Jack Matlock Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the End of the Cold War: A Diplomat Looks Back; Conversation with Jack Matlock, 2/13/97 by Harry Kreisler

Photo by L. Carper

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Ambassador Matlock, welcome to Berkeley.

Delighted to be here.

When did you first get interested in the Soviet Union and Russia?

Well, I got seriously interested as an undergraduate when I was at Duke University, though obviously Russia had attracted my interest before. I think the most compelling early experience was reading Dostoyevsky, obviously in translation because I didn't know Russian as a freshman. But I was rather bowled over by Dostoyevsky and I began to get interested in Russian literature first of all. By my junior year they began to offer Russian language instruction....

And that would have been what year?

That was 1948. I immediately signed up for it and took all the courses there relating to Russia: Russian literature, Russian history, etc. When I graduated from Duke in 1950, I decided to specialize in Russian affairs and went to the Russian Institute at Columbia, where I did area studies, that is, most of the major disciplines but with a major in language and literature.

Do you think it's important that in this education you actually studied the culture, the literature, and the language, even though you wound up doing your work in diplomacy?

Absolutely. I think that was, you might say, my ace in the hole as a diplomat in dealing with that culture. Because, since I was a specialist in Russian literature, I easily developed a rapport with writers and intellectuals, we shared interests, at a time when contacts were very difficult to make. At the same time I found that the political side of it, international relations (which I had studied, though I hadn't majored in it), you pick up just with the profession. That's sort of on-the-job training in fact. But the knowledge of foreign cultures is something that takes time, and it particularly takes an interest. So I already was fluent in the language and knew the literature fairly well, as well as a graduate student would, before I ever went to the Soviet Union for the first time. That meant that from then on I had that interest and it certainly increased my rapport with the culture.

In your book, which is being critically acclaimed, Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union, you emphasize again and again this rapport with the Russian people, as opposed to the government. So this training must have really helped you in that regard.

Well I think it did, and of course ultimately, when the Soviet Union began to open up in the late '80s and my wife and I had a lot of access to television and to large public meetings, this was the thing that fascinated them most. Here was this American, in fact the senior American representative, who knew their language almost as well as they did, who knew their literature probably better than most did. I think that this subliminally cast a very useful image. After all, the propaganda had been that the United States was hostile, that the United States was a bourgeois, relatively un-cultured society, and here their representative, as I've said, is obviously very comfortable with Russians, in Russian, and takes an interest. I think this turned out to be extremely useful to diplomacy there.

I sense in your book that from this background you also got a sensitivity to the other Soviet nationalities, which was rare both in the Soviet Union and in diplomatic circles in the United States?

Yes. Obviously I couldn't develop a full specialty in each of them, but from my experiences even as an undergraduate I learned something from my Russian instructor who wrote his dissertation on the Kazakhs. I helped him proofread it, as one of his students, before it went in final. I began to learn something about their tragic history. I learned to read Ukrainian and got fascinated also by languages like Georgian and the Baltic languages, so that I got a smattering of them to the point that when I went out later and made public speeches I actually, with a lot of preparation, could make speeches or parts of speeches in many of these languages. And this had a tremendous impact. Even if what you said was totally anodyne, just the fact that you took the trouble, when you came to Tbilisi, to do the speech in Georgian say, or in Armenian if it was in Yerevan, or even a few paragraphs of Kazakh in Alma-Ata, it conveyed to them that we knew that they were different from the Russians and that we respected their traditions. This was something, I think, that many of them feared -- particularly true in the Baltic States: they feared being submerged by the rest of the country en masse as sort of Russians or variant Russians, and losing their cultural identity.

Why did you go into the Foreign Service? You served there for 35 years. With your background one could see you as a student of Russian literature.

Actually I prepared myself to do either -- teaching and research as a scholar of Russian literature or foreign service. I had them both in mind as a graduate student, and I wanted to be able to do either; after all, I couldn't be sure that diplomacy would suit me and I wanted a fallback profession. But at the same time, at the time I studied, even as a graduate student, the Soviet Union was closed; Stalin died about the time I got my first job, when I had already qualified my orals for the Ph.D. At that time there was no tourism, there were no students there, there were no scholars, and I thought, if I ever have a chance to live in this country whose culture I've studied and whose culture fascinates me, I'm going to have to be a diplomat or perhaps a journalist. But the journalist was a very long shot. There may have been six full-time American journalists in Moscow, and there were several score American diplomats. So I said, well, I'll be better off being able to reside there as a diplomat than as a journalist. So that was a major motivation. Another motivation was that I was convinced -- I was of the generation that started collage just at the end of World War II in 1946, finished my undergraduate degree in 1950 -- I was convinced that the great problem of American diplomacy was going to be dealing with the Soviet Union and I wanted to be part of that. In fact, when I entered the Foreign Service I shocked a lot of people by what seemed to be overweening ambition when I was asked "What do you want out of the Foreign Service?" I stated frankly, "I want to be the American ambassador to the Soviet Union."

So you got what you wanted!

Yes, yes. Of course, that seemed at the time a very long shot indeed because we had many more specialists in Russian than could possibly aspire to that post. But it did work out so I was very lucky in that respect.

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