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US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR
louis sell
wa shing ton
mo s c ow

US-Soviet Relations and the Collapse of the USSR

lo uis sell

duke university press

durham and london 2016
© 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper ∞
Typeset in Arno Pro by Westchester Publishing Services

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Sell, Louis, [date]–
Title: From Washington to Moscow : U.S.-Soviet relations and
the collapse of the USSR / Louis Sell.
Description: Durham : Duke University Press, 2016. |
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: lccn 2016006457
isbn 978-0-8223-6179-4 (hardcover : alk. paper)
isbn 978-0-8223-6195-4 (pbk. : alk. paper)
isbn 978-0-8223-7400-8 (e-book)
Subjects: lcsh: United States—Foreign relations—Soviet
Union. | Soviet Union—Foreign relations—United States. |
Soviet Union—History—1985–1991. | Soviet Union—
History—1953–1985. Classification: lcc e183.8.s65.s35 2016 |
ddc 327.73047084—dc23
lc record available at
Cover art: US president Ronald Reagan with Soviet general
secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Red Square during the
Moscow Summit, May 31, 1988. © White House Photo /
Alamy Stock Photo.
this book is dedicated to

men and women of goodwill who

served their country on both sides

of the Cold War divide.

content s

1 prologue
Two Treaties, Two Eras
5 chapter  1
First Visit to the USSR: Things Are Not as They Seem
9 chapter  2
Leonid Brezhnev: Power and Stagnation
22 chapter  3
Repression and Resistance
41 chapter  4
The Nixon Years
63 chapter  5
A Tale of Two Cities: Vladivostok and Helsinki
76 chapter  6
The Unhappy Presidency of Jimmy Carter
96 chapter  7
Two Crises and an Olympiad
114 chapter  8
Interregnum: Andropov in Power
128 chapter  9
Ronald Reagan’s First Administration
145 chapter  10
Eagle vs. Bear: US and Soviet Approaches to Strategic Arms Control
165 chapter  11
Mikhail Gorbachev
184 chapter  12
Gorbachev Ascendant
196 chapter  13
New Kid on the Block: Gorbachev Emerges in US-Soviet Relations
213 chapter  14
“I Guess I Should Say Michael”: The Turn in US-Soviet Relations
242 chapter  15
1989: Year of Miracles or Time of Troubles?
270 chapter  16
Stumbling toward Collapse: Gorbachev’s Final Eighteen Months
294 chapter  17
The August Coup
312 chapter  18
Red Star Falling
322 chapter  19
Why Did the USSR Collapse?
339 postscript

351 Notes
383 Bibliography
399 Index
prolo gue • Two Treaties, Two Eras

On a frigid Moscow morning in January 1993, George H. W. Bush and Boris

Yeltsin signed the start II nuclear arms reduction treaty in the Kremlin’s
Vladimir Hall. As I stood with the US and Russian delegations behind the two
presidents, I got that Yogi Berra feeling—“It’s déjà vu all over again.” After a few
minutes, I realized why. In May 1972, Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev had
signed the salt I strategic arms accords on this spot and a famous photograph
showed the US and Soviet delegations standing behind their respective chiefs
on the same Kremlin staircase.
As a newly minted Foreign Ser vice Officer, I had worked in a minor capac-
ity on the 1972 summit and as chief of the political section at the US Embassy
in Moscow I helped in the negotiations of start II. Only twenty-one years
separated the two events, but what changes had occurred. salt I was consid-
ered by many to be a sign that the Soviet Union had attained strategic parity
with the United States. But by 1993, the Soviet Union had disintegrated and
its Communist system had vanished. Inside Yeltsin’s Kremlin, Russian authori-
ties tried hard to maintain the atmosphere of earlier summits but the signing
was a muted affair.
Outside the Kremlin, destitution stalked the streets of the Russian capi-
tal. In one of the glittering but empty food stores along the city’s New Arbat
Street, I had seen Russians scuffling as shopkeepers wheeled in a cart carrying
a few bony scraps of meat. The euphoria which had greeted the end of the
Communist regime had long since disappeared. Yeltsin and hard-line oppo-
nents in the Russian legislature were mired in battles, which only ten months
later would bring tanks into the streets to shell the parliament building. Eco-
nomic reform had brought a sleazy “kiosk economy” to the streets of Moscow.
On almost every corner, impromptu stands, often nothing more than metal
shipping containers, sold a wide range of imported—or more accurately,
smuggled—consumer items not available in Soviet times but now affordable
to only a few.
My purpose in writing this book is to describe how the changes symbolized
by these two events occurred. How did the Soviet Union—seemingly so con-
fident and powerful in 1972—disappear less than twenty years later? Across
history, empires have often vanished and in most cases the causes are relatively
clear: foreign invasion, internal revolution, economic problems, natural catas-
trophe, or the like. Yet none of these obvious causes apply to the collapse of the
USSR, an event which no Sovietologist, myself included, predicted.
Conflict with the external world was built into the Soviet genome, im-
planted via the Marxist-Leninist philosophy of competition between capital-
ism and socialism and the Russian historical experience of foreign invasion
and external conquest. In this book, I will focus on US-Soviet relations across
the final quarter-century of the Cold War and the role that superpower rela-
tionship played in the collapse of the USSR itself.
I also seek to give a flavor of what the US-Soviet relationship, which lay at
the heart of the Cold War confrontation, was actually like for key players.
I have drawn heavily on the accounts of participants on both sides and on
the archival record that I had access to. Where relevant, I also draw on my
own experiences.
This book appears a quarter century after the Soviet collapse, in a time when
tensions in the US-Russian relationship following Putin’s seizure of Crimea,
invasion of eastern Ukraine, and military intervention in Syria have led some
to warn of a renewed Cold War. The Russia of the second decade of the
twenty-first century is not capable of mounting a Soviet-style challenge to
Western interests across the globe. Nevertheless, the corrupt, xenophobic, and
authoritarian Putin regime is a far cry from the Russia that most hoped to see
emerge from the ruins of the failed Soviet experiment.
Understanding how the Cold War ended and why the USSR collapsed is
critical for comprehending how Russia got where it is today. When it is rel-
evant in the narrative, I discuss how developments in the waning years of the
Cold War influenced what came later, but the story of Russia in the years of
Yeltsin and Putin is beyond the scope of this book which ends in 1991, when it
was still possible to be optimistic about the future.
Over the years many people helped me in the research and writing of
this book. I would like to especially single out Dan Caldwell, Distinguished

2 • Prologue
Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University, who read the entire
text and provided encouragement and sound advice throughout this long
project. Many friends and former colleagues discussed with me their par-
ticipation in the events treated in the book or read parts of the manuscript
as it was being written. These include Ambassador Mort Abramowitz, Shaun
Byrnes, Ambassador Jim Collins, Ambassador Bill Courtney, Burton Gerber,
Ambassador Arthur Hartman, A. Ross Johnson, Ambassador Jack Matlock,
Judyt Mandel, Wayne Merry, Ambassador Joe Presel, Bob Pringle, Jonathan
Sanders, Ambassador Thomas Simons, Ambassador Peter Tomsen, and Roman
An indispensable resource for anyone writing on the Cold War is the trove
of US and Soviet documents at the National Security Archive, especially the
collection originating with my late friend in Moscow, General Dmitri Vol-
kogonov. Svetlana Savranskaya and all of the staff were consistently helpful in
assistance with materials. Professor Timothy J. Colton, while serving as direc-
tor of the Harvard Davis Center, allowed me to become an associate and use
its Russian-language library and archival sources. Mark Kramer, of the Davis
Center, allowed me to participate in the Cold War seminar he has led there for
many years, provided advice on access to archival material, and also provided
inspiration through his own writings drawn from his unparalleled knowledge
of Soviet-era archives. Professor James M. Goldgeier and the late James Mil-
lar, of the George Washington University Institute of European, Russian, and
Eurasian studies, allowed me access to the Gelman Library and its collection
of materials covering the Cold War era. I would also like to thank the staff at
Duke University Press for their dedicated care and attention in helping bring
this project to a conclusion.
As an independent scholar with limited resources and living in rural Maine,
I was particularly dependent on “the kindness of librarians,” especially the Uni-
versity of Maine at Farmington, Bowdoin College, and the Maine State Library,
for access through interlibrary loan to books by participants on both sides of
the Cold War divide.
I would also like to thank Waleck Dalpour, the chairman of the Department
of Social Sciences at the University of Maine at Farmington, for the opportu-
nity to teach as an adjunct for a decade. Angela Carter, of the Social Sciences
department, provided countless hours of assistance with research material.
Finally, I wish to thank my undergraduate professors at Franklin and Marshall
College, who taught me the value of a liberal education in developing critical
thinking, writing, and analytical skills—especially Sam Allen, who first showed
me the richness of Russian history and literature, Sol Wank, who opened my

Prologue • 3
eyes to the enduring power of nationalism, and Stanley Michalak, who initiated
me into the complexities of Cold War politics.
And I must conclude by expressing devotion and gratitude to my wife,
Cathey, for the patience she exhibited over the years it took to bring this proj-
ect to conclusion.

4 • Prologue
chap ter  1 • First Visit to the USSR
Things Are Not as They Seem

“Vnimanije!” None of the American college students in the crowded train

stopped at the Finnish border actually understood the Soviet guard’s com-
mand to attention, but his burly presence demanded instant silence.
His next words sent a chill down my spine. Together with one of the female
students in our group on its way to visit Moscow during spring break from a
study-abroad program in Denmark, I was ordered off the train. As we climbed
down from the green Soviet railroad car, I looked back toward the Finnish bor-
der. Only a couple of hundred yards away, it might as well have been the moon,
which in that year of 1967 our two countries were still racing to reach.
Before we left Copenhagen, some of our Danish student friends had told
us of a marvelous way to stretch our travel budget in the USSR. The Soviets,
who basically viewed Western visitors as walking sources of hard currency, en-
forced an artificial exchange rate, making one ruble worth about one dollar.
Outside the USSR, it was possible to buy rubles at a more realistic rate of four
rubles for every dollar.
There was one problem with this scheme. Travelers were forbidden from
bringing rubles into the USSR. I had cleverly conspired to fool the Soviet au-
thorities by hiding the rubles in my sock, while my female friend had—so she
told me—slipped them into her bra.
Walking to the station with the guard behind us, I wondered whether it
was just a coincidence that two of us with illicit rubles had been summoned.
Could I ask to go to the toilet and flush the rubles away? (This I learned later
was presuming too much on Soviet bathroom technology.)
In the station an officer told us that we had improperly filled out our entry
declarations. He slapped the forms onto the counter and pointed to where we
had written our birthdates in the American fashion, with the month first, in-
stead of in the European fashion with the day first, as the form clearly required,
he sternly informed us. After we had filled out new forms, the officer said we
were free to go.1
When I awoke the next morning the train was moving slowly through a
dense evergreen forest, the branches of the trees drooping under a heavy
load of fresh snow. Occasional clearings revealed “Peter and the Wolf ” vil-
lages with tumbledown wooden huts clustered around a hand-cranked well.
In later years, I enjoyed cross-country skiing through the lovely woods that
surround Moscow and I learned to treasure the ramshackle charm of Russian
villages. But few cities show their best side to arriving rail lines and Moscow is
no exception. In the late winter dawn, the villages seemed more squalid than
As the train entered the Moscow outskirts, strings of identical high-rise
apartment buildings reinforced the gloomy impression. Even at a distance,
these unpainted concrete towers seemed shabby and unappealing, surrounded
by mounds of debris and acres of mud and dirty snow. Our train rumbled
slowly past long platforms packed with masses of people on their way to work.
Dressed in shapeless, dark overcoats and jammed tightly one against the other,
there was something unsettling about these crowds. Not many people appear
at their best on the morning commute, but an aura of unhappiness and resig-
nation, together with a dollop of menace, hung over these sallow-faced and
unsmiling throngs.
The Hotel Tourist, flagship of Sputnik, the Soviet youth travel agency,
provided our first exposure to the contrast between the image of the USSR
as a nuclear-armed superpower and the grim reality of daily life. A dingy
multistory building far from the center of town, the Hotel Tourist was
barracks-living at its finest. Each room slept six students and every floor had
one toilet. Bathing was also provided, of course—in the basement was a large,
collective shower. Cleaning and luxuries such as toilet paper were apparently
waiting for the next five-year plan.
Sputnik had allocated three guides to our group. Olga, the leader, was a
heavy-set woman in her thirties, who moved us efficiently through Moscow’s
crowded tourist sites. She was pleasant enough but could be counted on to
deliver the official line on any subject, with a smiling air of “I’ve heard all this
before,” if critical questions were asked. Olga’s two younger female assistants
supported her on any issue that might come up. One evening, talk turned to
the well-publicized trial the previous year of two dissident Soviet authors, An-
drei Sinyavskiy and Yuli Daniel. The discussion continued for some time along

6 • Chapter 1
predictable lines until eventually Olga excused herself, saying she had to go
home to her family.
As soon as the door closed behind Olga, the behavior of the two younger
guides changed. One of them jumped to her feet and cried out in an animated
voice, “Now, show us the latest dances.” Discussion of politics was abandoned
in favor of pop music, film, and life “over there.” Our guides had a deep hunger
for information about how young people lived in the West and did not bother
to conceal their longing for some of the cultural and consumer advantages of
the capitalist system whose flaws they had only recently joined Olga in expos-
ing. It was my first—but far from last—exposure to one of the eternal aspects
of Soviet life—the contrast between “official” and private behavior.
Visits to Moscow State University (mgu) provided another example. Sput-
nik had thoughtfully arranged for us to meet a carefully selected group for a
discussion of every thing the United States was doing wrong in the world,
especially, of course, the war in Vietnam. More revealing insights came after we
joined a group who invited us to their dorm rooms for a party.
I was struck by the difference between the Soviet and the American version
of the late-night student “bull session,” at least in its 1960s variety. For Ameri-
can students of that era, politics was the most important issue. We had discov-
ered that the world, including our own country—perhaps especially our own
country—was full of injustice, and we were the generation that was going to
change that. Soviet students gave the impression of being bored with politics.
The Soviet system was a reality. They didn’t seem to expect or desire any seri-
ous changes, so why bother talking about it? The mgu students shared our
guides’ intense interest in ordinary life in the West. “What job does your father
have, how much money does he make, how many rooms does your family have
to live in, where do you go for vacation?” These were constant questions. For
them, politics was simply part of the landscape.
Eventually one of the Soviet students took me to his dorm room. On the
wall were three posters: Lenin, US president John Kennedy, assassinated four
years previously, and the Beatles. Lenin, he said, was “not a bad guy,” but he was
essentially on the wall for “cover.” JFK was there because he had been a world
leader genuinely striving for peace. But it was the Beatles, he said, who were
his true politics, and he showed me a collection of pirated Beatle recordings.
After a while we were left to our own devices, which turned out to be a
big mistake from the point of view of our official handlers. We found our way
into Moscow’s youth subculture, aided by our Western appearance, the cachet
of being American in Cold War Moscow, and, no doubt, the presence in our
group of several attractive young women.

First Visit to the USSR • 7

For me this experience centers around memories of Svetlana. Darkly beau-
tiful and free-spirited, Sveta was an adventurer and a snob. She was determined
to live her life independently and to the hilt, in the manner of her favorite poet
Lermontov. Her father was a midlevel official in Moscow and, although she
loved her parents and took advantage of his connections in such things as
the purchase of Western clothes, she was indifferent to politics of any sort. The
Soviet system she took as a given. She simply wanted to find her own personal
space within its cracks.
For almost a week we were together every minute, falling deeply, passion-
ately—and hopelessly—in love. On the night before my departure from
Moscow, we considered various schemes of adolescent rebellion. I would not
get on the train leaving Moscow and stay behind with her. We would go to the
American embassy and declare that we wanted to remain together forever. But
in the end we simply said good-bye, divided, as so often happened, by the im-
mense differences of circumstances and systems.
Sveta and I wrote for a couple of years but eventually the correspondence
trailed to an end. Every letter took months to arrive—no doubt delayed by
detours through security authorities on both sides of the Iron Curtain—and
we had our own lives to lead. At the time, I had no expectation of ever return-
ing to the Soviet Union, and I do not believe she wanted to leave her home in
Russia. I never saw Sveta again and I only hope that she ended up as happy in
her choice of a spouse as I have in my own.
What stands out in my mind about that first youthful trip to Moscow was
the way the underlying reality of Soviet life kept breaking through the highly
embellished official version in which the Soviet authorities sought to enfold
us. Things were not always the way they seemed—a lesson that was repeated
on many occasions over the coming decades.2

8 • Chapter 1
note s

Chapter 1: First Visit to the USSR

1. I should add that never again, in six years of living in the USSR and dozens of visits,
did I bring in illicit rubles so, perhaps, the border guard’s lecture did some good.
2. For a description of life at mgu by an American graduate student who was much
more deeply immersed in Russian life and language than I was at the time, see
Moscow Stories, by Loren Graham (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006),
who went on to become one of the foremost American scholars on Soviet science.
When he arrived at mgu Graham found in his room a long list of forbidden activi-
ties, including eating, drinking, singing, rowdy behavior, and keeping pets. Graham
soon discovered that raucous, alcohol-suffused parties occurred almost every
evening, with the Komsomol (Young Communist) activist who was supposed to
enforce the rules usually locking himself in his room. Graham concluded that “this
divergence between official policy and real life was my first lesson that existence
under Soviet ‘totalitarianism’ was not quite as regimented as we in the West were
led to believe.”
On the interest in JFK and the Beatles in late 1960s Russia, see Donald J. Raleigh,
Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2012), a fascinating study of the lives of sixty Soviets who
graduated from two elite English-language high schools specializing in Moscow
and Saratov. Raleigh found that for this generation, JFK and the Beatles occupied a
special place. Despite the tough US-Soviet confrontations of that era, Soviet people
tended to find JFK “irresistible.” As for the Beatles, one of the individuals Raleigh
interviewed said simply, “The Beatles are sacred. . . . We grew up on them.” For this
generation of Soviet youth—the first not to experience war, revolution, or mass
purges—interest in the Beatles was a way of identifying with a larger global youth
culture as well as a first, cautious way of stepping away from the official ideology—
with consequences that became more evident later.