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Citizen Diplomacy : Russia and the Gorbachev Years (1985-1991)
Rene Wadlow - President, Association of World Citizens - 8-6-13

There is in the Agni Yoga teachings of Helena Roerich to which Raisa Gorbachev was particularly devoted a line which says "Not the new is proclaimed but what is needed for the hour." This idea became a guideline for Mikhail Gorbachev whose "new thinking" was not really new. Many of us had been saying the same thing for years before, but none of us was head of state. His September 1987 address to the UN General Assembly was a clear call for the rule of law both domestically and internationally. He recommended greater use of the International Court of Justice and that all states accept its compulsory jurisdiction. He called upon the permanent members of the Security Council to join in formulating guidelines to help lead the way. This was a renunciation of a sixty-year resistance to the World Court that Maxim Litvinov - though an internationalist - had initiated in 1922 claiming that there could be no impartial arbitrator between the Soviet and the non-Soviet world saying " Only an angel could be impartial in judging Russian affairs."

I had published Gorbachev's statement in the N°3, 1987 issue of Transnational Perspectives convinced that the changes in the Soviet Union were profound and real. Unfortunately, the US State Department took the speech as a propaganda ploy to further embarrass the US over the World Court's Nicaragua litigation. Therefore the US delegation to the UN did everything it could to hinder discussion of giving the World Court a larger role and was successful in stopping any effort to expand compulsory jurisdiction.

Gorbachev did all he could to strengthen the peace-making role of the UN, leading to the successful completion of what had been seemingly endless negotiations at the Palais des Nations in Geneva concerning the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the very difficult negotiations, also in Geneva, between Iraq and Iran to end their war. Progress was also made on the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea (Cambodia) which led to the 1992 Paris Accord.

This combination of de-escalation in tensions and violence in the international area, significant steps in arms control and the democratization of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact states are largely due to the leadership of Gorbachev. His seven years in power has left the world a safer place and Russia a more openly pluralistic society. However, the common ground on which he tried to stand was constantly eroded by forces he could not control, leaving him at the end with no place to stand.

Metta Spencer, Editor of Peace Magazine and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Toronto tells some of this story, especially through interviews with persons in Gorbachev's inner circle as well as other participants of the fast-changing scene. She has continued her interviewing so that persons also reflect on events and trends in post-Gorbachev Russia - the Yeltsin and Putin years. (1)

However, what is most helpful to those of us interested in citizen diplomacy and talks with Soviets on arms control is her account on how discussions with members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences' institutes, especially the USA/Canada Institute of Georgi Arabtov and the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) had an impact on Soviet decision-making. As Spencer notes, Gorbachev's advancement of democracy and peaceful foreign relations was fostered by private conversations with members of international civil society, and especially with those Soviet specialists who became his chief advisors.

The ground for these discussions had started relatively early at the time of N. Khrushchev. The Pugwash meetings in which Joseph Rotblat played an important role started in 1957 and the Dartmouth Conferences led by Norman Cousins and Georgi Arbatov began in 1960. Norman Cousins was a friend from the mid-1950s when we were both in the world federalist movement and protesting against atomic bomb tests in the open atmosphere. I had been for a month with Joseph Rotblat in 1977 in Hiroshima working on the life histories of the people who had survived the A-bomb. Thus with both Cousins and Rotblat, I discussed how such discussions were carried out. I went to Moscow for the first time in 1975 after having chaired the NGOs present at the first NPT Review Conference held a month before. I continued in arms control discussions until the 1987 UN speech of Gorbachev when I became convinced that arms control was no longer "the name of the game" and moved over to dealing with the negotiations of ethnic conflicts just in time to get active on the eve of the Yugoslav conflicts. Thus, I knew some of the people that Metta Spencer interviewed as well as others who came to Geneva at different times, especially for meetings of the disarmament study group - the Palme Commission. Pugwash also had an office in Geneva.

Metta Spencer sets out clearly the core of her book. "Democracy, human rights, and non-violence are rarely re-invented independently by local citizens. Usually they are imported from abroad and spread by personal contacts in international civil society, not by diplomats or rulers. That was the way it happened in the Soviet Union. This book will describe how certain back-channel relationships with foreign peace researchers and activists influenced that country's brief democratization, its foreign policy and its military doctrine." She adds that transnational civil society organizations are most helpful for they create heterogeneous relationships - those that tend to bridge the society's disparate elements. Such relationships inform and strengthen individuals who, in an authoritarian setting face heavy pressures to conform.

While others have also written on citizen diplomacy with the Soviet Union, Metta Spencer's interviews with people well after the events give a sense of necessary distance, of the strengths and weaknesses of movements and individuals. (2).

As I look back on the years of citizen diplomacy through Metta Spencer's fine book, two things stand out for me:

1) In many ways we had more exchanges at a deeper and higher level with the Soviet decision-makers and advisors than with the Americans. It is true that the US diplomats could easily read our articles as they were in English and readily available while in the Soviet Union foreign publications were available on a "need to know" basis, and many people did not know that they existed at all. Spencer underlines the lack of trust in Soviet society and how this lack of trust prevented a free flow of information. I was in Moscow in 1991 for the OSCE conference on human rights (Human Dimension in OSCE vocabulary). This was very shortly after the coup against Gorbachev. There were still broken blocks on the side of the streets that had been set up to prevent tanks from coming into the city from their bases outside of Moscow. I went to talk to a leading scholar in one of the Academy of Sciences institute who had been a key advisor on the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. (He thought it was an error). He suggested that we talk in a park as he knew his office was bugged. As I was living in Geneva and not Washington, I did not try to develop avenues of communication to the US policy makers. In retrospect, it would have been useful to stress with Americans how positive Gorbachev's efforts were and how fragile ethnic/nationalist tensions were making the Soviet Union as I was already working on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

2) The second aspect which stands out for me is what the Soviet citizen diplomacy experiences can tell us about such efforts in other parts of the world. I am currently particularly concerned with the conflicts in Syria where things could get even worse. I was asked by a group of Tunisian lawyers with whom I had been in contact over the changes in Tunisia if I wanted to come to Tunisia to try to do something on the Syrian situation from there. I had to reply that I did not know what to do or from where. The Soviet Union was structured the way they said it was. The key researchers/advisors were in the institutes of the Academy of Sciences - and the School to form Communist Party workers - all in Moscow. There were no doubt Russians in other parts of the country who had ideas and that it would have been nice to meet, but the Soviet government was a Moscow-based structure as far as foreign policy-making was concerned. It takes time and help from someone in the country that you trust to tell you "who is who" with whom to speak and what is going on. I hope that there are civilian diplomats for Syria, but once violence breaks out, it may be too late in the day to be able to do much. For those of us working for non-violence and creative conflict resolution, we need to do more contacting and planning in advance.


(1) Metta Spencer.The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010, 340pp.)

(2) See, listed by date of publication:

Gale Warner and Michael Shuman. Citizen Diplomats: Pathfinders in Soviet-American Relations - And How You

Can Join Them (New York: Continuum, 1987)

David D. Newsom (Ed.). Private Diplomacy with the Soviet Union (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987)

Gale Warner Invisible Threads: Independent Soviets Working for Global Awareness and Social Transformation (Washington, DC: Seven Locks Press, 1991)

Matthew Evangelista Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University press, 1999)


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