Archie Brown


On his book The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War (The first four questions)

Cover Interview of March 31, 2021

Three of Eight:
How did your professional path lead you to this book?

I’ve always been interested in political leadership, both in democracies and in highly authoritarian systems. My earliest articles in academic journals—in the 1960s—were on the powers of the British prime minister and on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The extreme centralization of power under Communism made the study of power and politics at the top of the hierarchy all the more important. Although I retained a serious interest in the politics of democracies, my main speciality became Communist politics. In the Cold War years, I made study visits to a number of Communist countries, including Czechoslovakia (as it then was), China, Hungary and Poland, and, more frequently, to the Soviet Union, including an entire academic year in Moscow State University in the 1960s (as a British Council exchange scholar).

I have a first-hand knowledge of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain—the three countries I am writing about in The Human Factor. I’ve spent most of my life in Britain, including the last fifty years in Oxford, where I was Professor of Politics (now Emeritus), but I also spent semesters or a whole academic year as a Visiting Professor in the United States (Yale, the University of Connecticut, Columbia, and the University of Texas in Austin) during the Cold War years.

Because of my speciality in the study of Communist politics, I had direct contact with party intellectuals who became influential during the perestroika years. I enjoyed friendly relations, for example, with Fedor Burlatsky, a political analyst who in pre-perestroika times was skilled at pushing official tolerance to its outer limits and in using Aesopian language to criticize the Soviet system. Burlatsky was at various times a consultant within the party’s Central Committee, a journalist on Pravda, a professor, a newspaper editor, a playwright, and a member of the new Soviet legislature elected in 1989. I knew Georgy Shakhnazarov, a closet social democrat in the pre-perestroika years, though he was the deputy head of a department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He combined office as a high-ranking official with the Presidency of the Soviet Association of Political Sciences. In the second half of the 1980s, Shakhnazarov (whose son is a well-known Russian film director) became an aide to Gorbachev and his most influential adviser on political reform.

Significantly, on my first study visit to Prague in 1965, I got to know Zdeněk Mlynář, an academic lawyer who became a leading figure in the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968. After the Soviet invasion in August of that year put an end to this reform movement in Czechoslovakia, Mlynář was expelled from the Communist Party and, from 1977, lived in Austria as a political exile. In 1979, in conversation with him, I learned that his closest friend when he was a law student in Moscow University between 1950 and 1955 was none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, who the previous year had become the youngest member of the top leadership team in Moscow. Knowing Zdeněk Mlynář not only helped my understanding of political change in Czechoslovakia but in the Soviet Union as well.

I was already interested in Gorbachev. His comparative youth marked him out from the others within the ageing Soviet oligarchy led by Leonid Brezhnev. I asked Mlynář whether he thought Gorbachev had an open mind, and got the answer, “Yes, he’s open-minded, intelligent, and anti-Stalinist”. To possess all three of those attributes, especially the first, distinguished Gorbachev from his colleagues in ways even more important than the generational difference. Mlynář was careful not to go public on his knowledge of Gorbachev until after his friend became Soviet leader in March 1985.

But he had shared some of this knowledge with me and, though I also protected my source (not quoting Mlynář by name), that was helpful when I took part in several seminars with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher between 1983 and 1987. It was in a paper I wrote for a seminar held at the prime minister’s country residence, Chequers, in September 1983, and in my oral presentation at that seminar, that she first heard of Gorbachev. I was one of eight academic participants. The seminar is described in the now declassified Cabinet Office and Foreign Office documents from that time as having led to a change of British foreign policy—to one of engagement with the Soviet Union and the Communist states of Eastern Europe.

The 1983 Chequers seminar was the beginning of a process that led to an invitation being sent to Gorbachev the following year to pay an official visit to Britain. The night before he arrived in December 1984, I was one of several academics plus a businessman invited to a small and informal seminar at 10 Downing Street with Prime Minister Thatcher and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, in my case specifically to speak about Gorbachev.

It was only after he was out of power that I personally got to know Gorbachev himself (as distinct from studying him), but I’ve met him on quite a number of occasions and have taken part in seminars and conferences he chaired, both on perestroika and on the end of the Cold War.

Although I’ve read widely on Reagan and the Reagan presidency, I assumed that, of the three leaders who are the central characters in my recent book, he was the only one with whom I did not have even the most tenuous personal link. But as recently as 2020, I learned that one of the documents he was given to read in preparation for his summit meeting with Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986 was a quite lengthy article titled ‘Change in the Soviet Union’ I published in the journal, Foreign Affairs, earlier that year. I didn’t come across that annotated document when I was doing research in the Reagan Presidential Library Archives in 2016. But last year one of the helpful archivists sent me the document electronically. I was intrigued to see which passages Reagan had underlined.

During the Reagan presidency, I took part, as a specialist on Communist political systems, in policy-related seminars in Washington, including an Inter-Agency meeting with officials, and I gave evidence to the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee (as well as to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in Britain).