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by Olga Krasnyak

Editors note: Dr. Krasnyaks research was supported by the Matlock Archives Short-term Fellows in Residence Grant. The grant was provided by the Center of Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies (CSEEES) of Duke University.

US-Russia relations are currently at a low point without promise for improvement in the short term. Russia and the US once again seem more likely to be talking about each other than with each other.

Research into the career of Jack F. Matlock, a long-term diplomat and an Ambassador to the Soviet Union, offers insights into ways to conduct diplomacy to advance American interests with Russia. Ambassador Matlock’s contributions to diplomacy are important for understanding the history of US diplomacy with Russia; the Matlock archive collection at Duke University is a rich source for researching and teaching diplomacy.

Specialization in Russian Literature

Matlock’s interest in Russian literature began when he was a student at Duke University and was bowled over by Dostoyevsky. His specialization in Russian affairs continued in graduate school at the Russian Institute of Columbia University and as an instructor in Russian language at Dartmouth College. While there, Matlock indexed the Russian edition of Stalin’s collected works, completed his first dissertation on the Union of Soviet Writers, and translated the nineteenth century novelist Nikolai Leskov and the poetry of Andrey Voznesensky, whom he later often welcomed at Spaso House, the residence of the American ambassador in Moscow. He later said that his knowledge of Stalin’s nationality policy proved useful when he took the Foreign Service test.

In a 1997 interview, Matlock emphasized that being a specialist in Russian literature allowed him to develop a rapport with writers and intellectuals at a time when making contacts was very difficult.[1] For Russian people, the reliability of ‘this American…who knew their language [and] their literature probably better than they did…subliminally cast a very useful image’ and drew their interest.

Russian poet Bela Akhmadulina and novelist Vasily Aksyonov present copies of their books to Ambassador Matlock.   Rebecca B. Matlock photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

Matlock understood that comprehending other societies is critical for communicating constructively and negotiating effectively, and is especially crucial for learning how to trust a counterpart and expecting the same in return.

Engaging the US Political Establishment

For Matlock, diplomatic communication meant both building relations with the Soviet leadership and a wider Soviet audience and engaging with the American political establishment in order to promote US interests in the Soviet Union.

Matlock’s postings in Washington and his short tenure as the deputy director at the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in 1979-1980 gave him extended opportunities to form bonds with the American political establishment.

Given that a quarter to a third of US ambassadors are political appointees rather than career foreign service officers, Matlock attempted to build constructive relations with them and help them adjust to ambassadorial work.[2] In a Russian-language newspaper “Nedelya” (“Week”) interview from 1988, Matlock joked that in America, politicians and high-ranking military and marine officers and generals could become ambassadors, but diplomats could not become military generals.

Matlock’s work at FSI focused on putting communication programs into the framework of the diplomatic curriculum. But in addition to training foreign service officers, Matlock also pulled in congressional representatives. Gathering together under the umbrella of the FSI provided opportunities for diplomats and politicians to communicate and tie societal knots.

Engaging Soviet Audiences

In reaching out to the Soviet leadership and Soviet audiences, Matlock developed a strategic diplomatic agenda: 1) knowing and understanding a host country in order to produce comprehensive reports; 2) knowing and understanding the politics and interests of one’s home country to adequately represent national interests internationally and in a host country; and 3) communicating with counterparts to effectively negotiate and find conflict resolutions.

Strategic communication played an important role in US-Soviet relations. Soviet foreign policy was pragmatic, yet embedded within ideological constants and mostly dependent on an internal autocratic political system. During working-level negotiations with Soviet diplomats, talks could be stalled and inflexible. The inflexibility reflected the preliminary diplomatic strategy of maximum pressure and a waiting game. When negotiations got completely stuck, only the direct consultation of Soviet diplomats with their leadership for the approval of different strategies would change the direction of the talks.

Understanding the top-down Soviet political system was key to understanding this aspect of Soviet diplomatic negotiations. No matter how hard diplomats tried to negotiate, it took top level summits, such as Nixon-Brezhnev and Reagan-Gorbachev, to achieve breakthroughs in bilateral relations.

Secrecy was another issue that complicated effective diplomatic communication. Although the ability to do diplomacy in secret remains essential, Matlock insisted that maximum openness was the prerequisite for successful diplomatic work and negotiations. Michael McFaul, also a former ambassador to Russia, agreed with Matlock, arguing that “the more we could tell the Russians about our intentions and actions, the better.”

Mastering the art of diplomatic communication also required distinct personal skills: excellent oral and written presentations, personal charm, and a high degree of likability. Matlock’s social perceptiveness gave him the ability to express emotional sensibility, demonstrate a sense of humor, and foresee outcomes in interactions between people and states. He understood that personal encounters between state leaders and diplomats helps transform them into “bonded partners” who value one another’s security and welfare.

Multiple Missions to Moscow

Before his 1987-1991 assignment as ambassador to Moscow, Matlock had already served three tours at the US Embassy there, as well as serving in West Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, and Washington. The Moscow ambassadorship became the culmination of Matlock’s diplomatic career, with focus on the use of military force, arms control and arms reduction, human rights, and a broad range of bilateral issues.

Knowing Russian psychology, Matlock understood that his main task would be to become what he called an “interlocuteur valable” with the Soviet leaders, communicating with the top Soviet leadership privately and persuasively.[3]

Despite the success of “back channels” established by Henry Kissinger and long-term Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin in the 1970s, Matlock strongly advised against the practice because they left the American ambassador out of the policy and decision making, keeping him uninformed. Instead, Matlock insisted that diplomatic mission success required consulting with the ambassador before foreign policy decisions were made.

To increase the embassy’s understanding of Russian issues and Russian understanding of the US, Matlock made good use of the Voice of America’s (VOA) news service and a bulletin of official texts concerning US-Soviet relations, translated into Russian. The Matlock archive contains many of the VOA information briefings.

Also important were the information overviews and analyses of newspapers and magazines about the Soviet Union prepared by the United States Information Agency (USIA). Matlock’s papers incorporate large sections of materials from USIA, whose regular media coverage was an informative source for monitoring the mainstream media and public opinion on Soviet affairs from domestic and international perspectives.

Efforts to End the Cold War

Before becoming ambassador to the USSR, Matlock was in Washington 1983-1986. As senior director for European and Soviet affairs at the National Security Council (NSC), his role was to work on negotiations—ranging from arms control to human rights—and implement agreements signed between the two countries.

Scholars of international politics are still debating the factors that determined the end of the Cold War. Matlock’s statements point to the top-down approach as a factor that determined the eventual outcome, crediting Reagan with improving relations despite his hardline rhetoric. However, he emphasizes the role of diplomats of both countries as crucial in solving issues that had grown out of the Cold War. According to Matlock, the Moscow embassy and its diplomatic establishment “played an absolutely critical role” in such negotiations while the embassy assembled “the most talented and dedicated American diplomats…at a single time.”[4] These diplomats— human beings, individuals with definite capacities and characteristics—opted to interact with one another instead of threatening each other.

The Reagan-Gorbachev summitry and the diplomacy involved also had to deal with issues such as US concerns over Soviet violations of human rights, attempts to impose the Soviet model on third-world countries, and the legitimacy of the Soviet system itself. While the Soviet Union denied these US characterizations, they were at the forefront of the two countries’ ideological confrontations for decades and thus hard to overcome in order to move negotiations forward.

In a secret memo that Matlock drafted for Reagan,[5] he argued that those politically motivated questions should not be prerequisites to negotiations with the Soviets. Otherwise, the core of the nuclear disarmament talks would be put at risk. Blaming the Soviets for their human rights record would not help the people who were being oppressed and would only worsen negotiation talks. Steady improvement in bilateral relations and cooperation would be a more effective way to approach the human rights issue.

Using Public Diplomacy Effectively

Matlock was confident that the US had the necessary leverage to change the Soviet Union’s behavior in a way that would be favorable to American interests through economic, diplomatic, and cultural means. This involved widening and deepening contacts, mostly with the Soviet intelligentsia that was a force for independent thinking in the Soviet Union and was more attuned to Western values and influence. However, the authoritarian nature of Soviet society meant that direct communication with Soviet citizens put them at risk of being suspected as American spies or foreign agents. Many of the Soviet intellectuals were dissidents and human rights activists who opposed the Soviet system.

Events organized by the Matlocks at Spaso House—receptions, exhibitions, poems readings, movie nights with artists and bohemians, scientists and politicians—helped promote bilateral relations and liberal values. Spaso House and a country dacha became sanctuaries for Soviet dissidents such as nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov and Nobel laureate Andrey Voznesensky, a Soviet poet and writer whose poetry Matlock translated. Other guests included world-renowned musicians Galina Vishnevskaya and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who returned to the Soviet Union after being stripped of their Soviet citizenship in 1978. Photographs taken by Rebecca Matlock show the congenial relationship with these guests.

Georgy Arbatov, Director of the USA and Canada Institute, speaks with Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham.  Rebecca B. Matlock photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

During decades of engaging with Soviet affairs, Matlock developed a large number of personal ties. For him, the relationship with the country was not an abstraction. He did not see his work as dealing with pieces on a geographic chessboard or the interplay of antagonistic ideological concepts; it concerned the well-being of people the ambassador knew personally.

Matlock’s diplomatic career and devotion to maintaining relations between the two countries is worth study. His strategic vision of diplomacy played a key role in soothing bilateral relations including through people-to-people exchanges.[6] Promoting US foreign policy interests and values was also beneficial for the Soviet people, paving the way for the liberalization and democratization of Russia in the 1990s.

Today there is an urgent need for diplomacy to help improve US-Russia relations, with implications well beyond bilateral relations. Whether for arms control or climate change talks, cyber warfare or global health and pandemics, there is need for high-ranking diplomats and ambassadors to plan and implement strategy to improve relations, avoid international conflicts, and address global challenges.

Jack F. Matlock’s ambassadorship is a good example of effective US diplomacy and maintaining healthy inter-state relations, even when they are constrained or limited. Rational, mature, and productive U.S.-Russian relations are in both countries’ interests; both nations would benefit from cooperation, not from conflict.End.



Dr. Olga Krasnyak

Dr. Olga Krasnyak is Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia. Previously Adjunct Professor at Underwood International College of Yonsei University in Seoul. Research interests focus on diplomacy and science diplomacy and the implementation of science and science development into a nation-state’s foreign policy, in a historical context. Author of National Styles in Science, Diplomacy, and Science Diplomacy (Leiden, 2018). Media commentator on diplomacy and international relations.

Twitter: @OlgaKrasnyak Email: Web:


[1] Conversation with Jack Matlock, “The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the End of the Cold War,” 13 February 1997, box 18, Matlock Papers.

[2] “The American Academy of Diplomacy,” 1990s, box 84, Matlock Papers.

[3] “Embassy Moscow: Increasing its Effectiveness,” 30 January 1979, box 43, Matlock Papers.

[4] “Dedication of Amb. Jack F. and Rebecca Matlock Archives,” YouTube, DukeSEELRC, last modified February 3, 2019,

[5] Jack F. Matlock, Jn., Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended (New York, NY, 2005).

[6] Olga Krasnyak, “How U.S.-Soviet Scientific and Technical Exchanges Helped End the Cold War,” American Diplomacy, November 2019,

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