Georgi Arbatov, the eminent grise of the Soviet foreign policy apparatus, was waiting for me at the bus stop an hour out of Moscow. A little bowed at 84, he grabbed me by one arm and leaned on his homemade walking stick cut from a nearby birch and led me to a small, shabby block of flats, paint peeling in the entrance, a year's dust and leaves on the staircase. Like his mentor, Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief and later head of the Soviet Union, Arbatov has always shunned many of the perks of the apparatchiks, content with a modest flat in the city and this dacha in the countryside.
We talked as we did 30 years ago, at great length, over vodka, coffee, cucumber, and beetroot. The advisor to every Soviet president from Leonid Brezhnev to Mikhail Gorbachev remains as lucid as he was when he told me in November, 1978, that if the West pursued its relationship of growing closer to China on “an anti Soviet basis,” turning China “into some sort of military ally to the West… then there is no place for détente…. What sense would it make for us to agree to reduce armaments in Europe if armaments are simply to be channeled by the West to the Eastern front?”.
The full-page interview—which ran first in the International Herald Tribune and later in many other papers—caused an enormous stir. It was the first time a senior Soviet official had talked at length to a Western journalist on the record, without notes, and answered every question put to him in an easy, conversational manner. Edward Crankshaw, the distinguished Sovietologist, writing in the London Observer, described it as “the most interesting thing to come out of official Moscow since the fall of Khrushchev fourteen years ago.” It was the cover story in The Economist.
This time, if less threatening, he seemed just as preoccupied with the way Western-Russian relations were headed. “We have not yet returned to the Cold War. But we can get into one,” he said quietly. “The danger looms over us. Two years ago it was impossible to think of this. Now it is possible.”
We began our talk with Stalin. Like Arbatov, I am convinced the inbuilt hostility of much of the Western foreign policy elite towards the Soviet Union and later russia has its foundations in a false reading of Moscow's post–World War II territorial ambitions. To understand today's deteriorating relationship we have no choice but to begin there.