A Brezh­nev Fourth

Mem­o­ries of meet­ing with Soviet leader still vivid

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Hoyt Purvis Hoyt Purvis is an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas. Email him at hpurvis2@cox.net.

Most of us have mem­o­ries and rec­ol­lec­tions we as­so­ciate with the Fourth of July: fam­ily gath­er­ings, fire­works, pic­nics and cook­outs, base­ball, swim­ming, fish­ing, the “Capi­tol Fourth” on the mall in Wash­ing­ton, in per­son or on TV.

I re­mem­ber the bi­cen­ten­nial in 1976 when it rained in Austin, Texas, from dawn to dusk, a steady down­pour, so soggy even sparklers wouldn’t ig­nite. I re­mem­ber as a teenager tak­ing on too much Spring River wa­ter and sun, putting in jeop­ardy an on-time de­par­ture for the Boy Scout jam­boree in Cal­i­for­nia. Hap­pily, I got a last-minute OK from the doc­tor.

I also re­mem­ber years when I found my­self in dis­tant lands on In­de­pen­dence Day, par­tic­u­larly when I served as for­eign/de­fense pol­icy ad­viser to Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Robert Byrd. With Congress nor­mally in re­cess dur­ing the July 4 time pe­riod, he of­ten trav­eled abroad dur­ing that time. Byrd be­lieved the Se­nate needed to re­assert its con­sti­tu­tional role in for­eign pol­icy and thought it im­por­tant for the ma­jor­ity leader to be a sig­nif­i­cant fig­ure in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and na­tional se­cu­rity. There were a num­ber of key is­sues at the time, many of them re­volv­ing around arms con­trol and U.S.-Soviet re­la­tions.

Early on the morn­ing of July 4, 1979, along with Byrd and a State Depart­ment in­ter­preter, I boarded a Soviet air­craft at Moscow, headed to a meet­ing with Soviet Pres­i­dent Leonid Brezh­nev. From the out­side, it looked like any other Soviet plane. How­ever, the in­te­rior was, as Byrd com­mented, very plush, with ev­ery­thing ap­pro­pri­ately cov­ered in bright red. A 90-minute flight took us to Sim­fer­opol in the Crimean re­gion (cur­rently sub­ject of a dis­pute be­tween Ukraine and Rus­sia). Af­ter a brief meet­ing with lo­cal lead­ers we were driven to Brezh­nev’s sum­mer res­i­dence, near Yalta. Brezh­nev had sent his car to take us on the drive through lush coastal moun­tain­sides with stun­ning views of the Black Sea coast­line. As we pro­ceeded to­ward Yalta, it be­came ob­vi­ous that all traf­fic had been stopped in both di­rec­tions. Ab­so­lutely noth­ing was mov­ing be­sides our three-car mo­tor­cade.

In the car with us was Vik­tor Sukho­drev, who re­called hav­ing served as in­ter­preter at U.S.-Soviet sum­mit meet­ings be­gin­ning with Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1961. We talked about Richard Nixon, whom he re­spected, say­ing that Rus­sians, de­spite Nixon’s anti-com­mu­nist back­ground, be­lieved he had been able to im­prove re­la­tions. And the Water­gate scan­dal had lit­tle mean­ing for the Sovi­ets, he said. Along the route, Sukho­drev pointed out some lo­ca­tions where the Big Three (Stalin, Roo­sevelt, Churchill) Yalta meet­ings had taken place in World War II., a re­minder of the long and ar­du­ous diplo­matic ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween our coun­tries.

We ar­rived at Lower Ore­anda, where we would await the meet­ing with Brezh­nev in sev­eral hours. Af­ter lunch, we took an el­e­va­tor down from the high cliffs to the Black Sea beach be­low. We en­joyed the sunny day and for a while sat on a dock dan­gling our feet in the sea. At one point, Byrd, talk­ing more to him­self than to me, asked “Who would ever have thought when I was a boy that I would be spend­ing the Fourth of July be­ing here to meet with the leader of the Soviet Union?” I might have asked the same.

Time came for the Brezh­nev meet­ing and we were taken on a short drive through a heav­ily wooded pine for­est to the com­pound where Brezh­nev was stay­ing. I par­tic­u­larly re­mem­ber that we drove in the op­po­site di­rec­tion of a one-way sign and then rounded a curve and saw Brezh­nev sit­ting in a lawn chair. Af­ter for­mal­i­ties, two hours of back-and­forth dis­cus­sion be­gan in an ad­ja­cent meet­ing fa­cil­ity — fo­cused pri­mar­ily on the pend­ing SALT II arms con­trol treaty. Byrd em­pha­sized that it was es­sen­tial for the Sovi­ets to un­der­stand the im­por­tant role the Se­nate played in the treaty process. And he cited sev­eral ar­eas of con­cern in the treaty that would be prob­lem­atic. We con­cluded with Brezh­nev of­fer­ing a toast to “the oc­ca­sion of Amer­i­can In­de­pen­dence Day.”

Fol­low­ing the meet­ing, we flew back to Moscow, ar­riv­ing at our ho­tel well af­ter mid­night. I recorded some ob­ser­va­tions on the re­mark­able day be­fore doz­ing off. A few hours later the phone in my Sovi­et­skaya Ho­tel room rang. I hadn’t even no­ticed that there was a phone in the room. It was a Soviet diplo­mat I had known in Wash­ing­ton call­ing to tell me my photo — along­side Byrd and op­po­site Brezh­nev — was on the front page of Pravda, the main Soviet news­pa­per.

Al­though the two na­tions ad­hered to the treaty prin­ci­ples, it turned out, that SALT II treaty was side-tracked by other events, with the Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan seal­ing the treaty’s doom. (It should be noted that the Sovi­ets even­tu­ally left Afghanistan, but the United States mil­i­tary has been there al­most 16 years.) There is, of course, no longer a Soviet Union, the Cold War hav­ing ended and com­mu­nism col­lapsed.

How­ever the Rus­sia of to­day is in many re­spects a re­place­ment for the Soviet Union and as a U.S. ad­ver­sary. Rus­sia and Vladimir Putin, its au­thor­i­tar­ian, am­bi­tious and cor­rupt leader, are ma­jor fac­tors in to­day’s for­eign pol­icy and, in­deed, in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. To­day, we are con­cerned not just about strate­gic mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties, but cy­ber-war­fare as well.

Think­ing about all that led me to re­flect on the events of a July Fourth years ago and how things have changed and re­mained the same.

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