Madison Avenue, Moscow: With the Russians at the Summit
December 3, 1985
GENEVA — The Russians called their Mission in Geneva “Madison Avenue, Moscow” and wondered aloud if an American Express card in Raisa Gorbachev’s hand would change the world. The 150 men and women who made up the delegation were the Westernized elite of Moscow’s cultural and scientific communities. They sucked on Marlboros and Salems; many chewed thoughtfully on the tips of designer eyeglasses, others removed their jackets to reveal the Ralph Lauren polo ponies embroidered on the shirts they had selected at Bloomingdale’s while on assignment in New York. When not caught up in the hard-sell of Mikhail Gorbachev and his version of the Soviet Union, they tuned their TV sets to French cartoons, or strolled to the supermarket to load up on corn flakes.
Fully versed in the arithmetic of nuclear death Reagan and Gorbachev had come to Geneva to discuss, the Kremlin account executives also displayed a savvy and sometimes frightening understanding of Patrick Ewing’s rebound average, and what it took to make Raisa a People magazine cover girl. They joked that Gorbachev’s jet was nicknamed Comrade One, quipped about the unfortunate bag ladies who must sleep in Union Square, and — breaking a longstanding Soviet policy of never attacking an American leader personally — cracked gleefully that Ronald Reagan was a bad actor who couldn’t remember the time of day. Representatives from the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada — the Soviet think tank on American policy and culture headed by Georgi Arbatov — wandered Geneva like old divas back under the klieg lights, showing a unique affinity for American public relations; they chatted up morning talk show bookers, described by one Russian as “those cute little women” dispatched by the networks to usher the comrades in gray flannel suits into hastily built sets for transmission back to Americans eating their breakfast.
The Russians stormed Geneva five days before the two leaders arrived, eating, drinking, cajoling, and press releasing their way through the snow-dusted city, telling blue-nosed network reporters about their love affair with America. The Russian public relations exercise was a smash, so effective that it overshadowed the critical issues both sides were to have discussed. Mikhail Gorbachev came to Geneva to field test the weaponry of public relations instead of the weaponry of war. He may not have met Reagan missile for missile, but he beat him badly press event for press event. The ultimate irony of the summit was that the Great communicator was bested at his own game by a former Soviet agricultural minister.
“I’ve seen all this Russian stuff on TV back home for days,” said Patrick Buchanan, the White House’s most hawkish adviser, upon his touchdown in Geneva four days into the Soviet PR blitzkrieg. “They’re not saying anything new. I don’t know why anyone is listening.”
The Russians might not have been saying anything new, but they were saying it in a new way — with style, the cool, familiar televised style that Americans used to consider their own. Although the Soviets never fully understood what they wrought in Geneva, they were generally pleased with the result. The Old Guard of Brezhnev and Chernenko and Andropov had been wrong — not all Americans were congenital scum. There were great Americans — people like David Hartman, Bryant Gumbel, Maria Shriver, and the hungry packs of style reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The Russians plunged head first into media-politics, selling their general secretary like an American president. “Ronald Reagan is used to the image of the Soviets as cheaters who do things behind closed doors,” said Sergey Plekhanov, deputy director of the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada. “Our job here is to show that the image the American public has of us is untrue.”
The White House press corps, who whisked into Geneva wearing baseball caps sweaty with jet lag and toting leatherette gym bags emblazoned with the official White House summit logo, weren’t prepared for the fandango the Russians had to offer. The boys on the bus had come prepared to be disappointed with the Soviet posture toward anything Western, and were shocked to find representatives of the Evil Empire ready, willing, and exceptionally able characters worthy of being quoted. The White House crew had ensconced itself in the Intercontinental Hotel, a $5 cab ride from Madison Avenue Moscow’s headquarters in the International Press Center. The first thing they viewed upon arrival at the Intercontinental was a Broadway marquee flashing WELCOME TO THE SUMMIT and a dove of peace in bright white lights. “The moment I saw that I knew we were in for a show,” chuckled Jon Margolis, who covered the summit for the Chicago Tribune.
In preparing for the summit, the Soviets had to Russianize words and phrases for events that had been alien to their culture in the past. “Press pool” flowed off Russian lips as “prezza poola,” and the Russian translation for the “news blackout” that was in effect for the summit had something to do with draping a dark curtain over a body. “The Soviets are really turning it on for the summit,” observed Bill Eaton, Moscow correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. “It’s really hard to get to these guys back in Moscow, but we’re falling all over them here in Geneva.”
“We were surprised at the extensiveness of the Soviet briefings, and at Gorbachev’s quickness to respond to reporters’ questions,” said Richard Cooper, Los Angeles Times news editor. “It was clearly calculated to serve and advance Soviet interests. I think Reagan had made a conscious decision to give Gorbachev the center stage because in some ways it increased the Soviets commitment to a successful summit. Nonetheless, it made them a critically important source of news and comment in light of the news blackout.”
The Russian PR campaign went to great lengths to script Gorbachev, who arrived in Geneva with a fanfare of accommodation, as a friendly uncle. “Gorby is arriving in a few moments,” said one of the members of the Soviet delegation sent to greet him. The Russians wanted us to like Gorbachev, who, despite his iron teeth, harbored no viceral desire to blow us to kingdom come over Reagan’s intention to orbit a space-based laser weapons system named after a George Lucas movie, the videocassette of which would cost a Muscovite bureaucrat a month’s wages on the blackmarket.
But when it came to Gorbachev’s appetite for chewing on meaty global issues like Soviet troops in Afghanistan, the starving children in the Horn of Africa, and the plight of Jews and other minorities in the Soviet Union, the general secretary, rather than take a fresh view, took a stance that sounded all too familiar. What impressed people here was that Gorbachev ordered his troops to parade his unsavory policies in public with the snap-crackle-pop sophistication and electric energy of Pepsi’s anti-Coke campaign.
“It’s not practical for a Soviet citizen to stand up on a soap box,” roared Soviet jurist Dr. Samuil Zivs, eyebrows flying like a humorless Groucho Marx. Zivs, proud of his role as deputy chairman of the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public, a Kremlin-controlled human rights group, was flown to Geneva to hector American television viewers that Soviet Jews never had it so good. Nobody in the press believed him, of course, but they were amazed when he began dropping bombs on the Reagan administration for its lack of action on federal budget deficit. “I’m shocked by your monetary problems, outraged that people are homeless and out of work in America. You talk of human rights? Bah! When was the last time anyone in your country listened to the street corner critics you say are so important?”
But then Zivs, a big man with a deep voice and the huge, dappled hands of an NFL nose guard, dropped his old style polemics and held court on a bright orange couch next to a coffee stand in the International Press Center. The couch was his domain, and he ruled the area surrounding it with the sharp gaze of a life-long party member who knows he’s the boss. Zivs said that he was willing to discuss anything, so I asked him if he had seen the movie Rambo.
“Rambo,” exclaimed Zivs in a loud whisper, his dark eyes radiating an eager glow. “Did you bring a videocassette with you to Geneva?”
The lengths to which the Russians were willing to go in their attempt to emulate American style was shown in the Battle of the Blondes, a tawdry footnote to the first superpower dialogue in six years. Karna Small, the press spokeswoman for the National Security Council, certainly the most attractive female to take the stage over the course of the summit, sat next to National Security advisor Robert MacFarlane during his briefings at the International Press Center, prompting the Russians to search for a counterpart to perch next to Soviet spokesman Leonard Zamyatin during his own twice-daily press conferences. The Soviets brought out Marina Volotskova, a blonde stenographer at the Soviet Mission to the U.N. and had her look longingly into the televison cameras. The Russians thought this was a great coup, and later privately asked a few reporters if they wanted her phone number back in Moscow.
The Soviet thinking behind the meeting between Reverend Jesse Jackson and Gorbachev showed how the Kremlin intended to portray the American public’s perception of nuclear peace to their people. Jackson traveled to Geneva with the leaders of four antinuclear groups to appeal for a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing and a freeze on new atomic weapons. SANE, Nuclear Freeze, Women for a Meaningful Summit, and Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition presented Gorbachev with petitions signed by 1.25 million Americans urging nuclear disarmament and an adequate solution to the plight of Soviet Jews and other Soviet human rights victims. The tête-à-tête between the two men was big-time news in Moscow, receiving seven minutes on the Soviet evening news show Vremya and a front-page story in Pravda — but the reports, not surprisingly, failed to mention Jackson’s appeal for human rights.
“Gorbachev thinks that the peace movement in the U.S. is significant,” explained Soviet-America watcher Sergey Plekhanov excitedly. “Gorbachev’s populist instincts made him meet with Jackson. He was impressed with Jackson and he thought it was his duty to meet with him because the people he represented were an important part of America and they [the American people] shared the same aspirations.”
But Jackson, who said “good God Almighty, these international waters are treacherous” shortly after he was burned for accepting a bear hug from PLO chairman Yassir Arafat, is a political surfer who roams the world looking for the biggest wave. Although he was playing for a U.S. audience, Jackson neglected to grasp how the Soviets were going to hitch a ride for their own propaganda purposes, and, more important, as a hedge against Reagan. Gorbachev called Jackson a “prominent political leader” because he represented a constituency worthy of stroking in the event of a failed summit. “The meeting between Jackson and Gorbachev was diplomatically risky because Reagan might have taken the time to meet with [Anatoly] Shcharansky’s wife,” a Soviet journalist speculated privately after the summit. “If the summit had been a failure, then Jackson was Gorbachev’s protection. He could say that he was for peace because he met with Jackson.”
The Russians gambled that their encounter with Reverend Jackson wouldn’t become a pilot fish for disaster, and it paid off when Reagan refused to match the Russians by taking a meeting with the wife of Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, or any other of the dozens of Soviet human rights activists who flocked to Geneva like cripples to Lourdes.
The Soviets slickly played the human rights issue to achieve a notable degree of intimacy with the West, particularly in their use of Irina Grivnina, the founder of the now disbanded Moscow Committee to Investigate Psychiatric Abuses. It had taken Grivnina nearly three years to get out of the Soviet Union and she had come to Geneva as a reporter for the Dutch magazine Elseviers only three weeks after being issued an exit visa.
Grivnina is a haggard woman, the result of hard times spent behind Russian bars for editing an underground newspaper critical of the Kremlin’s psycho-gulags. Over the course of the summit, she engaged Soviet spokesmen Leonid Zamyatin, Albert Vlassov, and Vladimir Lomeiko in barbed public exchanges on the plight of Soviet human rights activists being force-fed drugs in Russian hospital wards.
“We have no psychiatric units and our medical examinations follow strict international norms,” Zamyatin said during one of their frequent arguments in the International Press Center. “We are not scared to confront human rights or the Helsinki agreements. I do not know your circle of friends.”
The poor woman, whipped into a frenzy by Zamyatin’s lies and threats to “call the militia” to have her removed, would literally foam at the mouth and shake violently, prompting Soviet diplomat Nikoli Kosolapov to say at one point: “Look! Look for yourself! Do you see how crazy these people you call human rights activists are?”
The Russians (after a praetorian phalanx of KGB guards surrounded her at the Geneva airport so that Gorbachev and his wife would not hear her pleas) asked the Swiss to pull her credentials. They refused, and Grivnina returned to Madison Avenue Moscow for one final battle with foreign ministry spokesman Vladimir Lomeiko. Everyone in the room knew that Grivnina was a ticking time bomb for the Soviets, the only human rights activist willing to risk alienating a press corps utterly charmed with the Russians by wrestling with the Kremlin high command in a forum reserved for questions. Lomeiko spotted Grivnina moments before the briefing began and asked Swiss security police to have her thrown out. Grivnina refused to leave, and the press corps — more interested in asking Lomeiko questions that he never answered — began shouting for her to be removed and pleaded with Lomeiko to stay. Grivnina, gutsy to the end, didn’t budge, forcing Lomeiko to storm out of the room threatening to cancel future briefings.
Madison Avenue Moscow’s queer idea that they could court the West with public forums was suddenly beginning to look insane. They had not counted on predatory characters like Grivnina dominating the scenes they had so carefully sculpted for Geneva. Or so it seemed. Lomeiko, the coolest man in the Soviet camp, turned the confrontation to his advantage by dismissing the incident and holding an impromptu press conference around a small and intimate table in the Situation Room on the third floor of the International Press Center. It was the oldest and most effective trick in American politics. The Soviets had not only learned how to cope deftly with their crazies, but had effectively dismissed, for the moment, the “ridiculous lies” of Soviet human rights activists.
But on one issue, at least, the Soviets seemed ready, even eager, to recant one of their own “ridiculous lies.” Over the past year, the Russians had expressed a hysterical attitude toward the AIDS crisis. Pravda and the labor newspaper Trud had written that AIDS was the result of germ warfare research conducted by the CIA on the east coast. One Trud article claimed that the CIA tested this chemical weapon on poor Haitians and unsuspecting homosexuals. Moscow sneered at any suggestion that AIDS was a disease, and categorically refused to discuss the problem in an international forum.
Robert Kunst, a gay activist from Miami, came to Geneva attempting to change the Soviet’s attitude toward AIDS. Kunst wanted the superpowers to donate $3.6 billion — the price of 20 missiles — to a superfund for AIDS research to be set up under the auspices of the World Health Organization. For three days Kunst stood with a banner in the gray Geneva cold outside Madison Avenue Moscow, waiting patiently for a promised meeting with a Soviet official, a meeting that nobody — not even Kunst — ever thought would take place.
“Kunst and I met over tea for 45 minutes, and I was there as a representative of the Soviet government,” said Dr. Vladimir Federov, a Russian physician who works at the World Health Organization. “I’m aware of the Soviet position in the past, but I’m taking a scientific approach to the problem of AIDS. We’ve yet to have an outbreak of AIDS in the Soviet Union, but it’s time we get together on this serious problem before it becomes out of control.”
Over breakfast in the Hotel de Rhone, Dr. Yevgeniy Velikhov wanted no news of Soviet dissidents either, but, like Dr. Federov, went out on a limb to modify the Soviet headline in another area. Plunging his spoon into a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, the mastermind of the approximately $70 million program to computerize Russia’s schools and the scientist responsible for Moscow’s own star wars research paused between bites to speak glowingly of America and his “friend” Steven Jobs, one of the founders of Apple Computer. “Steven is very smart and represents the entrepreneurial culture,” enthused Velikhov, wiping a wet flake off one of the tigers on his Princeton tie. “The entrepreneurial spirit is not in conflict with Marxist-Leninist thought. General Secretary Gorbachev understands this spirit and is sensitive to it happening in the Soviet Union.”
If a leading Soviet scientist had equated Marxism with entrepreneurship in the past he would most likely have been trucked off to the gulag for rehabilitation. But Velikhov — who signed “From Russia With Love” on U.S. Defense Department booklets that called him “instrumental in the development of advanced ballistic missile defensive systems” — is a Kremlin favorite, the man who first showed Gorbachev how to use an IBM PC. He deals with his love of things American much in the way a newly dry alcoholic deals with booze — with a reluctant longing for something he desires, but knows he can’t have and wishes he didn’t want.
When asked how a nation that keeps its typewriters and copying machines under lock and key will control the free flow of information once the first wave of his 3.5 million computers hits the Soviet Union, Velikhov began speaking of barnyard animals. “We’ve put our first computers to work controlling cows,” said Velikhov. “They are much happier with PCs than people. Our cows don’t worry and they milk better.
“The problem with people and computers is the technomania that occurs once they understand how computers operate,” Velikhov stressed as he boarded a Mercedes limo waiting to whisk him to Madison Avenue Moscow. “Technomania led the U.S. to develop star wars. We must learn to control technomania.”
Controlling technomania, of course, is Soviet code for controlling the information fallout from the computer revolution they so desperately need to ignite if they hope to catch up with Western technology. And that’s the great irony of the Soviet Union, a country that yearns to give its people the tools necessary to compete with America yet remains frightened to allow them the personal freedom necessary for real growth. In a world geared for specialized and upwardly mobile technicians, the Russians are potential losers, and they know it. Kremlin leaders don’t want their people to submit quietly to their collective fate, but they are stone-cold terrified over what could happen if the Soviet people start believing in the Kremlin’s American PR campaign.
The interesting thing is that the Russians, who have always been so blunt and colorless in their posturing toward America, wore the facile suit of marketing with real flair. They did it well, better than they expected, and by the time they left Geneva the world had been presented with a whole new Russia and was left hungry for more.
“America is a fascination for us,” said Julian Semonev, a Russian spy novelist and feature writer who recently took home the annual KGB award for artistic merit. “We disagree with you, but we must learn now to deal with you.” Semonev is a Russian in a class by himself, and his opinions and popular screeds have meaningful reprecussions throughout the Soviet Union. So it was no wonder that Leonid Zamaytin brought Semonev, a crew-cut stump of a man with the countenance of a Hell’s Angel and a striking resemblance to football coach Bum Phillips, out in front of the press at Madison Avenue Moscow to tell the world that the Soviets were concerned with getting out of Afghanistan.
The attention paid to Semonev was pure balm to the Russian ego. Semonev and his cronies were courted by the talk shows like Liz Taylor after her second divorce from Richard Burton. They bullishly defended their presence in Afghanistan, stopping just short of comparing their Afghani debacle to America’s war in Vietnam. “When a country is no longer in a position to defend its revolution,” explained Soviet Justice Minister Alexandre Soukharev, “we move in.”
Although this kind of propaganda was met with predictable cynicism and disbelief, the warmth and friendliness with which the Soviets packaged their spiel seduced the American media. Semonev, and others like him, came away from this experience with a sudden fame that confirmed what they had always wanted to believe: recognition of the fact that the Soviet Union is a major world power, driven by people as fascinating and rare as those in America. The pleasing shock of this long overdue pat on the back made them giddy with pride.
So much pride, in fact, that the Russians were able to joke about the summit. “Is it not significant,” chuckled Vladimir Pakhomov of Komsomolskaya Pravda, “that Gorbachev arrived in the daylight and Reagan arrived in the dead of night?”
They were also able to laugh at the jokes the Western press played on them. At one point some reporters got their hands on a Soviet Press Group press release letterhead and distributed a story that former KGB turncoat Vitaliy Yurchenko had written to Gorbachev urging him “not to sell us out to Reagan.”
“Please beware of the pitfalls placed in your path,” read the bogus letter from Yurchenko, who actually told a Moscow press conference a few days earlier that the CIA had forced him to play golf and get a suntan. “The CIA is everywhere in Geneva. They have been known to kidnap innocent Soviet ballerinas, chess masters, and shepherds, drug them into submission, force them to accept huge sums of money, and, at gun point, make them appear on the Today Show with Jane Pauley.”
With the first salvo of the Soviet PR barrage ended, it is unmistakably clear that Mikhail Gorbachev is not your typical Kremlin boss. Nowhere did the image of Gorbachev as an enlightened manipulator of Western Culture express itself better than at the extraordinary press conference he conducted at the Soviet Mission the day after the summit officially ended. Gorbachev spoke more openly to reporters than any other Soviet leader in history, on issues ranging from spacebased laser beams to radical cuts in strategic and other nuclear weapons. But his most curious, and significant, comment came in a response to the final question of the press conference. Julian Semonev asked Gorbachev if he thought Hollywood might start acting in the spirit of the fireside summit and stop making movies that portray Russians as fiendish warmongers. Gorbachev glowed at the question and his face broke into a huge grin. “Yes,” said the general secretary. “The motion picture industry should start acting in the spirit of Geneva.”
It was a perfect line on which to end the summit. And that statement will just sit there like a heavy hole card in Gorbachev’s hand. How can we have peace while Sylvester Stallone is making millions greasing evil Soviet colonels and computerized boxers on the silver screen?
The summit was no more than a beginning to a new relationship between America and the Soviet Union. All that came out of the two-day meeting were a few harmless and loosely worded agreements that ranged from cultural exchanges to bilateral cooperation on the development of fusion energy sources. But it came as no surprise to the Russians that they were the stars of Geneva. Ronald and Nancy Reagan may have been movie stars, but Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev looked like movie stars.
“What I make of all this is change,” said Pavel Mamaev, a Soviet diplomat who was the ringmaster for the Moscow Circus during its 1976 tour of America. “My country is changing and your country is changing. Hopefully it will all be for the good. Nobody wants to die.
“I woke up last night dreaming about what we accomplished in Geneva,” Mamaev added with a laugh. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages, welcome to the Moscow Circus.” ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 15, 2020