A former Soviet political refuge and ex-senior researcher at the Hudson Institute on why he was disappointed with the West, and why he severed ties with his anti-Soviet past
Our interlocutor is a graduate of the Physics Department at Moscow State University. In 1970 he was sentenced to 6 years in a gulag prison for trying to cross the border using a false identity. He emigrated to the United States In 1979, where he soon became an influential proponent of the hawkish policies of the US Republican Presidents.
Не returned to Russia in 1998.
In an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda editor-at-large and RI special correspondent Alexei Pankin he explains why he abandoned his extremely successful career in the United States and returned to an uncertainty back home.
He has been RI's guest columnist.
This article orginally appeared at Komsomolskaya Pravda. Translated by Elina Whaley
“I can't believe I was involved in all this”
Dmitry Mikheyev’s life trajectory is very similar to the fate of many Soviet dissidents: from a romantic Komsomol member, to an ardent anti-communist, to disillusionment with the West. Yet, very few achieved such high positions on the “other side,” only to break so abruptly with their anti-Soviet past.
We find ourselves sitting comfortably in a cozy apartment amongst a shabby block of flats in the city of Korolev, just outside of Moscow. My host, Dmitry Mikheyev, avidly shares his stories about how he fought with the Soviet regime. No, he did not struggle in the suburbs of Moscow, nor did he struggle in Moscow, passing banned books from hand to hand in the Soviet Union, printed on tissue paper. He fought from inside the elite Hudson Institute, which developed policies toward the Soviet Union for the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He fought them in the corridors of Washington D.C. In the margins of, as they say, various intelligence agencies of the United States of America.
Let's glance through a few of his photos. One, a picture signed by Ronald Reagan himself.
Another photo shows Dmitry Mikheyev and former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger playing a strategic role playing game, imitating Soviet-American nuclear weapons reduction negotiations.
"I was playing as the 'head' of the Soviet delegation, Schlessinger represented the Americans," says Mikheev. The general opinion of the experts, who were observing us, judged that the Soviets had won. Then the best minds of the CIA, the State Department and the administration of the President analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the parties’ positions and their tactics of negotiation.
He shows me a flattering review of Zbigniev Brzezinski on the cover of one of his books. From time to time, Mikheev slaps his forehead and exclaims: “How horrible! Did I really do all this?”
- Dmitry, why did you agree to have this conversation?
I was helping the enemies of the Soviet Union, the Empire of Evil. Then, later in life they began to appear to me as horrors from the deep, of which I had not been aware. It seems inconceivable that I, as naïve as I was, with benevolence and love for the world, my love for people and overall humanitarian inclinations – I was helping people who weren’t humanitarian at all, who didn’t care about freedom and democracy for people in many countries of the world. Now, this weighs heavy on my conscience. When I see that many of our liberals and even Ukrainians are in the same shoes as I was back then… When I see people repeating my mistakes, sharing my past illusions and delusions, I want to explain to them what I had learned through my own experience, the things which I only came to understand through agony, unemployment and rejection, and returning to Russia.
From a Gulag to the White House
In 1970, Mikheyev, a graduate of the Physics Department at Moscow State University, having gone through a series of public and personal dramas, “chose freedom”. In 1970, he attempted to flee to the west using falsified documents. Dmitry’s planned escape ended with him receiving a 6 year prison and labor camp sentence on charges of high treason. After serving his time, he worked as a blue-collar worker in Kiev, and then subsequently expelled along with two hundred other incorrigible dissidents.
In 1980 I found myself in New York. I worked as a watchman at a beer warehouse and wrote articles about American democracy in a Russian newspaper. Apparently, my writing was not without talent, I got noticed by the “Voice of America” and was called in for a job. Soon, I got noticed by the Jamestown Foundation, which patronized political immigrants from Russia and they suggested that I write a book about SDI," recalls Mikheyev
SDI, if anyone remembers, is the Strategic Defense Initiative, with which President Ronald Reagan wanted to defeat the Soviet Union. He promised to create a “protective dome” over America, which would completely neutralize any Soviet missile threats. Put in another way, the Soviet Union would have been defenseless against American missiles. The Kremlin did not want to get caught up in another arms race. Echoes of that conflict still cause heated disputes between Russia and America in regards to placing a missile defense system in Europe.
I wrote a book, which contained three main theses. First, I pointed out the idiocy of the strategy of MAD, 'Mutually Assured Destruction.' Second, as a theoretical physicist, I maintained that the building of such a system was technically possible with the advent of powerful computers. Thus, I challenged the main Soviet counter-argument that such a system is contrary to all physical principles. Third, I argued that the creation of a system for nuclear defense would neutralize the Soviet Union’s missile capability, and thus put an end to Soviet claims of world domination. After the book was published, I became a sort of celebrity among American ultra-conservatives.
- At that time, the SDI was at the center of very fierce debates. There were many people who feared that SDI might undermine strategic stability.
True, I was sent to attend special courses, where I was taught public speaking including mastering the art of gesticulation; then they drove me around the entire country where I strongly denounced supporters of detente before an audience of thousands of people. And then I was contacted by General Daniel Graham, former head of the Department of Defense Intelligence Agency, and then – Reagan’s personal advisor regarding the SDI. After that I received a call from Reagan’s scientific advisor Jay Keyworth, who invited me to work in the Hudson Institute. This was the core of the American neo-conservative establishment. People from the president’s administration came there. People from there were appointed to the president’s administration.
- When did you start sobering up, as you put it now?
Trust me. I was honestly happy with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nothing was holding Russia back from joining the family of democratic nations, from building a market economy and so on. From communications with General William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, who was the head of the Department of Strategic Studies at Hudson, I began to understand that my enthusiasm on this topic was not welcome. He once told me: "Dmitry, I understand your enthusiasm for the new Russia, but we do not share it. Russia will become strong again and continue its imperial policy." I gradually started to realize that they were disappointed with the loss of an enemy. The global American empire needs an enemy to maintain internal consolidation. Islamic terrorism is not the enemy they need. Terrorists are too chaotic, disorganized, always bickering amongst themselves. China was just beginning to develop and presented no real threat. The Soviet Union fell apart and Russia, you know, asked for five billion dollars to survive. They laughed at her, mocked her… "These Russians can’t even handle a few thousand Chechens." The enemy must be great, it must be able to field hundreds of divisions of soldiers in battle at Armageddon. Therefore, I was asked to look for signs of Russian neo-imperialism being revived. You can’t imagine how much effort I had to invest to have my book "Transformed Russia" published, which called for support and partnership with Russia. And then they told me: "Dmitry, we do not need you with such views. Thank you! Good-bye!”
- Just like that?
General Graham loved to repeat: "as long as we’re in one trench, shooting in the same direction, I don’t care what your views are." Very straightforward. But if you somehow change your point of view, the system will sling you out of its ranks. That is, you can keep your accounts on Twitter, write whatever you want on Facebook, even give lectures at universities but there will always be an informational vacuum around you. You will be labeled a loser, as somebody with an ax to grind. You will be reduced to insignificance; all your past accomplishments would be forgotten. I have a letter of reference from Daniel Graham, where he calls me a "national treasure of America." It didn’t help me to find a job. This must be understood by all liberal opposition: as long as you’re needed – they will be there for you. Once you cross the line, you are in a country known as "Oblivion.”
- Judging by your fate and the fate of Russia, which was inspired by Western values in the 1990s and later began to rise from its knees - can we expect then, that the Ukrainians will also eventually come to understand that they are being used and also see the light?
Sure. First, the west won’t give them any significant capital, and if Americans do start shipping their shale gas to Europe, Ukraine will be left with only 10%, which they are supposed to be glad about. Of course, then the Ukrainians will sooner or later realize that they are being used. But the fact is that after they have destroyed everything, after the country has split into separate parts – it will be incredibly difficult for them to recover. I am afraid that a permanent state of decay will exist similar to Romania after the overthrow of Ceausescu. It appears to me that they do not have any sort of pole to lean on. Perhaps, it is their lack of experience in running an independent state.
Russia Designated As The Enemy Again
- Judging by current events, the United States has managed to find an enemy in the face of Russia.
And I can even say, when the search for that enemy came to an end: during Putin's speech in Munich in February, 2007. I watched the video of this conference many times. The representatives of the American establishment sat in the front row. I met some of them in person. So, when Putin stated very softly, very delicately, that the time of American dominance had ended, a very curious expression flashed on the face of one of the most influential people in America, Robert Gates, director of the CIA under Bush Jr. and Defense Minister under Barack Obama. On the one hand, I saw he was puzzled - how could it be that someone has publicly challenged American hegemony? And at the same time, I saw relief on his face, the true enemy had eventually come out into the light.
And since then, life in America has become more relaxing and comfortable. You know, they live in a black-and-white world: there is good and evil, with US or against THEM. There’s no third way. The existence of large "gray areas" gives them trouble.
- What is goodness for Americans?
You know we all look at the world through one lens or another. Let’s assume that the American lens is triangular. Looking through it heavily distorts reality. Russia’s lens is round, it also gives some distortion around the periphery but in general, it provides a much better approximation of the real world. The three sides of American lens are: racism, puritan fundamentalism and the notion of exceptionalism. American Racism is certainly not everyday racism, but a deeply rooted idea in the psychology of the American establishment about the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race, which has been around for 400 years. Protestantism for them, in simple terms, seems to express the will of God better than other Christian denominations like Catholic or Orthodox do. So, we, the Slavs and Orthodox Christians, in their hierarchy are placed much lower, although higher than Muslims. Exceptionalism is the idea that they were chosen by God and Nature, that they have the exclusive right to civilize other nations and bless them by imposing the American way of life on them. You won’t read about it in books, but believe me - it is rooted in the subconscious of a few percent of the people who run American policy. And the fundamental challenge in relations with the United States is not that we have to prove we are right regarding some issues but to get them to look at the world not through their triangular lens, but through a round one.
"Our leaders are exorbidantly courteous”
- I think part of the problem regarding relations with the US is that they practically live on an island. That is, that the chaos is somewhere out there and it does not concern them that much. The best way to turn their triangular lens into a round one would be, if in the neutral waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, some three of our missile submarines surfaced undetected, hung around there as long as they needed to fire a volley and then peacefully sail back home. So that the Americans realize, that if they continue to sow death and chaos in the Ukraine or attempt the same tactics in Russia, there will be consequences.
Are you sure you want to have this idea published? After all, you will be bullied, called a hawk and a warmonger ...
- I am sure.
Then I would say, first, that I am glad that they failed to build an effective SDI system, which could leave Russia without weapons of deterrence and retaliation. Second, Russia should cultivate an image of itself as a strong opponent, who they know they can’t bend. They will libel her, they will denounce her as a servant of the devil, but they will respect her. I do not know about demonstrating submarine ICBMs, but the American elite know and ordinary Americans are worthy of reminding that it was Russia who defeated the top three European armies of their time – the armies of Charles XII, of Napoleon and those of Hitler.
- I do not think the US-Russia relationship will get much worse, but let's imagine how events could develop going forward. Let’s see, they have declared a bevy of sanctions but they’re not effective. They have built dozens of military bases around Russia, what next… go to war with Russia?
The Anglo-Saxons are the greatest pragmatists. They have a principle: If you cannot beat them, join them. Russia needs to remain firm, calm and confident. Then they will reach a certain limit and ask themselves: So what? We quarreled with Russia, we didn’t get Ukraine. Our allies, France and Germany, if they don’t revolt, they will quietly sabotage our anti-Russian policy. And then the mechanism of American democracy will start working. The Republicans will say that Obama is to blame for everything and the next administration will offer Russia a new “real” reset and begin to negotiate seriously.
- You advised Americans on how to deal how with the Soviet Union. Give us some advice on how to behave with the Americans.
For a start, I believe our leaders are too polite. In public appearances they must express themselves more sharply; they mustn’t hesitate to get personal. I would suggest watching more American westerns. Remember Clint Eastwood? This is the style of communication that Americans understand and respect. This style is inherent in their cultural code regardless of their social origin, color or religion.