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Reagan's Evolving Views of Russians and their Relevance Today

"Reagan had the imagination to see beyond the ubiquitous Cold War stereotypes that seemed to be set in stone," said Suzanne Massie, author and consultant. At a 1 December 2008 lecture at the Kennan Institute, Massie described her 22 meetings with Ronald Reagan during his presidency.

Massie's first meeting with President Reagan occurred after a particularly memorable visit she made to the Soviet Union in the fall of 1983. One high-ranking Soviet official she talked to during her visit pounded his desk and warned ominously "You don't know how close war is." Massie took his warning seriously and determinedly decided to speak to President Reagan upon her return to the United States. First she met with National Security Advisor Robert MacFarlane and suggested that it might be possible to resume cultural exchange talks with the Soviet Union, and after several meetings, she offered "send me – I can talk to them." The White House sent Massie on a 10-day secret mission in January 1984 to explore this possibility. Before leaving she met with President Reagan for the first time, in the Oval Office. Upon her return in February 1984, Massie reported to him on the successful results of her trip. Over the next four years Massie met with Reagan twenty more times. These personal interactions enabled Massie to trace changes in Reagan's views of Russians.

Reagan was more interested in what the Russian people thought, and why, than what the Kremlin thought. This inquisitiveness distinguished him from most political figures with whom Massie had talked. Massie's descriptions of the many Russians who had welcomed her into their lives engaged the president's interest. Most importantly, in Massie's opinion, she demonstrated to Reagan that the Russian people were not a "monolith marching in lock-step toward a glorious Communist future, but a people of vast contrasts and contradictions."

One of the topics they often discussed was religion. Massie taught Reagan about the historic role and lasting power of Russian Orthodoxy over the lives and mentality of Russians. Reagan was deeply, though discreetly, religious, and learning that the Soviet Union was not completely atheistic made an impression on him. Reagan quickly noticed how much Mikhail Gorbachev himself talked about God. A second topic that Reagan focused on was that of Soviet women. At a meeting of Soviet specialists before Reagan's first trip to Moscow in 1988, Massie suggested that he speak about the importance of Soviet women, pointing out that since they comprised 51 percent of the population, perestroika could not succeed without them. Reagan agreed with her, and his remarks about women during his visits to Russia resonated with the population.

In general, Massie did not interrogate Reagan about his positions, but after 18 meetings, just before his meeting with Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, she once asked him "What do you want from the Russians, anyway?" Without hesitation Reagan answered firmly "I want to get rid of those atomic weapons, every one." This was the point at which Massie taught Reagan the famous Russian proverb that translates as "trust, but verify," a phrase that he subsequently used on numerous occasions.

In concluding her talk, Massie demonstrated Reagan's relevance today for U.S. policy toward Russia and gave some words of advice to current policymakers. First, Massie said, Reagan respected Gorbachev and treated him as an equal. Gorbachev appreciated this, and for the first time Reagan was able to create an atmosphere of trust between a U.S. president and a leader of the Soviet Union. Respect is of greatest importance to Russians today and can help to foster trust, if not always agreement. President Medvedev recently addressed this important issue, saying in his remarks at the Foreign Policy Association that "today there is no trust between the United States and Russia." Second, according to Massie, Reagan kept an open mind without giving up his principles or the national interests of the U.S. He did not let Cold War stereotypes dominate his thinking, contrary to how many officials in Washington do today, Massie added. Reagan had the courage to seek knowledge outside of the policy views that some of his advisors promoted. Third, while adamantly opposed to the Communist regime, Reagan recognized the positive contributions the Russian people had made to the world and understood that they faced many problems and had their own national interests.

When Reagan's presidency ended, he left America's relationship with Russia much better than it had been before him, Massie stated. Russia was one of the most pro-American countries in the world in the early 1990s, but today it has become increasingly anti-American at all levels of society. Massie called for the U.S. to recognize, as Reagan did, that the two countries need each other. Russia today is a different country than it was during the Cold War, and policymakers and the new U.S. president need to cast off outmoded models and rhetoric and forge a new policy that takes new realities into consideration.


About the Author

Mary Elizabeth Malinkin

Mary Elizabeth Malinkin

Program Associate;
Kennan Institute
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more