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Translating History.

by Igor Korchilov Simon & Schuster, $27.50

SOMEBODY OUGHT TO TELL Cleveland's Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame about the role of pop music in orchestrating the end of the cold war. Without it, the Kremlin would have gone without its two top-level interpreters. Pavel Palazchenko, familiar from TV as the bald one with the mustache, fell in love with the English language through the Beatles in the 1960s. Native English speakers could always pick up a hint of Merseyside in his translations.

Igor Korchilov, slightly older, was working as a cinema projectionist in 1959 when a Georgian folk singer brought back from a foreign tour an Elvis Presley record. The cinema became a dance hall on Saturday nights, and Korchilov was the DJ. Into the usual mix of waltzes and polkas he dropped "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Jailhouse Rock." The crowd went wild, Korchilov was threatened with the sack, decided to teach himself English, and within the year had won admission to Moscow's prestigious Foreign Languages Institute.

Their books, as well as their careers, suggest that the difference between being a Beatles and an Elvis fan is not just a matter of timing. The Elvis-loving Korchilov is a meat-and-potatoes guy, hard-working, and conscientious. You can count on his book for the guest lists and the menus, the clothes people wore and some delicious nuggets about the way the powerful act in private. He offers Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev holding hands in the back seat of limousines, Gorby scaring the daylights out of George Bush in a wild golf cart ride at Camp David, and the final Bush-Gorby haggle in a cramped elevator in which Gorby secured most favored-nation trade status for Russia.

But from the more intellectually adventurous and far more intriguing Beatles fan, we get some extraordinary insights and real food for thought in what should become an essential source for future historians. Palazchenko delivers a discreet but powerful analysis of the West's historic failure of imagination and political courage in grasping the opportunity Gorbachev embodied.

It can be debated whether the West's real interest lay in modernizing and democratizing a shrunken Soviet Union, shorn of its Baltic states, or in seeing the old enemy suffer the kind of political gangrene which has left us with the semi-failed state of today's Russia. But there is much that is compelling in Palazchenko's devastatingly judicious critique of the Bush administration, whose policies helped push Mikhail Gorbachev out of office while keeping Saddam Hussein in power. A pity, therefore, that Palazchenko bases so much of his argument on that moment when Gorbachev offered the Grand Bargain of structural economic reform in return for a modern version of the Marshall Plan to help the Soviet Union survive the process.

In addition to Bush, Palazchenko blames Britain's John Major and Japan's Kaifu for the wet blankets they threw over Gorbachev's hopes of a Grand Bargain at the London G-7 summit. Grigory Yavlinski, the Russian economist who had been working on the details of such a Grand Bargain at Harvard, also gets some of the blame, for warning the western governments that Gorbachev's economic reforms were half-measures. In fact, Yavlinski had been part of a pre-summit Soviet delegation to the White House with Yevgeny Primakov (now Yeltsin's foreign minister), at which Bush and his NSC advisor (the late Ed Hewett) had warned the Russians that no Marshall Plan was in prospect.

Palazchenko was not there to interpret, so that crucial prior warning seems never to have crossed his radar screen. Nor, it seems, had its full tenor been passed on to Gorbachev, who was humiliated in London when the Japanese prime minister coldly dismissed as inadequate Gorbachev's promise of freeing 70 percent of Soviet prices by the end of the year. It was the West as a whole which refused to rally to Gorbachev's last appeal, and that palpable failure of Gorbachev's fabled marketing skills led directly to the Moscow coup later in the summer.

Palazchenko concludes, "I feel now, as I did then, that in the late 1980s the West and the Soviet Union had a unique opportunity to build new international relations and to ensure a relatively manageable transition from a bi-polar world based on superpower confrontation to a multipolar world of the future. To succeed, the East and West needed to cooperate not only on arms control and regional issues, but also in helping the Soviet Union modernize its political and economic systems."

Whether or not he is right is now immaterial. What is important from this figure who traveled and conferred with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, is further evidence that this almost utopian sensibility had gripped the Kremlin, as if all of them were singing along to Palazchenko's constant humming of the John Lennon song "Imagine." But Marlin Fitzwater was sneering at Gorby as "a drugstore cowboy" and Bush was dawdling over exhaustive policy reviews that always warned the Soviets might not mean it. Bush drove a series of hard bargains, and as a result, Palazchenko says: "At some point in 1991 the perception of 'Gorbachev making all the concessions' became a negative factor for him domestically?'

Bush did not even try to second-guess his own Sovietologists, whom Palazchenko, with some justice, condemns as "tending to be instinctively anti-Soviet and some even anti-Russian. Many had been trained by Russian emigre scholars, and it showed... When the changes in the Soviet Union began, most Sovietologists were not ready. First, they underestimated their extent and genuineness, then they oversimplified the situation and, like our radicals, often ignored the country's complexity and the resilience of the old ways"

Most memoirs by officials give blinkered accounts of the bits of history they were privileged to see.. This dewy-eyed account of the deeper failure of the Bush-Gorbachev years passes lightly over the disasters in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Baltics which contributed to Bush's skepticism. An interpreter like Palazchenko naturally stresses the moments he witnessed--those involving English speakers like Rajiv Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, and John Major. This gives a curiously old-fashioned flavor to a book which treats Britain as a major power, rather than as a tangential player it was in the cold war's end game.

"By the time Gorbachev had decided he was prepared to accept all the consequences of democratic reforms that were beginning to shake up the country, of all the Western leaders, it seemed then that only Margaret Thatcher fully believed him," Palazchenko notes of their meeting in April, 1989. Again, this was a failure of the incoming Bush administration, which spent much of its first year on an agonizing policy review about dealing with Gorbachev. By the time that the review process was complete, providing the usual lowest-common-denominator boilerplate that bureaucracies tend to concoct, the collapsing Berlin Wall was changing everything.

Palazchenko's book frequently drifts into an essay of might-have beens. Had Gorbachev stayed in power, he suggests, the Soviet Union could have survived as a loose confederation undergoing a more orderly economic reform, and avoiding the wars of the Soviet succession which have ravaged Georgia, Armenia, Tadjikistan, Moldova, and Yugoslavia.

"Clearly, the impulse behind Yeltsin's decisions on Yugoslavia was, at least in part, the desire to act unlike Gorbachev--more decisively, accentuated by a rather sympathetic attitude toward separatism. As I watched the unraveling of Yugoslavia, I had to admit that all major powers, including the United States, Germany and Russia, acted not so much for the sake of peace but more in order to test their strength in a new regional balance of forces and to advance their perceived interests.

One of Palazchenko's favorite Beatles' songs was "Girl," and much of this book seems to have been written with those lines at the back of his mind: "Is there anybody wants to listen to my story / All about the gift that went away?"

It was, of course, the world that went away, that old cold war way of doing things which ended with such decency and minimal bloodshed as Gorbachev and Shevardnadze defanged the beast. Palazchenko evidently finds it hard to forgive Yeltsin for slavering over the remains. How often in Gorbachev's circle they must retell the dreadful tale of the last general-secretary going into his Kremlin office for the last, dignified day, to find a drunken Yeltsin and his cronies emptying a bottle of scotch at the scene of their triumph. Palazchenko at least has the consolation of his favorite music: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one"

MARTIN WALKER is U.S. bureau chief for Britain The Guardian.
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Author:Walker, Martin
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1997
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