You probably think Mikhail Gorbachev invented the concept of glasnost to describe his effort to lead the Soviet Union ‘out of its totalitarian state and to democracy, to freedom, to openness,’ as he wrote. If so, you are not alone. All of the media and most of the ‘experts,’ even in Western defence establishments, believe that too – as does the committee that awarded Gorbachev the Nobel Peace Prize. Even the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica defines glasnost as ‘Soviet policy of open discussion of political and social issues. It was instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s and began the democratisation of the Soviet Union.’ Merriam-Webster agrees. And the American Heritage Dictionary defines glasnost as ‘an official policy of the former Soviet government emphasising candor with regard to discussion of social problems and shortcomings.’
But, in fact, glasnost is an old Russian term for polishing the ruler’s image. Originally, it meant, literally, publicising, i.e., self-promotion. Since the sixteenth century’s Ivan the Terrible, the first ruler to become Tsar of All the Russians, all of that country’s leaders have used glasnost to promote themselves inside and outside the country.
In the mid-1930s – half a century before Gorbachev’s glasnost – the official Soivet encyclopaedia defined glasnost as a spin on news released to the public: ‘Dostupnost obshchestvennomy obsuzhdeniyu, kontrolyu; publichnost,’ meaning, ‘the quality of being made available for public discussion or manipulation.’
Thus, back in the days when I was still a member of the KGB community, glasnost was regarded as a tool of the black art of dezinformatsiya, and it was used to sanctify the country’s leader. For communists, only the leader counted. They used glasnost to sanctify their own leaders, and to induce hordes of Western leftists to fall for this scam.
Glasnost is one of the most secret secrets of the Kremlin, and certainly one of the main reasons for keeping the KGB’s foreign intelligence archives hermetically sealed. The Cold War is over, but the Kremlin's glasnost operations seem to be still en vogue. In August 1999, only days after Vladimir Putin was appointed Russia's prime minister, the KGB's dezinformatsiya machinery, capitalising on the fact that he had spent many years in Germany, started portraying him as a Europeanised leader. (The fawning stories neglected to mention that he had been assigned to East Germany, a Soviet satellite at the time.) That same year, I went with my wife - an American writer and intelligence expert - to visit Leipzig and Dresden and tour the menacing buildings that had housed the Stasi (communist East Germany's political police) headquarters where Putin had, in fact, spent his 'Europeanising' years. We learned that the local Soviet-German House of Friendship - headed by Putin for six years - had in fact been a KGB front, and that the undercover KGB officers running it had simply worked out of operational offices at the Leipzig and Dresden Stasi headquarters. We even sat in Putin's chair, now a museum piece.
Those prison-like Stasi buildings had been cut off from even the normal and colourless East German life by Stasi guards brandishing machine guns and flanked by police dogs. Yet, even today, the Kremlin still reverentially implies that Putin's experience in Germany was similar to that of Peter the Great, allowing him to absorb the best of European culture.
At the end of the 2001 summit meeting held in Slovenia, President George W Bush said: "I looked the man [Putin] in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.' Unfortunately, even President Bush was deceived by glasnost. Putin consolidated Russia into an intelligence dictatorship, not a democracy. by 2003, more than six thousand former officers of the KGB, who had framed millions as Zionist spies and shot them, were running Russia's federal and local governments. Nearly half of all top governmental positions were held by former officers of the KGB. It was like democratising Nazi Germany with Gestapo officers at its helm.
On 12 February 2004, Putin declared the demise of the Soviet Union a 'national tragedy on an enormous scale.' Nevertheless, most of the world still sees him as a modern Peter the Great. That is the secret power of glasnost.
'A man like me is born only once every five hundred years,' Ceaușescu would proclaim, over and over again, after 1972. That was his glasnost and, unfortunately, I was deeply involved in it.
For those who do not remember Ceaușescu, let me just say that he was more or less a Romanian version of the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin - an empty suit who morphed into his country's president without having held any productive job, who knew nothing about how the real world worked, and who believed that lying to the world and killing off his critics were the magic wands that would keep him in power. Like Putin, Ceaușescu had supervised his country's political police organisation before becoming president. Behind the scenes, Ceaușescu, like Putin, used his intelligence machinery to override party politics as a means to power. Like Putin, he made an effort to detract attention away from his humble and colourless past by making his imperial dreams come true. And, of course, they both ascended the throne driven by the secret ambition to hang onto it for dear life.
After getting my marching orders from Ceaușescu in 1972, I was in Moscow a week later. KGB chairman Andropov greeted me by getting right to the point: 'The only thing the West cares about is our leader.' He was famous for not wasting his breath on introductory chitchat. 'The more they come to love him, the better they will like us,' he said. Making the imperialists believe our leaders admired them was the most efficacious glasnost tactic for now. It was as simple as that, and it worked, he said. The KGB had already achieved great success in making certain elements in the West admire - even love - 'the Comrade' (meaning first Stalin, then Khrushchev).
Andropov's dark, cavernous office breathed secrecy from every inch of its thick walls, just as his new glasnost did. The velvet window draperies were closed, and the only light came from the flickering flames of a fire inside the fireplace. The chairman's ascetic fingers felt cold and moist when he shook my hand. He took a seat on the side of the table facing the warmth of the fireplace, not at the head, as Soviet bureaucratic protocol required. His kidney illness had worsened and he needed to keep warm, so as to avoid having to go to the bathroom too often during a meeting.
'Let the gullible fools believe you want to perfume your communism with a dab of Western democracy, and they will clothe you in gold,' Andropov declared. The creation of the image of the 'new Ceaușescu' should be planted like opium seeds - patiently but tenaciously, one by one by one. We should water our seeds day after day until they bear fruit. We should promise that more openness and Westernisation will be forthcoming, if only the West helps our new 'moderate' Ceaușescu to defeat his 'hardline' opponents at home.
Some two hours later, the KGB chairman concluded our meeting as abruptly as he had started it: 'I'll lay you a million to one that the West will swallow it.'
When I left the Lubyanka (KGB headquarters), I took with me a devious glasnost plan for image reconstruction. Ceaușescu followed it to the letter. He rebaptised the Grand National Assembly, Romania's version of the Supreme Soviet, as 'Parliament,' added a few religious leaders to it, and declared it the country's governing body. Of course, it remained the same rubber-stamp organisation Romania had had before. Next, Ceaușescu publicy called for the Communist Party to reduce its influence on the administration and the economy of the country. That was another inspired glasnost trick. Then, Ceaușescu staged a simulated economic decentralisation, instituted dual candidates for local elections, and announced a campaign against corruption and drunkenness.
That done, Ceaușescu created the national position of 'president,' endowed it with broad governing powers, and awarded himself the post.
To impress the religious, Ceaușescu even marched behind a metropolitan of the church and a clutch of priests at his father's funeral. Lastly, he developed a specialty of telling anti-Soviet jokes.
It worked like a charm. Bucharest became an East European mecca, filed to the brim with Western journalists and politicians eager to get a closer look at the man who had dared to change communism for the better. A celebrity was born.
Western businessmen rushed to Bucharest, hoping to get in on the ground floor for a slice of the new Romania. Of course, most of them had been lured there by my undercover DIE (Romania's foreign intelligence service) operatives, who went to great lengths to pamper them during their stay. Gradually, my undercover officers became expert at 'rewarding' the 'friendly' visitors by setting up interviews for them with Ceaușescu, inviting them to lavish banquets held in Romania's picturesque monsateries, carousing with them at all-night parties and finding them compliant girlfriends. Or even by involving them in profitable businesses.
Today, no one remembers that Ceaușescu was once Washington's fair-haired boy. Contemporary political memory seems to be increasingly afflicted with a kind of convenient Alzheimer's disease. But two American presidents went to Bucharest to pay Ceaușescu tribute, when none had ever gone there before. To cap it all off, my lord and master began a royal junket around the free world to sell his image - the United States, Japan, France, Italy, the Vatican, Finland, West Germany, Spain, Portugal, Egypt, Jordan, and the Philippines, to mention only a few of his hosts.
On all of these trips, Ceaușescu kept me at his right hand. He now religiously believed that glasnost, not Marxist ideology, was the magic wand that would make his ambitions a reality.
In 1978, I accompanied Ceaușescu on his fourth and most triumphant trip to Washington, and I was next to him when he took a historic drive throughout London with Queen Elizabeth in the British royal coach. Few now remember it, but a steady stream of front-page articles on Romania appeared in the United States, Great Britain, and Western Europe at that time, extolling Ceaușescu's new 'Westernised Communism.' The tyrant was portrayed as a new breed of communist ruler, one the West could do business with. Romania seemed a normal country - a place where people could criticise their government, visit monasteries, listen to Western symphonies, read foreign books, and even point to their stylish first lady.
We were also quite successful at filling Western media airwaves with the new image of Ceaușescu. The truth is, the Western media are quite easily manipulated, for they often craft their stories from press releases and tend, on the whole, to be indiscriminate about the nature and reliability of their sources. Our information fit quite well with the general mood of Western acceptance of Ceaușescu as a Westernised communist. In the West, his position generally seemed a plausible and historic breach in the Iron Curtain, and almost no one stepped up to check the facts and contradict us.
In 1982, Yuri Andropov, the father of the modern Soviet dezinformatsiya era, became ruler of the Soviet Union itself, and glasnost became a soviet foreign policy as well. Once settled in the Kremlin, the former KGB chairman hastened to introduce himself to the West as a ‘moderate’ communist and a sensitive, warm, Western-oriented man, who allegedly enjoyed an occasional drink of scotch, liked to read English novels, and loved listening to Beethoven and American jazz. In reality, Andropov did not drink at all, for he was already terminally ill from a kidney disorder. The rest of the portrayal was equally false – as I well know, having been quite well acquainted with Andropov. As for ‘moderate,’ any head of the KGB necessarily had hands drenched in blood.
In the brief span left to him, the cynical Andropov focused on projecting his new image and promoting his protégé, a vigorous and callous young professional communist, who was busy honing the same moderate image for himself - Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev introduced himself to the West exactly as Adropov had: a cultured sophisticate and aficionado of Western opera and jazz. The Kremlin has always known that this picture holds particular charm for the gullible West.
Gorbachev is thought to have been recruited by the KGB in the early 1950s while studying law at Moscow State University, where he spied on his foreign classmates. As long as the KGB archives remain sealed, we will not be able to learn more details about those years of Gorbachev’s life. But we do now know that after graduating from the university, Gorbachev interned at the Lubyanka, the state security headquarters, where he came uder Andropov’s influence. Both had begun their careers in Stavrpol. Andropov got Gorbachev appointed to the Soviet Politburo, and one Gorbachev biographer even describes him as Androov’s ‘crown prince.’
Meanwhile, the West’s admiration for Ceaușescu’s glasnost took on such a life of its own that it could not be stopped. In a letter dated 27 January 1983, written to Ceaușescu on his birthday, President Richard Nixon, whom I had already briefed about Ceaușescu’s glasnost after I defected to the United States, gushed:
Ever since we first met and talked in 1967, I have watched you grow in stature as a statesman. Your vigor, your single-mindedness, your acute intelligence – and especially your ability to act skillfully on both domestic and international fronts – place you in the first rank of world leaders … At 65, most people are ready to retire, but for many of the greatest leaders the most productive and satisfying years are still ahead. I am certain that your best moments will come in your second decade as President as you continue to follow the bold, independent course you have set for your people.
The late Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, for whose staunch anti-communism I have high regard, told me in 1988 that Ceaușescu ‘may be crazy with his own people, but believe me, General, he is the one who’ll break up the Soviet bloc.’ A few months later, however, Ceaușescu was executed by his own people at the end of a trial in which the accusation came almost word-for-word out of my book, Red Horizons: The True Story of Nicolae & Elena Ceaușescu Crimes, Lifestyle, and Corruption.
By that time, however, Washington and the rest of the West had shifted their affections. Now, it was the man in the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was seen as the nascent democrat and touted as a political visionary. Once again, the Western media appeared to swallow their own hype. Gorbachev’s rhetoric about combining ‘communist values’ with ‘Western democracy introduced from the top’ and a ‘centralised free-market economy’ enthralled the world. Piles of Gorbachev’s Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World took the place of Ceaușescu’s memoirs in bookstore windows.
So much for institutional memory.
Glasnost had struck again.
In December 1987, after Mikhail Gorbachev went to Washington, I had the weird déjà vu feeling of watching a reenactment of Ceaușescu's last official visit to the United States in April 1978. I had prepared and directed that visit, and during its actual performance, I had also accompanied Ceaușescu.
To my mind, the two communist leaders were uncannily alike both in appearance and actions. Both men were short in stature - like most dictators. Both brought their foreign intelligence chiefs along with them, as most communist rulers did. Both boosted their national history and culture, reciting poems by their famous writers. Bother were said to be fans of American movies. Both strode into Washington with firm step and swinging arms, wearing equally broad smiles on their faces and almost identical Italian suits of impeccable conservative cut on their stocky bodies. Both chose to wear a business suit to the formal black-tie dinner at the White House - Ceaușescu always said that the black tie was the ultimate symbol of capitalist decay, an opinion that caused me many a protocol headache on his visits abroad.
Both Gorbachev and Ceaușescu welcomed every photo opportunity in the United States, clearly indicating that they considered the American media the most effective way to polish their international image. Gorbachev's arrival was preceded by an NBC interview, just as Ceaușescu's had been by one with the Hearst newspapers. Both publicly used Washington to reaffirm their deep devotion to Marxism, although both had to acknowledge that their communist systems at home were in deep trouble. (Translation: Send money.) And both were not shy about letting the West know their determination to stay in power for the rest of their lives.
After formal ceremonies, official document signing, and the requisite exchange of fancy dinners, Gorbachev again followed in Ceaușescu's footsteps by turning on the charm for members of Congress and high-level American businessmen. Both groups have often made themselves useful to foreign despots.
Both Gorbachev and Ceaușescu came to Washington accompanied by their wives, a diplomatic first. Both first ladies were promoted as intellectuals in their own right. In Washington, the Romanians publicised a scientific study by Elena Ceaușescu - actually ghostwritten by my DIE. Soviet advance publicity glowed over Raisa Gorbachev's university dissertation, even getting excerpts from it published in the American press. On her fourth visit to Washington, Elena Ceaușescu demanded that I get her an American academic title. It was not easy, but I managed to arrange a ceremony at Blair House making her an honourary member of the Illinois Acadmey of Science. Raisa Gorbachev returned to the United States in 1990 and was honoured at a highly-publicised Wellesley College graduation.
Toward the end of their visits, both Eastern bloc leaders received a taste of American democracy in action. Ceaușescu had to face thousands of Romanian and Hungarian émigrés who besieged his residence at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York, calling him 'Dracula' for his ultra-Marxist domestic policies. Gorbachev had to put up with a large demonstration asking for the right of Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Those confrontations momentarily caused both communist leaders to let slip their smiling masks, allowing a glimpse of their steel teeth. In the end, however, both won the American public back over to their side by stopping their motorcades and impulsively plunging into the crowd to shake hands.
In retrospect, it is easy to see that all of this was a product of sophisticated dezinformatsiya experts and public relations crews, employing all their reliable, smoke-and-mirrors framing techniques. At the time, however, both leaders were perceived as modern pragmatists who deserved to be supported. Indeed, they were believed by many in diplomatic and academic circles to really be - deep down - on America's side. It was argued that they needed US support to help them in impending tough struggles with their own domestic 'hardliners.'
I do not mean to imply that the mighty Gorbachev would necessarily have been trying to copy Ceaușescu word-for-word and step-by-step, but Andropov's resounding success at stage-directing Ceaușescu was certainly there for Gorbachev to consider. It seems particularly significant that Gorbachev, a couple of weeks after returning home from his 1987 trip to Washington, quietly awarded Ceaușescu the Order of Lenin, the highest decoration in the Soviet bloc, in spite of the two men's strong public differences. As far as I know, Ceaușescu was the only East European leader Gorbachev ever decorated with that high award.
I noted only one fundamental difference between Gorbachev's and Ceaușescu's strategies to butter up the West. Three months after Ceausescu left Washington, the acting chief of his foreign intelligence service - this writer - was granted political asylum by the United States.
That event shattered the smiling mask Ceausescu had worn in Washington and allowed the inner workings of his glasnost machine to lie spread out on the table for all to see. From among Gorbachev's innermost circle, no one has yet stepped forward with the truth about that last Soviet monarch's methods of governing the country and about his still-admired glasnost.
At the beginning of 2001, Gorbachev was still publicly asserting that his glasnost (for which he had been granted the Nobel Prize and named 'Man of the Decade' by Time magazine) was 'leading the country out of its totalitarian state and to democracy, to freedom, to openness. In March 2002, however, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had prominently endorsed glasnost in the 1980s, cast the first doubt on Gorbachev. She conceded that 'the role of Mikhail Gorbachev, who failed miserably in his declared objective of saving Communism and the Soviet Union, has been absurdly misunderstood.'
- General Ion Mihai Pacepa, Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism, 2013