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In Confidence by Anatoly Dobrynin

28 September 2007

Politicians’ memoirs usually aren’t the easiest books to carry around and read. They’re often only available in heavy and bulky hardback editions, and they tend to require a more consistent focus than some other history books — not the sort of thing you can put down and pick up again at random. But occasionally there are memoirs that I’d be more than willing to lug around, and today’s review happens to focus on one of them.

In Confidence by Anatoly Dobrynin

Anatoly Dobrynin, born in 1919, served as Soviet ambassador to the United States from 1962 to 1986 — which I believe makes him the longest-serving ambassador in Russian history. In those twenty-four years, he went through the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon (and Kissinger), Ford (and Kissinger), Carter, and Reagan administrations…and on the other side, the Krushchev, Brezhnev (and Kosygin), Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev years. Ambassador Dobrynin outlasted any number of lesser diplomats, and his unbroken record of service and his status as an outsider makes him an interesting choice to report on the history of US/Soviet relations during the tempestuous years of the Cold War.

And report he does. At nearly 700 pages long, In Confidence covers Dobrynin’s entire career. He began, interestingly enough, as an engineer who had never considered himself to be a political person. He was selected for the diplomatic corps during World War II almost against his will, and spent a good deal of time studying American history and working in Moscow before he was sent to the embassy in Washington DC as a foreign affairs attache in the early 1950s. By 1962, he had risen to become ambassador, and his long career as the Soviet government’s representative in America began.

Dobrynin’s memoirs are probably not a good starting point for anyone who isn’t at least familiar with basic Cold War history, particularly the Ford and Carter years where American foreign policy tended to be muddled and contradictory. But there is a wealth of information about how Soviet leaders viewed their American counterparts, much of which comes from Dobrynin’s firsthand experiences and conversations; he spoke fairly fluent English, so on many occasions he was the only translator during talks between Soviet and American higher-ups. Dobrynin’s impressions of different political figures and their attitudes toward US/Soviet relations are rather fascinating — he’s not kind to Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford, for example, and even though he does seem to respect Henry Kissinger’s attempts at detente he quietly slams Kissinger for being inconsistent on how detente was put into practice. One remarkable passage that sticks out in my memory was Dobrynin’s account of Richard Nixon’s final days in office before the resignation…and how Leonid Brezhnev sent Nixon a personal message of support, saying that even though he did not fully understand the nature of the domestic political problems that Nixon was facing, he believed that Nixon’s attempts to improve US/Soviet relations were what his country would truly remember from his presidency. I actually got a little choked up at that part — the thought that possibly the only kind words Nixon had during his final days as President came from the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union appeals to my sense of bittersweet irony. And Dobrynin manages to capture this incident and many more without being too quick to blame one side or the other for the policy failures and setbacks.

In Confidence, like many political memoirs worth reading, is not the kind of book that can be read straight through in one sitting. But it’s a refreshing perspective on a strange and often nerve-wracking era in history, and Dobrynin is articulate and possessed of a dry wit that crackles through the pages and makes his anecdotes all the more intriguing.

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