Translated by Simon Schuchat
Editor’s Note: This excerpt from a Soviet diplomat’s memoir of his China service is translated by Simon Schuchat. The diplomat, Aleksei Arkadevich Brezhnev (1930-2008, no relation to Leonid Brezhnev), worked on Sino-Soviet affairs from 1953 until 1978, in Beijing and Moscow, including serving as acting head of the USSR embassy during part of the Cultural Revolution in China. In 1998 he published China: A Thorny Path to Neighborly Relations. Memoirs and Reflections, from which this excerpt is taken.
In accordance with the Sino-American agreement reached in Beijing and Washington in 1973, each side opened its own liaison office. Their difference from embassies was purely formal, connected with the difficulties of finding a suitable formula on the Taiwan issue (the parties apparently needed time to camouflage a compromise and demonstrate “firmness” in upholding their positions). The U.S. established full diplomatic relations in 1979.
In Beijing, the U.S. Liaison Office [USLO] showed a willingness to maintain friendly relations with the Soviet embassy, which we reciprocated. By the way, during the next vacation, meeting with V.V. Kuznetsov1, I consulted with him on this issue. He recommended, without insisting, maintaining good stable relations with the Americans, as long as we did not hide them from the Chinese.
The extraordinary personality of the USLO Chief, the future U.S. President George H. W. Bush, was especially engraved in the memory. He was energetically friendly with the Tolstikovs2, as well as with my wife and me, since we both spoke English and thus there was no language barrier.
Bush often resorted to theatrical gestures: pats on the back, etc. Entering the dining room of the International Club and seeing us, he sometimes shouted loudly: “Hello, Brezhnevs!” We answered. Naturally, this was noted by all who were present, including [Chinese] plainclothes people, who “happened to be” there.
Why did he do it?
I think his idea was, while actively working to develop U.S.-China relations, at the same time, he wanted to warn the Chinese against trying to play a Soviet card against the U.S. In those conditions, this did not contradict our interests either.
Sometime in the second half of 1975, the Bushes invited the Tolstikovs, and my wife and me to visit. The highlight of the program was a video about the Second World War in the Pacific, in which Bush had fought. He knew that Ambassador Tolstikov had also been at the front, and decided to please him by reminding him of their fighting brotherhood.
Unfortunately, our Ambassador not only did not have a comparable film, he also had no video equipment whatsoever. We thought about how to reciprocate. But the question resolved itself. There was a message about the appointment of George H.W. Bush as director of the CIA. On the occasion of the departure of George and Barbara Bush, Ambassador Tolstikov decided to arrange a farewell lunch at the “Red House”, one of two old houses on the USSR Embassy compound that had survived from when it had been the compound of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission. The ancient Chinese furnishings made a pleasant impression on the guests.
I remember the exchange of toasts. Ambassador Tolstikov kept his brief speech within a strictly protocol framework, not forgetting to express the hope that in his new influential post, with all its specifics, Mr. Bush would help maintain good relations between our two countries.
In response, I expected to hear an equally smooth protocol speech, formally referring to improving relations between the U.S. and the USSR. But I heard something more – the reflections of a high-ranking American leader about our relationship. Bush said (I will give it as I remember it, naturally) that he, of course, would like to see our bilateral relationship be as good as possible. But as a realist, he sees that there are obstacles in the way of its development, including some that are still insurmountable. At the same time, there are areas where practical action is possible and necessary—a decrease in the level of military confrontation and prevention of armed conflict. And this would really be worth dedicating all our efforts to.
I must say that the toast impressed me greatly with its frankness, directness and what you might call American pragmatism. Perhaps, it is true, my view of Bush’s words was influenced by my many years of service in the East, where I was accustomed to completely different toasts [ie flowery toasts to the friendship between peoples].
Simon Schuchat first went to China in 1978 as a “Foreign Expert” teaching English at Fudan University in Shanghai. He did graduate work in Chinese literature and history at Yale University and Harvard University, leaving academia to join the U.S. Foreign Service in 1985. During his 26 years in the State Department, he served throughout “Greater China,” including Guangzhou, Beijing; Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. At the State Department, he also worked on U.S.-Russia relations, both on the Russia desk and in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow; and on U.S.-Japan relations both in Tokyo and Washington. Since retiring from the State Department, his translations of Chinese and Russian literature have been published in Hong Kong and the United States.
1 V.V. Kuznetsov (1901-1990), First Deputy Foreign Minister from 1955 until 1977; later Acting Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet during the 1980s transitions from Brezhnev to Andropov to Chernenko to Gorbachev.
2 V.S. Tolstikov, Soviet Ambassador to China 1970-1979. Not a professional diplomat, he had been Party Secretary in Leningrad prior to his assignment to China.