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Maine Author Chronicles Pivotal Role in Bridging U.S.- Russia Divide

Courtesy Suzanne Massie

PORTLAND, Maine - The phrase "trust, but verify," springs from Russian, a language Suzanne Massie, of Blue Hill, knows well.  She has been a frequent visitor to the country, written books about its culture and, in the 1980's, became a bridge between the superpowers.

Massie has just returned from her latest trip to Russia, and speaks about it with Maine Public Radio’s Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz.

"I had the privilege and the honor of being called on by Ronald Reagan, for four years, to advise him about, let's say, the human side of Russia," Massie says. Massie also got to meet Reagan's partner in Cold War diplomacy, the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.  

Massie has just come back from her latest visit to Moscow, and her latest visit with Gorbachev.   He's just turned 86 and is worried about the issue he and Reagan once tackled.

MASSIE:  The first serious thing he said was that he really was so concerned about atomic weapons. 

GRATZ:  And recently, of course, he has written an essay for Time magazine...

MASSIE:  Right.

GRATZ:  ...expressing some of those concerns.  

MASSIE:  He said, there's a lot of things which we did together - with Reagan - was lost.  We should return to that.  We still have chances for it.  When we said good bye, he said to me, "You should say to Americans that we need to return to our discussions.  We need to do something, especially in the sphere of nuclear weapons control."  And that really sounded very much like a warning. 

GRATZ:  In the Time essay, he talks about getting back to the pronouncement that he and Reagan made in the middle 1980's that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.  And it occurred to me that one of the things perhaps Mr. Gorbachev has in common with former President Reagan is both were keen on rhetoric.  They understood the power of words.

MASSIE:  I think that's true.  Although Reagan had more in that respect.  He was wonderful in that respect.  And he was also extremely tactful.  For instance, the most important thing I remember, when he went to Moscow, he was a wild success.  But, what happened at the end, the reporters said, "Well, who is responsible for this?" and, without hesitation he [Reagan] said, "Mr. Gorbachev," he said. "He is the leader of this country."  You can imagine what that meant to Gorbachev.

GRATZ:  I'm just curious, based on your visits to Russia over the years, if you have any insight as to how that country got from at one time supporting Mikhail Gorbachev to now backing President Putin?

MASSIE:  Well, I don't think that's so different.  He gives the people a great sense of protection.  Now, if anybody really gives two minutes, two seconds, of thought to how the Russians have had 27 years of war and how terribly they were destroyed, and, you know, the American way is always to say, "Oh, well, that's over.  It's over."  But it isn't over.  It is an existential thing in Russians.  Everybody has lost somebody.  Everybody.  Sometimes many somebodies. 

GRATZ:  Let me come back to Vladimir Putin.  Should we, in America, be worried about him?

MASSIE:  I don't think so.  That's my own opinion.  My own analysis of this has been his policy has been mostly reactive, reactive to a number of things, which, of course, one can go on to talk about a long time.  But the other thing that people don't really realize, and that is that there's enormous diversity in Russia.  They're not walking in lock step  here.  He has - just the same as we do - from Greens to Neocons.  And, I can imagine that the Neocons have been saying, "Who are you, a man or a mouse?  You know, you could go in and take Ukraine." And the fact is, he has not done that.  The Russians are looking for their identity.

Massie points out that, while Putin did orchestrate a takeover of Crimea, that has always been a vital Russian port, home to a Russian naval base. 

Suzanne Massie has written several books on Russia, and is out with a new memoir, entitled “Trust but Verify:  Reagan, Russia and me.”