Perestroika Began in Prague: Interview with Yevgeny Ambartsumov: Part I

Article excerpt

Yevgeny Ambartsumov served as an adviser to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on issues of reforming foreign relations. He lived in Czechoslovakia (1959-63), where he was an editor of the journal Problems of Peace and Socialism, working alongside several other figures who were to later impact Soviet reforms in the 1980s. After returning to Moscow, he held positions at various Soviet institutions, including the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) and the Institute of Sociology. Ambartsumov already had some notoriety inside the Soviet system for critical thinking on ideology when he was invited to help write the first drafts of Gorbachev's book Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World (first published in 1987). Among those in Gorbachev's inner circle, he was one of the first to openly declare an end to the Brezhnev Doctrine, shortly before the collapse of the Eastern European allied regimes in 1989. He was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation in 1990, and served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Supreme Soviet. He also served in the Presidential Council of President Boris Yeltsin. Ambartsumov then served as Russian ambassador to Mexico (1994-99), where he now lives in retirement. His wife, Nina Ambartsumova, also participated in this interview. The interview was conducted in Russian and Spanish on March 19, 2006 by Fredo Arias-King in Tepozotlan, Mexico. English translation by Viktoria Stepanyuk.

Ambartsumov: I kept my Russian citizenship and my Mexican one as well.

Demokratizatsiya: I believe there is a way to keep both citizenships, unlike before. Though there is a danger that if [leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez] Obrador wins, many of these small liberties will be cancelled. [Editor's note: Felipe Calderon, of the National Action Party, won Mexico's July 2, 2006 presidential election. He is still in office.]

Ambartsumov: I like that he is from the left, because I was always--even though I left the Communist Party in my time--I always considered myself as a leftist, a social democrat.

Demokratizatsiya: But is [Lopez Obrador] a social democrat, or he is just part of the illiberal left?

Ambartsumov: He is not social democratic, but he is on the left, and the main difference is that he is, in contrast to [former Mexican president Carlos] Salinas, for example, a man of the people.

Demokratizatsiya: But he was actually one of Salinas's people before.

Ambartsumov: Once, maybe.

Demokratizatsiya: Yes, he was. I was reading recently how he praised Salinas, in that adulating style common in these regimes. Almost how Leonid Brezhnev would praise [Nikita] Khrushchev before stabbing him in the back.

Ambartsurnova: Like [Eduard] Shevardnadze talked about [Leonid] Brezhnev. He sang praises to Brezhnev, wrote poems, even in Georgian.

Demokratizatsiya: Enough about Mexico. Let's talk about Prague and Soviet politics. You and your interesting circle helped create a new way of thinking in Moscow during Perestroika. Many in this circle coincided in Prague a few years earlier, and maybe the brewing situation there influenced the thinking of those people around the journal Problems of Peace and Socialism. What experiences can you share with us? Why did your circle in Prague later have such an influence on Perestroika?

Ambartsumov: Firstly, from the beginning, it was just a personal story. The thing is that practically everybody who worked on the magazine Problems of Peace and Socialism in Prague went on to take part in Perestroika later.

Ambartsumova: [Aleksei] Rumyantsev was the first, he brought ali those people together.

Ambartsumov: Rumyantsev was the main editor of the journal ...

Ambartsumova: Fredo is interested in why such a group was brought together for Problems of Peace and Socialism.

Ambartsumov: Rumyantsev's personality was quite important, of course. …