December 2, 2013

Part II: Trust But Verify: The “woman who ended the Cold War” releases her memoirs

“She is the greatest student I know of the Russian people.”

—Ronald Reagan diary entry, May 20, 1986

“Suzanne Massie’s new book is insightful and downright fascinating. Her story provides a unique insight into one of the most important periods in recent American history — and she was on the spot, not just as a witness but as an important participant. Great story, great book.” 

— Senator Angus King (I-ME)

For her efforts in communicating to the President her crucial insight on Russian culture, history, and religious life, political historian and journalist James Mann has hailed Suzanne Massie as America’s “improbable emissary” who “served as Reagan’s window on the Soviet Union”. In her gripping memoir Trust But Verify: Reagan, Russia and Me, Massie details how, over the course of her meetings with the President, she introduced Reagan to a Russia glaringly absent from his policy briefs and the top-secret notes of his security advisers. She shared with him Russians’ hatred and scorn for the disastrous Soviet system, their dogged refusal to let Stalin and Khrushchev destroy the beleaguered Orthodox Church, and their love for their pre-Soviet national cultural patrimony, especially their poets, playwrights, ballerinas and choralists.

Encouraged by First Lady Nancy Reagan, her husbands closest confidante and adviser, Massie urged the President to use his masterful interpersonal skills to try to connect with Mikhail Gorbachev, the new Soviet General Secretary, on a personal level, teaching him the now famous Russian proverb “Доверяй, но проверяй”(“trust but verify”), which he used to great effect in his meetings with the Soviet leader. Above all else, Massie stressed to Reagan that Russia, as a nation distinct from the officially atheist ideology of its Soviet leaders, was on the brink of an unprecedented religious reawakening. When the Bolsheviks had taken power, she writes, they had attempted to completely destroy all vestiges of religion, considered the chief obstacle to building an ideal socialist state:

“. . . all religion was considered Enemy Number One, but Orthodoxy the most dangerous, to be eradicated with all the ruthlessness they could command. They set out to commit what can only be called a genocide of the Church. In 1918 they began to wage what they called a “war on God.” All manifestations of religion were prohibited as were all Church holidays, even Easter and Christmas. Liturgical music was banned until the mid-1980s. Sunday was made a compulsory work day. . . the word god was always to be spelled in lower case.Thousands of historic churches and all their treasures were destroyed outright. . . Millions of icons were destroyed, broken, or sold abroad along with other treasures of the Church. Multitudes of priests and believers were murdered outright, more imprisoned or sent to labor camps. (136-37).

Despite their efforts to eradicate all religious belief from their envisioned atheistic society, the Soviets were unable to prevent popular resistance. Massie notes that while “this concentrated onslaught against religion and the resistance to it on the part of the population was occasionally reported in our country”, (138) it garnered little national interest, and therefore, became “irrelevant to the formulation of policy on national security or defense. Considering this as well as the secular bent of many of our experts and our media, it was not entirely surprising that the regime succeeded almost completely in convincing the West that religion had ceased to exist in their new socialist society, or that in 1984 our president shared this view.” (138). Yet, despite the Soviet regime’s calculated efforts which led to the deaths of untold millions, they were “unable to extinguish the Orthodox Church in Russia nor its influence on the Russian people.” (138).

Over the course of her sixteen face-to-face meetings with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, phone calls, and letter exchanges, Massie came to develop an immense respect for both the President and First Lady as both private individuals and public personalities. In vivid recollections, she shares how the President treasured his wife’s intelligence, tact, and sound advice as his closest confidante, and how Nancy in turn devoted her energies into protecting him and, valuing Massie’s perspective, ensured that she retained regular access to her husband.

Massie weaves together a gripping story, with poignant insight, heartfelt humor, and precious anecdotes on every page. Her discipline as a historian and journalist comes through in her incisive understanding of the complexities of the human relationships at play, and how the dynamic, personal exchanges between leading political actors were crucial in the end of the Cold War. Through her vivid descriptions of elegant White House parties, her dangerous solo diplomacy missions to Moscow, and fascinating lunches with the President and First Lady, readers come to see Reagan in a new light, as a man of not only wonderful humor and commitment to principle, but as a profoundly insightful leader and faithful Christian who, in the wake of his near-brush with death, saw his foremost duty to push for peace.

More than anything else, Massie notes that Reagan’s greatest strength seems to have been his genuine love for people, which inspired others, in turn, to love him. It was this necessary gift of any great actor which he put to invaluable use on his long-awaited trip to the Soviet Union in 1988:

“In the three days that he had been in Moscow, Reagan had scored a triumph in the Soviet Union greater than any American president. Jack Matlock wrote that “Reagan exhibited a remarkable degree of cultural empathy. While he concentrated on important themes on the American agenda, he did so with the sensitivity to the concerns of ordinary Soviet citizens and praise for the country’s cultural values.” With his warmth and wit, he had captured the imagination of the Russian population. The Russians loved him. Lou Cannon, who was there as a journalist, reported that “eager crowds lined the streets wherever his motorcade passed, cheering and waving.” (346-47)

Reagan, too, was touched by what he had seen and the warm reception of the Russian population, proving the truth of the proverb “Better to see once than to hear a hundred times” that Gorbachev had quoted when he first arrived.” (347)

Reflecting on the palpable warmth with which the Russian people received the American President in Moscow, Massie notes with pride her immense satisfaction in seeing Reagan triumph. She recalls that Gorbachev picked up on what he called Reagan’s tremendous “sensitivity to people”, noting approvingly that this was “an actor’s talent”. (363).

“For me, following the President’s success in Moscow seemed the culmination of our meetings during the previous four years—a little like watching a gifted and brilliant pupil pass the final exam with flying colors. As I studied his schedule and read his speeches, I could see that, as on previous occasions, he had internalized what was useful for him and, in his own inimitable manner, used it masterfully.. . In the end, everyone agreed that the “human factor” had been the most important result of the visit and an important step forward in U.S.-Soviet relations.”(347-48)

What, then, does the “woman who ended the Cold War” have to say of her own role in advising President Reagan during those extraordinary four years? Her assessment of her own role is decidedly modest:

“I believe that my most significant contribution was offering him a deeper understanding of the Russian people, humanizing them so that he no longer viewed them as faceless communists. It was this extraordinary opportunity to share my love for both America and Russia and the effort to bring them to a better relationship with each other as fellow human beings that I am most proud of and grateful for.” (19).

Trust But Verify is not just the story of an author recounting her time as an adviser to the most powerful man in the world, but a primary source work of history at its finest, told through a vibrantly lived narrative, of a woman who was present as the country she had grown to so deeply love began to shake off the shackles of a regime which had brutalized and stifled it for seven decades. The greatest jewel of this extraordinary memoir lies not on its humorous anecdotes or fascinating glimpses into life in the Reagan White House, but in the contribution that the author makes to what I can only hope will be a period of renewed interest in Russia and love for Russians among ordinary Americans.

It was my pleasure to talk with Massie at length on November 20 and 22. In these interviews she expressed her hope that, above all else, her memoir will serve to remind Americans exactly what she taught Reagan almost thirty years ago: that we should never try to understand the Russian people purely through reference to their leaders, and that, above all else, the most important national institution in Russia today, the only one to outlast the Soviet Union, remains the Orthodox Church. It is impossible for anyone hoping to understand Russia to do so without first coming to understand the guiding role the Church played—and continues to play— in forming the country’s national identity.

It is my hope that Massie’s extraordinary memoir will serve not only as excellent pleasure reading, but as a source of inspiration for young Russians and Americans to move past Cold War-era stereotypes which still, far too often, serve to keep us separated from and ignorant of each other. Trust But Verify is an invaluable resource for Americans and Russians alike seeking to bridge the many misunderstandings and prejudices which have accumulated both during, and after, the Cold War. Now more than ever, when Cold War mentalities seem to be returning on both sides at a time of disturbingly poor Russian-American relations, Massie’s book offers much-needed wisdom and invaluable insight for how, at the height of Cold War tensions, American and Soviet leaders worked with dedication to overcome such divisions.

This is Part II of my two-part review for Suzanne Massie’s new memoir Trust But Verify: Reagan, Russia and Me. You may find Part I, which I published on Friday, November 29, by clicking on the link here.

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