WASHINGTON – James Symington served as a U.S. congressman in Missouri from 1968-77. He also was involved in some of the key moments in U.S.-Russian relations – acting as administrative assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1962 and as U.S. chief of protocol in 1966. Now, he is chairman of the Russian-American Cultural Foundation. He spoke to The Russia Journal about future relations between Moscow and Washington, and how Russia might improve its image in a world grown hesitant to embrace it.
The Russia Journal: You have had contacts with Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 40 years. When did your interest in the region develop?
Symington: As a young man in Missouri, I had a Russian-language instructor. She taught me to speak and to sing in Russian. In 1958, I visited the U.S.S.R. for the first time for a three-week stay. In Leningrad, where I first landed, my belongings and luggage were searched in my absence, which of course made me understandably nervous. In any case, I was cleared through, and soon I was walking on Leningrad's streets and parks with my guitar and singing some songs in Russian and in English.
People were at once friendly and welcoming. They ranged from youngsters to babushkas. Since I was from the United States, they asked me all kinds of questions. During my walks in Leningrad I came across young women – construction workers. They were quite pretty, so I decided to take their picture. An older lady official approached me saying it was not good to take a picture of Soviet citizens in working clothing. You should see these girls, she said, in their best dresses. She said there were beautiful statues and monuments to photograph in Leningrad. I said that I was more interested in girls than in monuments, and these girls were beautiful. Then we laughed and did a dance with them.
Q: How did you feel when the Soviet Union disintegrated? There are many people in Russia who believe this process was inevitable; others think it was a tragic mistake.
A: When the Soviet Union collapsed, I thought that it was the removal of a big burden from the shoulders of Russians, especially young people in Russia. People in Russia were given a chance to express themselves more freely. Certainly, I didn't expect change to come so suddenly, or that it would bring such difficulties. However, I am absolutely convinced that Russia is on the right path and will overcome obstacles.
Q: Gorbachev's Perestroika and Russia’s first few democratic steps initially brought euphoria in the United States. But then, in the ensuing years, the American regard for Russia became much more critical. Why?
A: I think that politicians in the United States and some other Western countries made overly optimistic predictions about Russia's emergence from communism. They didn't anticipate the uncontrollable selfishness unleashed by a society accustomed to rigid rule.
But I think it would be a big mistake to focus just on the country’s weak points, and not on Russia’s promise and potential. Changes in Russia are occurring without civil strife and there is much less massive violence than in other places. Look at Kosovo, relations between India and Pakistan, events in the Middle East. Compared to these regions, Russia is surely marching to a better future.
So, we need not look only at those in America who see Russia’s darker side. We must have a deeper understanding … as well as a proper degree of tolerance. It would be a big mistake to think that Americans don't want to cooperate with Russia. U.S. businesses are very eager to participate in the Russian market. They are ready to invest, but only if and when there are normal commercial laws in place.
Q: Russia has many friends in the United States, some in very influential positions. But as soon as Russia runs into hard times, these friends seem to evaporate. Why is that?
A: You know the phrase, no news is good news. The American media don’t get their income from good news. Stories about conflict and criticism attract readers. During the Cold War we were officially foes. But, I believe, in our hearts there were feelings of friendship. Many people in the United States feel passionately about Russia. It’s hard to explain why, but there is a special relationship between our countries that defies analysis, there is something that binds us together.
Q: Who should defend Russia’s image in the U.S.? The Russian Embassy, the pro-Russian lobby, the Russian-speaking diaspora or Americans friendly to Russia?
A: This is a big job, and there is enough room for all those mentioned. It is clear that a key role should be that of the Russian Embassy. Any embassy abroad generally sticks to diplomacy and tries not to be a PR office. However, in a country like the United States, professional public relations experts could help dispense many prejudices and mistaken concepts that, unfortunately, still exist.
The current Russian Ambassador, Yury Ushakov, and his charming wife, Svetlana, are doing an extremely effective job. They have opened the doors of the Russian Embassy for those many Americans who have been interested in Russia and its culture, but may have been intimidated by the big white-stoned building of your embassy on Wisconsin Avenue.
Q: Some say that President Vladimir Putin’s "dictatorship of the law" will put Russia on the right course; others fear that he intends merely a dictatorship. What do you think?
If a law is just and fair, it should not be considered authoritarian. As someone said, "Without just laws, there is no peace." I would hope the American example of just laws will find favor in Russia. Again, the word "dictatorship" conveys something authoritarian and even scary. On the other hand, if the word "law" is a key word, everything will be all right. Both in Russia and the United States, people should know that the law is not only for punishing people, but ... to protect them.
Q: Some fear that the Bush administration will chill relations between Moscow and Washington. Do you fear this may usher in a new Cold War?
A: I would say in this respect: We have been there, done that. I believe that a well-prepared summit could be helpful in this. It should be preceded by meetings of experts on a range of levels, dealing with specific points of mutual concern. In the meantime, we should open doors for more exchanges in the relevant fields of health, the environment, trade and with exchanges on the local government level.
(Irina Akimushkina is the Washington correspondent for Novye Izvestia and a contributor to The Russia Journal.)