Catalytic Diplomacy
Political Jujitsu and Public Chamber
One afternoon, on December 16, 2004, at the Center for American Progress, I was listening to Robert S. McNamara speaking forcefully and emotionally of the danger of nuclear war and the importance of further progress in disarmament. My admiration for what he was saying was undermined by a sense that his talk seemed so apolitical—what hope was there for further progress? (More info)

Suddenly, I had a thought—there might be a way. I had read that the Administration was in the process of deciding to press President Putin on democracy in Russia. What, I thought, would be the logical Russian response? Just as Americans take as their touchstone, democracy, Russians take as their greatest concern, security. In a flash, I thought of a way.

Perhaps Putin could be persuaded to respond to Bush charges about democracy in terms of their mutual responsibility for world security—and to urge further disarmament. I decided, at that very moment, to go to Russia.

In the course of preparation, I learned that the Slovakian Summit would bring the two together in a few months and this would provide an occasion for them to discuss disarmament. And the Summit, as always, forces the countries to think about an agenda. I felt I was on a roll already.

The goal of the trip then would be to persuade the Kremlin staff to put disarmament on the Slovakian Summit agenda as a riposte to Washington’s determination to raise the question of democracy.

A letter to Putin, dated January 20, 2005, was drafted, pulling together various elements of preceding proposals and urging de-MIRVing of missiles on land and sea with a limit of 1,000 warheads on missiles and bombers. It reiterated the irrelevance of ABM systems at such low and equal levels. And it pointed out that Bush was calling Russia “a friend” and saying that the U.S. military had put “cold War practices behind it, and now plans, sizes and sustains its forces in recognition” of that. This, I said, was not at all true. The war plans had not changed a bit. (Appendix) To ensure that it might be read, I persuaded Bob McNamara to provide a cover letter to Putin. (Appendix)


Shortly after making plans to visit Russia in January 2005, I happened, by accident, to see that President Putin had created a new arm of the Russian Federation—a “Public Chamber” composed of 126 distinguished persons representing public interest groups and organized into 17 Committees. The Public Chamber, formed on January 22, 2005 as a new arm of the Russian Federation, was supposed to ride herd on the Duma (the Russian parliament) and the bureaucracy, supplying opinions on what the Russian body politic wanted and analyzing bills.

It was not entirely clear at the time what would result. In the Kremlin, on January 22, at its first-ever plenary session, President Putin had admitted that neither the executive nor the legislative branches of power were enthusiastic about the Public Chamber coming into being; he said members of the Public Chamber “are not welcome anywhere.” (Note) But he thought it might become “an authoritative organ that can prove, by its deeds, its effectiveness and firm commitment to principles”. He had earlier chosen 42 initial members, who had elected 42 representatives from Russia’s national public associations, who then, together, elected a remaining 42 representatives from regional and interregional public associations—for a total of 126 members.

According to a report from the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Center, this development was part of a pattern of Kremlin efforts to control Russian society. Starting in the fall of 1993, the Kremlin had established new rules for elections that had thinned the ranks of the political parties and weakened them to the point where a new law on political parties had put them under complete control.

But, according to this report, “Much of Russia’s political life has gradually shifted from its political parties to networks of nongovernmental organizations.” The problem was how to get these “under its thumb, too”. But the report admitted that “Regardless of how minor a role the Public Chamber actually winds up playing…setting up the chamber and choosing its deputies may present serious problems for the Kremlin.” (Note)

Another cause of its creation was a chain of events that began in the Ukraine after the “orange revolution” had forced a new election. The campaign to force a new Presidential election in the Ukraine had been led by a host of civil society groups in the Ukraine, many of which were funded or inspired by the West. Later, a similar upheaval had occurred in Kyrgyzstan.

The Russian government (and the Chinese government) became concerned. From their points of view, this was a new tactic by the West to overturn and reshape foreign governments. The Duma response was to pass a bill regulating Russian NGOs and preventing them from receiving monies from abroad. Under Western pressure, this was rescinded, but controls over groups with foreign connections were tightened and much depended upon how vague provisions of the bill were interpreted and implemented by Russian prosecutors.

The foreign press attacked the Kremlin actions as anti-democratic and anti-civil society. In reaction, the Government decided to set up this captive mother-of-all NGOs formed from 126 prominent members of Russian non-governmental society.

In any case, at its first meeting, it had elected, as its Secretary, Academician Evgeny Pavlovich Velikhov, President of the Kurchatov Institute; it was he who had written the introduction to the Russian edition of Every Man Should Try and had worked closely with me in earlier years on arms control. (Appendix)

So I wrote Evgeny asking “How can I help?” and telling him I was coming to Moscow. In response, he invited me to address the Council of the Public Chamber (the leaders of the Committees) in an after-dinner speech.

Banquet of the Council of the Public Chamber
Banquet of the Council of the Public Chamber [See larger]
The Public Chamber Dinner

The Public Chamber decided to have seventeen Committees and a Council of the Public Chamber was formed, composed of the seventeen Chairpersons. I became the after-dinner speaker at the second meeting of this Council, Thursday, February 9th, 2006.

The dinner began at 9:30 p.m. after a long day for the Council members. The members were happy and enthusiastic. A Russian language copy of my book, Every Man Should Try, had been distributed to the 126 Council members along with a speech I had prepared and translated into Russian. But most had had no time to read the book.

With Velikhov standing, at dinner for Council of the Public Chamber
With Velikhov standing, at dinner for Council of the Public Chamber [See larger]
The speech suggested that Americans and Russians work together on governance much as American scientists and Russian scientists had worked together on the Arms Race. It made ten suggestions. (Appendix)

In particular, it suggested “Creating a Society in Which One Man Can Make a Difference”—something I knew was much on Academician Velikhov’s mind. He had urged me to “talk about butterflies”—meaning talk about the theme of my book, Every Man Should Try. In an earlier radio interview, he had said: “Now, we must bring into society what it has been lacking, namely social activity, the spirit of freedom and enterprise…our job is to be a catalyst for civil activity.” (Note)

Speaking in response, an audience lawyer said he liked the speech and the woman in charge of the Committee on Education said she had enjoyed reading my book.

But then a man arose and, speaking English perfectly, started to translate his own remarks. In English, he said, basically and politely, that Russia had to solve its problems itself. In Russian translation, however, he was saying things more like “Americans should keep their nose out of our business”. (Of course, Russians who did not speak English would think that he had taken this very hard line right in front of the American!).

A recent book, Unarmed Forces, observes that, already in 1966, Russian experts were calling the still undrafted and unratified ABM Treaty “Jeremy Stone’s proposal.” Accordingly, any ideas concerning the ABM Treaty from Catalytic Diplomacy’s president were treated in Russia as coming from an ultimate authority.
The man who did this was Vyacheslav Alekseevich Nikonov, grandson of the Foreign Minister Molotov, and the Chairperson of the Commission on Foreign Policy and Public Diplomacy. After an exchange of e-mails, he invited me to a 100-plus-member meeting of his future Commission. Nikonov is friendly and warm in person. But in the atmosphere then running in Russia, it was de rigueur to confront the Americans and show that one was not a lackey of the West.

At one point, I had suggested to the group that “politeness” would be a good place to start. I felt a politeness campaign in which bureaucrats and politicians were enjoined to treat people, and each other, more politely might provide an early success for the Public Chamber and a basis for future dialogue between the public and bureaucrats.

Still later that afternoon, I went to a meeting of Nikonov’s Committee that featured about 100 groups. Many leaders of these 100 groups spoke for a few minutes each. Edward Lozansky—who had lived in a room in my two Federation of American Scientists buildings in Washington when he had no other home after immigrating to America—was explaining that there were 3-6 million Americans of Russian descent that could be used to “influence U.S . . . policy”. (He used the word “us” and told me, later, that he was living most of the time in Russia now.)

A Russian friend told me that it was “in our blood” to respond to fear campaigns and that an anti-spy campaign was going on. A British diplomat had been caught with a recording device that looked like a rock. In the morning a great-granddaughter of Khrushchev was defending freedom of speech against supporters of Stalin. It was an echo of the past carried on by the children of the elites of the past.

Back to top