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Gorbachev Calls Cheney a "Durak" (fool, idiot)

by Walter C. Uhler Friday, Jun. 02, 2006 at 12:03 PM

It was Friday evening, May 19, 2006. My spouse (Carol DePrisco) and I were dining at Barron - the house restaurant of St. Petersburg's recently refurbished Petro Palace Hotel (located on Malaya Morskaya street, just one block east of St. Issac's Cathedral and two blocks west of bustling Nevsky Prospect). We were dining with a retired professor of English from St. Petersburg State University. At the very outset of our conversation, the professor inquired: "You are not a Republican, are you?" I assured her I wasn't, thus breaking the ice for a very pleasant and engaging conversation during dinner and afterward in our spacious hotel suite.

Nevertheless, she was quite astounded by my immense admiration for Mikhail Gorbachev, disdain for Boris Yeltsin and concern about Vladimir Putin. Because Gorbachev leaves her cold, the most she was willing to concede was that each of the three was the appropriate ruler for his time. Yet, by evening's end, our guest grudgingly conceded: "You'll be a satisfactory President [of the Russian-American International Studies Association], if only because you occasionally say something good about one or more of Russia's leaders -- and because you don't like Bush."

Many Russians, you see, don't care much for Americans these days. Like most of the rest of the world, many Russians especially despise the Bush administration for its invasion of Iraq and for its "arrogance." How do I know? I know, because this growing dislike was much discussed at the 15th Annual Russian-American Seminar, held at St. Petersburg State University during May 16-23, 2006. (I served as cochairman of the seminar.)

During his May 16th keynote speech to our seminar, Mikhail Gorbachev claimed that it was not totally correct to assert that the Russian people have a negative view of America. But he added: "The growth of anti-American sentiment is a fact."

Moreover, a subsequent seminar paper examined Russians' Internet chats about the United States. To nobody's surprise, the data revealed that the least educated Russians - those demonstrating poor or unsophisticated Russian language skills - most frequently and most intensely despised the United States. Although weak on details, the study concluded that approximately 75% of these uneducated Russians criticized America's invasion of Iraq. Another 25% emphasized America's arrogance.

Due to their size and xenophobia, the uneducated masses dwarf the small minority of Russians, who not only are knowledgeable about world affairs and America, but who also travel abroad. Moreover, they have much in common with the large (if dwindling) numbers of ill-read, ill-traveled, xenophobic Americans who still steadfastly support President Bush's illegal, immoral war in Iraq. Which is to say that Russian nationalism is as readily subject to manipulation as was post 9/11 American nationalism during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. That's not good news, especially when considering the recent unflattering allusion to the Bush administration made by the immensely popular President Putin on May 10, 2006.

Putin asserted: "We also need to build our home and make it strong and well protected. We see, after all, what is going on in the world. The wolf knows whom to eat, as the saying goes. It knows whom to eat and is not about to listen to anyone it seems.

How quickly all the pathos of the need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside the moment the need to realize one's own interests comes to the fore. In the name of one's own interests, everything is possible, it turns out, and there are no limits."

Putin's words constituted Russia's official response to statements made a week earlier in Vilnius, Lithuania by Vice President Cheney. Mr. Cheney called on Russia to cease its attempts to reverse the democratic gains of the past decade, to cease using gas and oil exports as "tools of intimidation or blackmail," and to "return to democratic reform." It comforted few Russians to hear Cheney assert: "None of us believe that Russia is fated to become an enemy."

In fact, many Russians were furious. Even before Putin's speech, the Kremlin described Cheney's speech as "completely incomprehensible. Mikhail Zygar, writing in Kommersant, called it the "sharpest attack on Russia an American leader has made since the end of the Cold War." Mr. Zygnar also saw parallels between Cheney's diatribe and Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtin" speech, delivered in Fulton, Missouri in March 1946.

Yuli Vorontsov, former Russian ambassador to the U.S. (with whom I had a few conversations during our seminar), asserted: "We do not have an American democracy, but we have a Russian one. And America will have to accept it."

Even Mikhail Gorbachev, during his keynote address to our seminar, observed that Cheney's address is being called "the new Fulton speech." Yet, Mr. Gorbachev's speech looked to the future of the world in the 21st century and especially to the future of Russian-American relations.

Not only did he assert that President Putin "does not want an authoritarian regime," Mr. Gorbachev also observed that "criticism in relation to Russia has resounded more stridently now that the country has begun to lift itself up."

Moreover: "To the question of Americans about democracy, I answer: Do you consider us a talented people? Yes, you must consider us the most talented of all. For what it took you 200 years to build, you want us to create in 200 days?"

Mr. Gorbachev added that the ultimatums have no place in Russian-American relations and suggested that those American politicians who believe that "there are things more important than peace" have lost their minds. In that context, Mr. Gorbachev asserted: "Military action in Iraq gave birth to chaos and tensions throughout the Middle East." In his view, that war, along with American unilateralim, have made it enormously more difficult for the world to attend to the three urgent problems - security (terrorism and nuclear weapons), poverty and the ecological crisis - that make peace more necessary now than ever.

Mr. Gorbachev closed his speech by quoting from President Kennedy's June 10, 1963 Commencement Address at the American University in Washington: "The most important topic on earth is world peace. What kind of peace do I have in mind? Not a Pax America enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of a slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children. Peace not only for Americans, but peace for all men and women. Peace not only in our time, but peace for all time."

After answering a few questions from the audience, including mine -- which asked about the need to cultivate an electorate capable of holding its leaders accountable, before genuine democracy in Russia can take hold - Mr. Gorbachev left the stage.

And so did I, catching up with him in the hallway to the right rear. Speaking Russian (here translated into English), our conversation went as follows:

Uhler: Mikhail Sergeevich, hello. My name is Walter Uhler (which I pronounced "Yooler").

Gorbachev: "Yooler?"

Uhler: Well, in the proper German, it's pronounced "Oohler." (the pronunciation undoubtedly given to him by our seminar's administrators)

Uhler: Mikhail Sergeevich, I simply want to say that, in my opinion, you are the greatest statesman of the twentieth century.

Clearly moved by my assertion, Mr. Gorbachev looked directly into my eyes, firmly shook my hand and proceeded to talk about his attempts to reform Russia, as well as current attempts, by placing them in the context of the Westernization and reforms initiated by Peter the Great.

Perhaps it was the intensity of the moment that caused most of his specific words about Peter and reform to escape my recollection. More likely, what he said next best explains my faulty recall. Not only was it out of character, when compared with his seminar speech, it was out of character with what he had just spoken to me.

For, just as he's about to leave, I hear:

Gorbachev: Cheney is a fool (Cheney "durak.").

And, without missing a beat:

Uhler: I agree. I agree.

Note: I'm solely responsible for the translations from both the unpublished Russian language transcript of his speech to our seminar and his comments to me.

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA).

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