Larry Napper, a distinguished American diplomat who led the State Department's Office of Soviet Union Affairs and later worked as an ambassador to the CIS countries, spoke with Gazeta.ru about Russian nostalgia for the Soviet Union, the future of the “Russian world” and the conflict in Ukraine.
Discussions about the downfall of the Soviet Union in Russia seem to be more popular than ever. There are those who say there were no clues to foretell the collapse of the regime. In the 1980s you served as Chief of the Foreign Affairs Unit of the Political Section. Did you have any intelligence on the imminent break-up of the USSR?
It depends on which time period you’re making a reference to. Speaking about the ‘70s and ‘80s, I believe few people could imagine what would happen to the USSR. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Gorbachev was still able to patch up the country, but the signs of strain were becoming visible.
What concerned us was the idea that if the USSR was to go down, would the transition of power in Russia and other Soviet republics be peaceful? How would it reflect on the United States if someone disagreeable seized control of the nuclear weapons?
Long story short, the situation at the time was completely uncertain. By 1989-1991 talks centred entirely around whether the USSR could stay afloat.
Russian President Vladimir Putin once said that the collapse of the Union had been the biggest political disaster of modern history. Would you agree?
With all due respect to Vladimir Putin, whom I admire greatly, I cannot sympathise with this sentiment. Only a few people in Russia or other parts of the USSR at the time would agree that freeing themselves of the communist system was a disaster. After all, communism was forced on Russia in 1917 by the West. It simply ran its course.
The Russian government considers itself a successor to the Soviet Union…
I would like to slightly correct you here. Russia is a successor to the USSR in some aspects, like legal matters concerning a number of treaties. In 1991, its foreign partners agreed that it would be better to treat Russia as the USSR’s successor. Russia even retained the veto power at the UN Security Council. It was also the successor in the agreement on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which was signed with the United States in 1987. In other words, Russia inherited a number of legal commitments of the Soviet Union.
But if you mean the successor to the Soviet imperial legacy, I disagree.
In fact, I see little resemblance between Russia and the Soviet Union of my youth. In today’s world Russia maintains many diplomatic relations, and good ones too, including with former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan, even the Baltic states and Ukraine, despite the obvious disagreements. At the same time, the US also maintains good relations with those countries.
Therefore, the idea of restoring the old empire is impractical.
What are the key differences of the two political systems?
I’ll give you a couple. The USSR, which I knew, spread a communist ideology, founded on the principle of conflict with the West. This conflict was to last until one of the parties fell.
That prevented the Soviet Union from building a constructive dialogue with the West. There was some communication, but in very limited areas – for example, international security. These contacts were essential to guarantee an acceptable coexistence of the two sides.
Now, certainly, everything has changed. I doubt that reviving Lenin's ideas, which pitted the USSR against the West, can be achieved. Despite the difference of opinion between Vladimir Putin and the American government, everything has a solution. There is a number of issues that we’re working on successfully.
The times when countries pushed their ideological agendas into relations have passed. In this sense, cooperation between the countries is more stable than during the Soviet era. Back in the day, the main objective was to fight the West until the last breath.
Another major difference between the USSR and Russia is repressions. The USSR resorted to a monstrously repressive approach towards its own people. You know about this quite well. The Gulag, for example, the main Soviet forced labour camp systems, where millions of people perished.
I do not think in modern Russia you could experience anything similar. I see no patterns that could put us back on the tracks of Soviet ideas.
What do you make of the nostalgia for the Soviet Union, which Russia is increasingly tapping into these days? How can you explain it?
I will say this. As you can see, President Putin has taken a strong view on Russia’s political system. This might cause misunderstanding among some Russians who would opt for a more comprehensive and competitive political system in the country.
Some of Russia’s foreign partners would like the same. They want to see Russia equally open to other political parties with equal rights, free media, and the opposition that could register and compete with the ruling power. And I personally sympathise with some of these ideas.
The ongoing Ukraine crisis has greatly altered the post-Soviet space and spawned the ideology of the “Russian world.” Do you think that this ideology and the nostalgia for the Soviet Union can coalesce into one connected whole?
The Ukraine issue is where the United States and Russia do not see eye to eye. I think there are ways to solve these problems, given the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
As for the “Russian world,” I am not a philosopher, I don't have a deep understanding of what lies behind this Eurasian concept. Russian culture and language are some of the greatest gifts to humankind. “Russianness” is admired by many people around the world and conjures up a well-deserved pride in the Russian people.
But this does not mean that the Russian idea cannot co-exist with other ideas in the post-Soviet world. Russia and its citizens will have to cooperate with other countries and peoples. National ideas are also prevalent in Ukraine and Latvia, where I lived and worked for three years. I can say only one thing: let’s not turn national ideas into a basis for conflict.
Interviewed by Ilya Kryuchkov, Daria Zorile