A book that ventures into an unknown land

With a title like «The Unknown Russia,» one might be forgiven for imagining that this book is a travelogue or an inside look at Russian society. But it is not. Written by one of the master survivors of the 20th century, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, this is a book that peeks into the closed world of politics at the center of the empire, and then former empire. «The Unknown Russia,» an abridgment of Yevgeny Primakov’s two-volume «Eight Months Plus…» – a reference to his short stint as prime minister of the Russian Federation, from September 12, 1998 to May 12, 1999 – narrates events from the period 1990-2001, which coincides with the author’s presence as a recognizable actor on the world stage. Very few outside the then-Soviet Union knew of Yevgeny Maximovich Primakov before he appeared on the TV screens as Gorbachev’s envoy to Iraq, trying to convince Saddam Hussein – whom he had first met in 1969 – to withdraw his troops from Kuwait before war became inevitable. That’s because he had spent most of his adult life in the cozy world of academic institutes, as an expert on the Middle East. This was a world were the privileged few could conduct their research in relative peace, occasionally go on missions on behalf of their government, and watch the general secretaries come and go. It is in such institutes, such as the Institute for International Relations and the World Economy (IMEMO), where Primakov served as deputy director and director, or the US Studies Institute, the fiefdom of Georgy Arbatov, or even the Institute for Marxist Economics, that the more timid dissidents could hide, leading a life of relative privilege. Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais and the other «golden boys» of the early Yeltsin era, were the products of such institutes. Primakov was no closet reformer. Indeed, it appears that he was at ease with every phase of the Soviet regime – except, perhaps, the depths of Stalinist terror. But he is too much of a realist not to see what couldn’t work. Indeed, some of the blueprints for Gorbachev’s 1980s reforms came out of IMEMO during his watch. In his various guises – Pravda correspondent and editor, academic adviser to the government, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, foreign minister and, finally, prime minister – Primakov learned a lot about the Soviet, and then the Russian, system’s workings. Do not expect full disclosure, however. That will probably come posthumously, assuming he keeps his extensive archives intact for some future scholar. But he is no bland propagandist, either. He provides enough inside anecdotes – of a fickle Yeltsin, his scheming entourage (people Primakov deeply despises), his clashes with ex-Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, plus a gallery of foreign leaders and officials, from Saddam Hussein to George Bush to Bill Clinton and Slobodan Milosevic – to make this book a reasonably interesting read. Surprisingly, he appears to be more distant toward Gorbachev than one would have imagined, not because of ideological differences but because of a series of misunderstandings, and warmer than expected toward his US colleague and rival, Madeleine Albright. Unavoidably, perhaps, most of Primakov’s actual forays into domestic Russian policy concern his short term as prime minister. He nonetheless manages to paint a vivid picture of a country near collapse, plundered by his archenemies the oligarchs and with the administration in such a poor state that, of the 620 billion rubles the state was supposed to collect in tax revenues in 1997, it finally collected 27.3 billion. Primakov’s book is now being published in several foreign languages. He himself was present, last Friday, at the launch of the Greek edition by Courier Publishers, whose publications include the Russian-language Omoniya newspaper and the Polish-language Kurier Atenski. No speaker of Russian myself, I found several misspellings and apparent mistakes in translation in what I felt could have been a more careful edition. The author Yevgeny Maximovich Primakov was born in Kiev on October 29, 1929, and raised in Tbilisi. He studied at the Institute of Oriental Studies (1948-53) and obtained a doctorate in economics in 1956. He worked for the Central Administration of Radio Broadcasting Abroad (1956-62) and the Pravda newspaper (1962-70). He was Pravda correspondent to the Middle East (1966-70) but vehemently denies that the job was a cover for a KGB post, as has been widely reported. He was then appointed deputy director of the Institute of International Relations and the World Economy (IMEMO) a think-tank attached to the Soviet Academy of Sciences (1970-77), before becoming director of the Institute of Oriental Studies (1977-85). He moved back to IMEMO as director (1985-89). In 1986, he was elected candidate member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee at the 27th Party Congress. In 1989, he was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies and became speaker of the Upper Chamber. He became also, for a brief period (September 1989-July 1990), a full member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, as well as a candidate member of the Politburo. As a member of the President’s Advisory Council (1990-91), Primakov became an influential foreign-policy adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev. In September 1991, he became first deputy chairman of the KGB and head of its First Directorate (foreign espionage). When the KGB split, in November 1991, Primakov became head of the Foreign Intelligence Service. In January 1996, he became foreign minister and then served, for a brief, tumultuous period (September 1998-May 1999) as prime minister of Russia. A leader of the Fatherland/All Russia party coalition at the State Duma after the 2000 elections, Primakov was elected, in October 2001, president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation. «The Unknown Russia,» Yevgeny M. Primakov, Courier Publishers, Athens 2002. Translated from the Russian by Andreas Sideris.

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