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Cold War Warriors

2012: A Pivotal Year in U.S.-Russian Relations?

Capitan Edmond D. Pope
 U.S. Navy, Retired

"I have never met anyone who understood Russians"
Grand Duke Alexander Mikhalíovich
Brother-in-law of Tsar Nicholas II.

Attempting to explain the character of Russia is a daunting task as they are an extremely diverse people. Russia comprises eleven time zones from Europe to Asia and her population differs in the extreme when comparing a citizen of Moscow or St. Petersburg with those living in the remote outreaches of the nation. My comments here come nowhere close to representing a complete picture of the Russian people and nation, only a few glimpses from my firsthand experiences and a few glimpses at what might lie ahead for the changing Russia and relations between our two countries.

2000- Setting the scene for my Russian experiences

Few people expected the year 2000 to be noteworthy with regard to the evolving relationship between the U.S. and the "new" Russia - least of all me. Even fewer people, myself included, understood the true significance of what was taking place in late-March of that year when Vladimir V. Putin was formally elected President of the Russian Federation. Only days after his election, I found myself under arrest in Moscow, charged with espionage.

In the weeks following my arrest, it became evident that my arrest had very little to do with me personally, but was part of a much more complex and broad plan that had begun in early 1999 - or even before that. During the nine months that followed my arrest, I learned a great deal more about the methods of Soviet/Russian domestic and international politics than I ever cared to. During my nine months spent languishing in Lefortovo Prison, I was specifically told by not less than three individuals working there that my case was purely political and that I should be patient because I would be allowed to leave as soon as their goals were achieved. In this article, I will attempt to use some of the experiences from my numerous travels and incarceration to help explain why I believe 2012 could well be another very significant year in the relationship between our two countries; experiences which could portend some exceptional events. Indeed, I believe the ashes of the Cold War are still smoldering and there is a massive number of nuclear weapons in our respective arsenals that make this situation dangerous.

An elderly group of people in St. Petersburg marching in support of the "great days" of the communist system of the past. Inflation had eaten their pensions away to only a
couple dollars a month at this point.

A Carefully Orchestrated "Surprise"

Vladimir V. Putin was named acting Prime Minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin in August of 1999. Little was thought of his appointment at the time other than he was a relative unknown who had spent most of his career in the KGB (Committee for State Security), but he was viewed as just one more in a list of frequent replacements Yeltsin had appointed to that post. Putin emerged from that shadowy world to join the staff of St Petersburgís first post-Soviet Mayor, Anatoly Sobchak. By 1999, he had become well known to behind-the-scenes power brokers of Russia (the "cabal") and he fit well into their plans. I believe that this cabal made his August 1999 appointment with careful and deliberate intention. Certainly during the time leading up to the unexpected announcement from Boris Yeltsin on 31 December 1999 that he was leaving the office of President of Russia immediately and appointing Putin as acting President provided ample time to outline early plans for the "new" Russia under Putin. Fine tuning these plans was accomplished during the three months of his "temporary" appointment, but could only be put into action when it was clear that he had at least a four-year term to enact and solidify his plans. The two central themes of the Putin plan included reestablishing stronger control over the domestic population and reasserting Russia as one of the two bi-polar powers of the globe, i.e. a confrontational approach for Russian relations with the U.S. A plan designed to position Russia as a nation that was just as important as the U.S. Indeed, one of the most frequent criticisms leveled against Boris Yeltsin from within Russia was that he had become a "lackey" or puppet of the U.S.

Perceptions Become Reality

Throughout my 25-year career in the U.S. Navy, most served during the Cold War, I always had a strong desire to better understand our principal adversary, the Soviet Union. I could never understand why they seemed to hate us so? Why they were driven to spread their beliefs with such a passion by whatever means including the near-constant threat of war? Was the general population so fervently supportive? It did not take too much effort to understand that a people who have various barriers put up to keep them inside were, in fact, living under duress and for a reason. Were the Communist Russians really that different from the Russians who lived under the Tsars? Could a people really be so susceptible to government propaganda and other more harsh techniques that they really believed what they were being told? I was skeptical before arriving in Russia for that first visit in 1992, but anxious to see for myself. I had read copies of "Soviet Life" over the years and one thing that always struck me was the strange humor exhibited. Before my first trip to Russia had ended, I understood the extreme cynicism and symbolism of Russian humor as a self-serving method of showing defiance for a system that was totally out of touch with reality.

Remembrances of the past on sale at a Moscow street Market (Ismailova - one of my favorite places in free time). Notice the depiction of the U.S. in upper right corner.

I also learned first hand that Soviet propaganda, combined with the tight controls on travel and dialogue outside the borders of the Soviet Union, did impact the beliefs and understanding of the population. During my first trip to the city of Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky) in 1992, I was allowed several hours of rest before my first meeting of the day. I was staying at one of the best hotels (at the time) in this city of over one million people, a city that had been mostly preserved as off limits to westerners during the Soviet era. Indeed, this city had been established during WWII in efforts to disburse their defense industry after Nazi Germany came close to capturing Moscow and St Petersburg/Leningrad.

Thinking I was in a large metropolitan city, I turned on the television and learned that my options were limited to three local channels. At that moment, my own perceptions were dictating what I expected. This being mid afternoon, I expected the Russian equivalent of talk shows and "soaps", but what I saw almost sent me into cardiac arrest: all three channels were simultaneously airing hard core western pornographic movies!! I could not contain myself at the evening dinner as I questioned my friend about this. His reply: "We are just trying to be like you and that is what it is like in the West, isnít it?" We then had a most humorous discussion at the dinner table as I explained to them that such TV would never be tolerated on public television and certainly never during hours when our children would be home. This topic resulted in a long evening and both sides learned a great deal about each other. This experience frequently had me wondering if the Russians saw me as having hidden horns in my forehead and a bifurcated tail, based solely on propaganda.

Need a cold drink on a warm day? This was still common in Gorky in 1992: stand in line waiting to get to the front, pay your rubles, and as soon as the person in front of you is finished, they hand you "the" cup and you get your drink, then hand "the" cup to the next person in line. Today, there are many shops/kiosks/etc which stock canned/bottled drinks.

More importantly and interesting to me, I watched and listened carefully over the next eight years of travel to Russia as the society made rapid steps forward in its quest for joining the Western/Modern World;- shopping malls, convenience stores, varied and appropriate public television, quality consumer goods, autos that would run without venting exhaust into the passenger compartment, etc., So many changes had occurred in a brief period of time, that it made oneís head spin. But the people of Russia were starved for the things real and imagined that they had been doing without. This realization of the basic creature comforts they had been denied for so many years will have a strong impact on Mr. Putinís second term as President.

Wounded Pride

Throughout my travels across Russia, I was constantly amazed at the achievements these humble people have made throughout modern history. Despite the purges under the Tsars, Lenin, and especially Stalin- a new intellectual class continues to grow and lead the nation into the forefront of modern science, the arts, sport and other fields of human endeavor. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians and other nationalities of the former Soviet republics have been left with a deep sense of bitterness and resentment at being relegated by much of the Western World to the ranks of a third world country. If one were to judge Russia by itís creature comforts and general standard of living, except for the privileged Communist Party bosses, I would have to agree that Russia resembled a third world country. The one thing that set the Soviet Union/Russia apart was her massive military arsenal, especially their nuclear forces. While much of their military forces have declined due to lack of funding - their nuclear force numbers remain a serious concern.

In this regard, I will never forget one of the most memorable events I ever spent in Russia. During a late fall trip in 1997, I was invited to attend a very, special dinner in Moscow hosted by a close Russian friend. I only recognized the importance of the event when I arrived and found that I was the only foreigner among the 10 to 12 people in attendance at a formal birthday dinner party. At least two of the guests at this dinner were heads of Russian ministries, but the one who really caught my eye was Valeri Kubassov, the Flight Engineer from the Soviet SOYUZ space mission in 1975, which rendezvoused and mated with the American APOLLO capsule.

Cosmonaut Valeria Kubassov and I met at private dinner in Moscow.
I was in awe and he was truly a fine gentleman as all were that evening.

My Russian comprehension was good enough to understand most of the conversation even if I could not speak it very well. This was a very formal dinner, which included three glasses (water, wine and hard liquor), a full array of utensils and clean plates for every course. Dinner customs were strict so it was fortunate that I knew their traditions; i.e. there is a very strict procedure for toasts, etc. This particular dinner was in honor of one of the guestís 50th birthday and it was obvious that all of the people had been close friends for many years. All of these gentlemen were polite towards me, but were hesitant when they started a round of toasts to the achievements of Soviet science and technology which they all had been part of.

I had also made a stunning discovery by this point in the dinner - while one or two of these men did not drink alcohol, the remainder of us did and I knew it would be an insult not to drink during one of their frequent toasts. Even those who did not drink would take a sip of water during one of the toasts. These men were toasting and drinking frequently so I employed a technique my friend had coached me on; during each toast I would lift my shot glass and only take a small sip or even merely wet my lips to avoid an insult or worst, end up in a drunken stupor. Immediately after each toast, the wait staff would appear and refill our glasses. That was when I noticed that I was one of the few drinking vodka from my small shot glass; the remainder were using their 8-ounce water glass - and were gulping down the vodka like it was water. Probably what amazed me more was. at the end of the dinner most of these men stood with little noticeable impact from the significant quantity they had consumed.

All eyes turned towards me early in this discussion to measure my response to the things that were being said and to the fact that they included fond memories of the USSR in their toastís. I also was in awe of the people and events that were being described and raised my small but all-important shot glass to respond to their toasts. This small act on my part noticeably affected the atmosphere and issues discussed during the remainder of the dinner. My only regret was that I could not have recorded that dinnerís conversation! It would have made a marvelous book in itself.

Alexander M. Prokhorov, 1964 Nobel Prize recipient in physics. He is credited with being one of the founders of the principle behind lasers and was viewed as the Father of Quantum Electronics. The signature in upper left corner is that in the book he gave me in 1992.
He passed away in Moscow in 2002.

While these people expressed a longing for past achievements and pride in their roles they had played together in some momentous events, they expressed no bitterness towards me. They seemed to understand that the "good times" could not have continued considering the waste and corruption they had so frequently witnessed. Old Soviet hard-liners such as Vladimir Putin, however, carry a much deeper resentment over their seeming loss of power within the society.

Survival Above All Else

If one word can be used to describe lifeís goal in Russia over the ages, it has been "survival." For centuries, the Russian people have been subjected to invasions and subjugation and horrible acts of brutality from the outside: Mongols, Turks, Swedes, French and Germans, among others. The binding force that unified Russians against these outside aggressors came in the 1700ís but life under the elite rulers/Tsars left the citizens often wondering which was better - the outside hordes or the internal oppressors who controlled every aspect of their daily life? The best understanding of the confusion within the mindset of many Russians is a lingering desire from some corners for the relative stability of the Stalin era, despite the knowledge that he was responsible for the deaths of over 20 million citizens.

This photo to the right illustrates the old and new mentality of Russian/Soviet life during the transitional period. First, the raw block of "stuff" to the right of center are the old Soviet era laundry soap, while the boxes of bright colored soap to the left are Proctor and Gamble "TIDE" laundry soap. Soviet mentality dictated that if one could find anything to buy, then buy as much as you could because you didn't know when, if ever, you might be able to find it again, and second, the old soap was better known for dissolving cloth than cleaning it if left in contact too long, Still- this housekeeper would not throw it away even after she could buy Tide detergent.

During my trial, the one person I despised was "Glavny (Chief) Judge Comrade Nina Barkova", the senior of the three judge panel overseeing my case. She appeared to be a real old hard-liner, addressing everyone by the communist habit of preceding the name or title with "Tovarishch" (Comrade). For example - I was Comrade Defendant, represented by Comrade Chief Defense Attorney and Comrade Assistant Defense Attorney and so on. However, Comrade Barkova did exhibit several traits, which in retrospect, make me believe that she was under severe pressure from her superiors to make the trial keep to the script they had given her. Every once in a while, she would make comments or give orders that almost made her appear human and compassionate, but then she would revert to the inevitable puppet role she had been ordered to play. By sheer accident, it just so happened that my senior attorney, Pavel Ashtakov, and I both spoke Swedish. Just to irritate Comrade, Glavny Judge Barkova - Pavel and I began speaking to each other in Swedish during a break one day.

After listening to us for only a couple of minutes, Judge Barkova flew into a rage and demanded that we tell her what we were talking about. She then ordered us to cease our conversation in "that language" immediately and threatened both of us with "special treatment" back at Lefortovo Prison if we did not stop. The pressure she appeared to be under did take its toll on her. On several Monday morningís of the trial, Tovarishch Judge Barkova looked like she had spent the entire weekend swimming in a pool of vodka and sleeping in a pig pen. On these days, she would be in a particularly foul mood so we would avoid any actions that we thought would irritate her. On days in which she looked and acted her normal, "commissar" self, we had a stable of subtle ways and actions that we enjoyed using just to watch her blood pressure spike. We knew that she would not be allowed to step out of line too much or her superiors would come down hard on her. She was merely "surviving" under conditions she had lived with in the Soviet system.

Standard of Living and Human Rights

A societyís standard of living must be judged by what is available and how it could be improved. Living in a closed society, the "standard" is what the leadership allows you to know. A frequent subject of Russian humor goes along the following lines: The Tsar/Commissar/Comrade asks: "What color is that building?" and the immediate and automatic reply from the Russian citizen is "Whatever color you would like it to be!"

A true story also illustrates the Russianís understanding of their world. During Stalinís regime, he decided to build a better rail system between Moscow and Leningrad/St Petersburg. When the design engineers were called into his office to review their plan, Stalin was informed that they were at an impasse over the route to select in one particular section. Angered by their inability to make such a simple decision, Stalin ordered his aides to hand him a pencil and a straight edge. He then took these instruments and drew a straight line between the two major cities of Russia. Unfortunately, in drawing the line, his index finger holding the ruler protruded slightly over the edge he was using to draw the straight line and this resulted in a small but noticeable interruption in the otherwise straight line. He handed the blueprints back and ordered the engineers to get busy and build the new rail line. Several years later and upon completion of the new tracks, there was the small area with a short deviation in the track just as Stalinís finger had left it.

The end of the Soviet/Communist-dominated way in Russia is changing the old views but such monumental change will take time. A couple of examples from my own trial in Moscow in November and December of 2000 - a full nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union- can illustrate the "two steps forward, one step back" processes still underway in Russia. During the pre-trial and trial timeframes, three key Russian witnesses suddenly suffered "heart attacks." All three were bogus but the most ridiculous of the lot was one of an FSB/KGB investigator who had participated in my preliminary questioning, was the son of the prosecutor in my trial, and had passed privileged information to his father about me. The morning my lawyers were preparing to file a mistrial petition to the court over this violation, the prosecutor did not appear.

Normally, one would consider this reason for at least delaying the proceedings, however, when my lawyer stood and presented the grounds of this violation and a motion for dismissal, the chief judge immediately denied the motion. Not surprisingly, the next morning a new prosecutor appeared and was politely introduced as a replacement. Comrade Judge Barkova told us that "Comrade Plotnikov (the former prosecutor) had suffered a heart attack and would be replaced by this new" person. Prior to "Comrade" Plotnikovís departure from the trial room, he frequently seemed to enjoy chatting with me in English. I recall one day in particular he appeared to be in a jovial mood. During a break in the trial that day, he told me a story. He indicated that I must be a very good spy and without giving me time to reply went on to tell me they could find absolutely no evidence of any nefarious or illegal activities on my part. "But" he continued, "we know you are spy" so we assume that you are so good we just have not been able to find evidence yet. He then proceeded to tell me that the prosecutorís office had two nicknames for me; first was "Trojan Horse of the American Secret Services" based on the above assumption and second was "James Bond of the American Secret Services" because my Navy Federal Credit Union debit card at the time ended with the digits "007".

Notice the last three digits on my Navy Federal Credit Union debit card; 007!!
This is even pointed out as "evidence" against me in a 21 page conviction.

Standing trial for espionage, a motion was also entered to charge me with "economic damage" to the Russian Federation to the figure of $250 million U.S. dollars. This figure was based on the estimated research time and effort they had supposedly exhausted in development of a "secret" high speed torpedo. That night back in my Lefortovo Prison cell, I kicked our toilet so hard I broke it. One of my cellmates immediately stood up and indicated I would be charged with another $250 million dollar fine for "destruction of state property." That broke the ice and all of us laughed together.

Further along in my "trial", another of the supposed heart attack victims was suddenly allowed to take the stand and testify. Ironically, several Moscow radio stations that morning had carried a story about this man featuring an audio tape that was made recording a visit this man had from secret police operatives the previous day ordering him to testify against me "or else." During his testimony, he presented several documents to be entered as evidence. The court immediately went into confused turmoil, as they had expected him, as later recounted in a Moscow newspaper, to testify against me. In fact, the documents presented were a collection of openly available university research papers that had been used for their development program of the high-speed torpedo. Almost all of them were obtained from U.S. open sources including some from the US Navy. The judge finally called order in the court and blandly rejected the request and terminated his testimony.

These two books were presented to Glavny Judge Nina Barkina by a Russian witness during my trial as part of the proof that our work was totally open. Both were published in the U.S. along with numerous others as early as the 1960's providing technical detail of the "secret" underwater rocket and powder metal technology. Judge Barkova refused to accept these as evidence.

Upon completion of my trial, which they would only allow after the 2000 Bush-Gore election was resolved- my guilty verdict was read and I was immediately taken back to Lefortovo Prison. That night at 10:00 p.m. the warden of the prison called me into his office and told me "You must write a letter to President Putin immediately" requesting a pardon. He seemed rather nervous and actually helped draft the letter. Then, as I sat in his office waiting, the letter was faxed to the Kremlin. Early the next morning, Mr. Putin forwarded the letter to a special "Pardons Commission" that had been established by Boris Yeltsin to expedite release of political prisoners from the "gulags." This commission took only two days to review my case and then held a public news conference announcing they saw no indications of spying, but they did detect "old Soviet spy-mania" in my case. The Pardons Commission urged that I be released and allowed to return home "immediately."

Indeed, three days later I was released and taken directly to Moscowís Sheremetyevo Airport for a special flight to Germany and freedom. Ironically, the pardon system that had released close to one-quarter million prisoners under Yeltsin and another several thousand during Putinís first few months as President- was disbanded shortly after my pardon. I am the last person ever released under the auspices of the Pardons Commission. While these incidents now appear amusing to me - they were not so funny as I sat locked in an iron cage in a Russian courtroom a decade ago. More importantly for the people of Russia, these conflicts - old and new - will continue to shape their lives for many years to come. Mr. Putin will continue to employ the methods of the old, but I believe the people of Russia have grown far too sophisticated and well-informed to go along with his ways.

This cartoon caption was published in a Moscow newspaper during my trial.
The caption reads "I'm no spy. I'm just an ordinary gangster" reflecting the widely
recognized "spy-mania" of the Putin and old Soviet methods but also instilling concern
in the public's mind that some of the old ways were back and they should take notice.

Where these signals could lead

I have intentionally avoided a discussion of the tensions in our own country that are at the highest levels Iíve ever seen in my lifetime. The burgeoning debt crisis perhaps is the most ominous. I personally saw what happened in Russia in 1998 and see it as an omen of what could happen here Ė if we do not take the similar warnings seriously.

Regarding todayís Russia, facing another tenure with Vladimir Putin at the helm, I foresee some conflict internally and engineered tension in their international relations. A few of the more significant issues facing Russia would include the following:

  • Putinís call for a stronger military can only be afforded when oil is at a price close to $130 a barrel. Increased funding for the military like Mr. Putin wants will impact civil programs and infrastructure rebuilding, which Russia desperately needs to make up for more than 70 years of virtual neglect. He will also attempt to squeeze more tax revenue from the working public which will not be taken lightly.
  • Any tightening of human rights and personal freedoms will not be welcomed by the people of Russia. Neither will any changes to their new, standard-of-living and emergence of a genuine, middle class. They will not accept the old ways.
  • The people of Russia are well aware of Putinís record of corruption, fraud, abuse of power, graft, etc. from his earlier stint as President and fully expect more of the same.
  • Putin will use a stronger position of support for rogue nations such as Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran - primarily to further establish a counter position to the US and the West.
  • Mr. Putin has learned some bitter lessons from his first tenure as President, but will continue to seek confrontation with the West and the U.S. in particular at every opportunity. It is his nature.

Edmond D. Pope, Captain, USN, Retired, grew up in Oregon and immediately went into service in the US Navy upon graduation from Oregon State University. After twenty-five years of service and the end of the Cold War, he retired in 1994 and took a position at Penn State University. He left that position after close to five years and started his own company. Beginning in 1991 when at the Office of Naval Research, he specialized in building relationships in science and technology with Russia and other Republics of the former Soviet Union. As a private businessman during his twenty-seventh trip to Russia in the year 2000, he was arrested by Russian Federal Security Bureau operatives and charged with espionage. The arrest came during the first few days of President Vladimir V. Putinís first term in office and was nothing more than a politically motivated event. After being held close to nine months in Moscowís infamous, Lefortovo Prison, he was convicted and sentenced to a 20-year prison term in Siberia, then immediately pardoned and allowed to return home. He authored the book "TORPEDOED" in 2001. He lives in State College, PA and is currently engaged in various business activities, all based in the US.

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