Best Book of the Year: Nixon's Comrades: A Kremlin Note Taker Remembers
I have just finished one of the best books I have read this year and possibly this century - Nixon's Comrades. Nixon was clearly a complex figure and it is difficult to know how history might have portrayed him had Watergate not happened. As I have said in previous blogs he achieved a lot of positive actions the setting up of EPA, supporting the establishment of UNFPA and UNEP. America could have had universal health coverage in 1972 if they had accepted the proposal he put forward - similar to what Obama did in 2008 - 36 years later - bringing China into the family of nations as a UN member. This book also shows the role he played in making the world a little safer.
I grew up during the cold war and the real threat of a nuclear summer. MAD for us was not only a great marvel comic but stood for Mutely Assured Destruction (MAD).
I have always been an a avid reader of political books such as Robert Kennedy's Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Memoirs of Richard Nixon. I had never read a book from the Russian side and I have to say I found it fascinating. To add to this that I knew the author Andrey Vavilov originally as a Russian negotiator as Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia to UNEP and HABITAT in Nairobi from 1995 to 2000,
I had never realized the role he had played in the 1960's and in particular the 1970's as an interpreter and author of the confidential memorandum of conversations at some of the most critical meetings between the US and Russia and in particular between Brezhnev and Nixon. He was sometimes the only other person in the room as Nixon did not trust the US note takers not to leak what they heard so he relied on Andrey and other Russians. The book gives an insight to the people themselves who took part in these critical meetings and in particular what the Russian approach was to these meetings. This continued under Presidents Ford and Carter to try and move us away from a nuclear exchange,
Some of these negotiations were continued as Nixon was dealing with Watergate and Brezhenev's poor health was becoming worse. It is worth reflecting that even thought both leaders were having problems they were able to focus and work together on possibly the most important issues on that time such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) treaties. SALT 1 led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and an interim agreement between the two countries
The book also gives fascinating insights of the supporting characters such as Kissinger(the Russians called him Terminator) and Gromyko and the role they also took.
For a short period the world did have two super powers and they negotiated as such. After Nixon the US returned to an arms race and that did under President Reagan cause the bankruptcy of the USSR trying to keep parity.
The book is full of wonderful quotes I particularly like the one from Andrei Gromyko: "For a diplomat its better to remain silent on a hundred occasions than to say something silly once...Better ten years of negotiations than one day of war." it reminds of John F Kennedy's warning from the early 1960's: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."
In 2013 an opinion poll for the greatest Soviet leader saw Brezhnev top the list with 56%. There is a fond looking back at that era where in the USSR as a time of safe streets, affordable housing, job security and free healthcare and education. Why we can not all have this and democracy I don't know.....
Nixon described the three men facing him across the table in a fascinating way. He described Podgorny as "a Midwestern senator," Kosygin a Communist "aristocrat", and Brezhnev "a big Irish boss" or Chicago "Mayor Daley." It helped me in understanding the people I had little knowledge of. I could start to see these people and understand how they might be approaching the negotiations based on my understanding of US politicians - bizarre .
Finally I strongly recommend this book for those who lived through the cold war but also for those that didn't. this generation should understand what has happened in the past as it often informs the way we should address issues in the future. Nixon's Comrades is only available as a kindle download I hope you have as much enjoyment reading it as I have.
5* a must read book.