marxist which, like many of the sort, he combined with an extravagant lifestyle. And I confess that when I read about those priceless crystal glasses from the Hermitage being smashed at the celebration of his daughter's wedding some of the attraction of the name was lost as well.

Of Mr Gorbachev what little we knew seemed modestly encouraging. He was clearly the best educated member of the Politburo, not that anybody would have described this group of elderly soldiers and bureaucrats as intellectuals. He had acquired a reputation for being open minded; but of course this might be just a matter of style. He had risen steadily through the Party under Khruschev, Brezhnev and now Andropov, of whom he was clearly a special protegé; but that might well be a sign of conformity rather than talent. Nevertheless, I heard favourable reports of him from Pierre Trudeau in Canada later that month. I began to take special notice when his name was mentioned in reports on the Soviet Union.