Georgi Arbatov: Political scientist whose calming counsel helped bring about the end of the Cold War
Thursday 07 October 2010
In his own estimation, Georgi Arbatov had more to do with the ending of the Cold War than any other Soviet person, Mikhail Gorbachev included. This may seem like extraordinary vanity. Indeed, it was. But I think that his claim was no more than the truth. He was the senior American policy expert, or "Amerikanist", in the Soviet Communist Party in the last 20 years of the Cold War. He was the public face of the Kremlin for a whole generation of television viewers in the United States.
Georgi Arbatov was born in Kherson in southern Ukraine. His father was arrested during the Stalinist purges and was thrown into prison but managed somehow to survive. When Georgi was my guest in the Strangers Dining Room at the House of Commons after he had come to speak to the Parliamentary Labour Party foreign affairs group, he gave at length an indication of his candour, even though he was a lifelong communist.
He told us that the Germans in 1941 had been extremely stupid in relation to the Ukraine: Goering's Luftwaffe had launched brutal and unnecessary bombing, causing injury and havoc among civilian populations in Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa. Hadthe German army, he said, been under the command of an intelligent field marshal such as Von Manstein,Von Reichenau or Rommel, who could discipline his troops and make sure there were no excesses against the population, the whole story might have been different.
Arbatov told us the embarrassing truth: in the first days after the invasion the Germans were welcome among a whole swath of the population of Ukraine. It was the murder and indiscipline that drove many of his generation to enlist in the Russian army. He said movingly that the reason he had devoted his life to understanding between Russia and the West was that he had participated as a young tank commander in the Battle of Kursk. "If you'd been through that – or Stalingrad, or the siege of Leningrad, you would be desperate to do anything to avoid another war," he said.
Arbatov was the close advisor and confidant of five Communist Party general secretaries. After he had graduated post-war from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations he was spotted by his fellow Ukrainian, Nikita Khrushchev. He was also particularly close to Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, who had been the head of security.
Arbatov was involved in the negotiations for arms control and the conduct of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. It helped that he was a close friend of the late Anatoly Dobrynin, who was for a quarter of a century the Soviet ambassador in Washington, and Oleg Tryanovosky, the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations.
Arbatov acted as a go-between for the superpowers at a time when misunderstanding and suspicion could have brimmed over to hot war. With his superb command of the English language he was one of the first Soviet officials to make contact with academics, industrial leaders and those prominent in the life of the United States. He did not confine himself to contact with politicians.
On television he didn't hold back in criticising those in the United States who he thought were unfriendly, but he had the knack of contacting them and making friends. He was vehemently critical of Ronald Reagan for having described the Soviet Union as an evil empire, and went on television to talk about the demonisation and dehumanisation of the Soviet Union and persuaded many Americans to be more temperate than they might otherwise have been.
Arbatov also saw himself as a restraining influence on the Kremlin hawks. Just as he would explain on American television the problems and sometimes extreme attitudes of his colleagues in the Central Committee and of the Politburo, he would go to endless trouble to persuade the hardliners in Moscow that the Americans were not as bad as they might think – and that many Americans, in particular Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Senator Edward Musky of Maine, were basically well-disposed to Russia. Arbatov had not the slightest hesitation in robustly rejecting criticism as he continued to be a loyal communist; time and again he would say that it was much more effective to meet people like him who worked "from the inside, and not from the outside of the system". On the three occasions when I remember him coming to House of Commons groups he was at pains to tell us, "I preserved my honour".
His relations with Gorbachev were complicated. In general terms he was in favour of Gorbachev's efforts to bring democracy to the Soviet Union; he was dismayed, however, by the break-up of the Soviet state, believing that this was not a good development for the world. He believed that there should be two global superpowers, not one.
The last time I met him he was consumed with anger against Boris Yeltsin and the corruption of Russia. He vehemently resented the oligarchs and those who had become wealthy at the expense of the Russian people. When the history of the 20th century comes to be written Georgi Arbatov will have an honourable place as a peacemaker.
Georgi Arkadyevich Arbatov, political scientist and journalist: born Kherson, southern Ukraine 23 March 1923; married Svetlana (one son); died Moscow 1 October 2010.
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