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A Russian We Trusted : Anatoly Dobrynin remembers four decades as the calm center in the drama of Soviet-American relations : IN CONFIDENCE, By Anatoly Dobrynin (Times Books: $30; 672 pp.)

October 22, 1995|A. Craig Copetas | A. Craig Copetas, a former visiting scholar at the Harriman Institute of Advanced Soviet Studies at Columbia University, is a special correspondent at the Wall Street Journal Europe and the author of "Bear Hunting With the Politburo."

"In Confidence," the vibrantly written autobiography of former Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin, is a growling beast of a nonfiction masterpiece that reads like J. D. Salinger going upriver with Joseph Conrad to find Uncle Wiggily wrestling with Nostromo.

The feast of reasons why "In Confidence" is so alluring--especially for those who ducked 'n' covered under dining room tables in hope of avoiding incoming Soviet nuclear warheads--begins on the opening page, when the Communist Party Central Committee drags Dobrynin out of an aircraft factory in 1944 to attend the Higher Diplomatic School because he had never studied the humanities.

"Our lessons resembled a theatrical performance," he writes. "We had to imagine ourselves at diplomatic receptions, luncheons, and dinners, of which none of us had the slightest experience. . . . We were usually seated at a large and well-set table with all the necessary spoons, knives, forks, and wine glasses. Everything was real except for one thing: No food or wine was served. . . . Imaginary waiters brought in imaginary dishes for which we had real porcelain plates, which, unfortunately, remained empty."

As did Josef Stalin's diplomatic corps, purged by the dictator and now seeking fresh meat. "Stalin wanted to be sure that the old ways of thinking would not return. When the call came from Stalin, you had no choice; you had to accept. . . . I was walking briskly along a Kremlin corridor to the Politburo hall when I suddenly saw Stalin and his guards slowly approaching from the other end of the long corridor. I quickly glanced first to the left, then to the right: There was neither a door nearby nor a side corridor down which I could disappear. So I pressed my back against the wall. Stalin did not fail to notice my confusion. Stressing his words by slowly moving a finger of his right hand in front of my face, he said: 'Youth mustn't fear comrade Stalin. He is its friend.' "

Not a page of "In Confidence" flips without Dobrynin serving up a chilling morsel of his 40 years as Moscow's most important and perhaps luckiest diplomat, a career that began in 1952, when then-Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinsky, the vitriolic prosecutor at the Moscow purge trials of the late 1930s, looked across a table of top Kremlin officials and sarcastically uttered what may have well been disguised as a death sentence: "Let's send Dobrynin as a counselor to our embassy in Washington. Our relations with the Americans are very bad, so let him try to improve them."

Although Dobrynin certainly did improve relations, "In Confidence" travels light years beyond a remembrance of crises past. There's a lot going on in this book, and be the subject a State Department Soviet expert being conned out of a gold watch by Leonid Brezhnev or Dobrynin's refereeing a drunken conversation between President Richard M. Nixon and Brezhnev, the author infuses each encounter with his fine understanding of how the curious and confused personality of Homo Sovieticus meshed with an American mentality that could concurrently fund death squads in Latin America and the Solidarity movement in Poland.

Dobrynin illuminates the often dull mechanics of the U.S.-Soviet love/hate relationship by weaving his tale around an enigmatic Russian expression that defies accurate translation: yest mnieniye ("there is an opinion"). Indeed, "In Confidence" is a gripping, 672-page definition of yest mnieniye --a political dynamic fueled on eerie power and secrecy that, as Dobrynin makes abundantly clear, was designed to allow the few like himself to control the many.

It's almost incidental--but no less fascinating--that the former Communist Party factotum provides kaleidoscopic insights on the minutiae of the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, the Prague Spring, Henry Kissinger's ego, Watergate and how Presidents Gerald R .Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan sacrificed early chances at ultimate nuclear peace to keep America's Cold Warriors happy at election time.

Dobrynin makes clear that every post World War II American and Soviet leader found it difficult to function without nuclear a dark prince to rail against. Dobrynin offers many examples of this deadly silhouette war between American leaders out to lambaste the U.S.S.R. and Politburo members who scratched their heads over why America believed the bankrupt Kremlin wanted to carry the Bolshevik flame to the ends of the earth. The Communist leadership, in fact, simply could neither fathom nor accept superpower agreements that chained Soviet domestic policy to nuclear disarmament. What if the Politburo had linked the reduction of Soviet ICBMs to a decrease in the number of convicts condemned to death in Texas?

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