For 16 years, until 1980, diplomat-poet Robert Ford observed the comings and goings in the Kremlin as Canada's ambassador to Moscow. Fluent in Russian and three other languages, he became dean of Moscow's diplomatic corps. In that role, he dealt face-to-face with Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev and followed the activities of other party leaders. Retired and living in the south of France, Ford, 67, now a government foreign policy adviser, was recently in Ottawa, where he spoke with Maclean’s Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Lewis.
Maclean’s: Is there a struggle for power in Moscow ?
Ford: A struggle for position, not a struggle for power. Certainly there are a lot of ambitious men there, and the race seems to be wide open. There’s no doubt that for about five years Brezhnev’s been ailing. He seems to have some sort of arteriosclerosis, but nobody knows for sure. He’s had a speech defect for a long time—one of the embarrassing problems is that he’s never been able to pronounce the Russian phrase for peaceful coexistence. He has remarkable powers of recuperation, but it can’t be long before he has to resign or depart this earth.
Maclean’s: What kind of personal dealings did you have with Brezhnev?
Ford: He was always very polite and direct with me. He’s rather an emotional person, particularly when he gets on the subject of war and tends to go off on some of his personal experiences. But he’s tough, he’s able and he exudes a feeling of power.
Maclean’s: What do you foresee happening now?
Ford: If Brezhnev becomes incapacitated, that’s one thing. It could be something like Lenin during his last years, in which he was still secretary general of the party but was unable really to operate. In that case, or even if Brezhnev dies, I would think that Konstantin Chernenko would be the likely immediate successor. He is practically the alter ego of Brezhnev. He thinks the way Brezhnev does about the world and Soviet society.
Maclean’s: Even in light of the recent elevation of Yuri Andropov (former KGB chief) to the ruling secretariat?
Ford: Yes. I don’t think Chernenko would last long. I think it has to be an
interim leadership, and then you move into the real succession. Andropov is the coming man. But he wouldn’t necessarily move in right away.
Maclean’s: Andropov headed the KGB. What will that mean if he does emerge? Ford: He’s disengaged himself from the KGB now and he was not a KGB career man. He was imposed on the KGB by the Politburo. In that sense, he’s not a routine KGB officer, but it might take a little while to launder his association with the KGB. It’s not the most popular organization.
Maclean’s: Are the Soviet people concerned about spending on defence, as opposed to food?
Ford: Well, arguments don’t go on in the streets.
But they go on, I’m sure, in the party hierarchy and in the Council of Ministers. It has to be a preoccupation, because there is already a very high percentage of the gross national product going to the military. It’s not only a question of the amount of money, but the percentage of scientists and technologists that goes into the research and development side of the military. Of course, the expenditure on soldiers and airmen is much less, relatively, than it is in the West, because the salaries are ludicrously low. They live very frugally, so that if Western countries had
the size of standing army that the Russians have, it would practically bankrupt them.
Maclean’s: Does the average citizen know about this trade-off between defence and domestic spending?
Ford: They might not know the percentage-statistics are always highly doctored. The average person certainly knows that there is a lot of money spent on defence. They can see it. But they are rather proud of their armed forces, and I don’t think there is any real problem with public opinion. They feel that they must never again be put in a position of weakness.
Maclean’s: Are the perks enjoyed
by the elite an issue?
Ford: There has been increasing grumbling about the more obvious perks given to the new classes, but there is no opposition to it. It always struck me as very odd that they organized these things so obviously, so that the average Russian could see the extent to which the people at the top had privileges and positions he didn’t get. There is a much greater spread between the average worker and the manager than there is in Canada. Take a factory: there would be a spread of at least 100 per cent between what the worker and the factory manager get. In addition, the income tax is not graduated, so the rate is the same for everybody. The manager of a factory or a big organization has a car and a driver, a special apartment, probably a cottage in the country, special rights to go to certain sanitoriums or rest homes, probably the possibility of
travelling abroad, special shops where he can get imported things. Maclean’s: Is there unrest over the lack of improvement in the standard of living?
Ford: I don’t think there is any doubt that they must be somewhat worried that they were unable to increase the standard of living in the past few years. The events of Poland have preoccupied them, and they are afraid of the spillover. But the security in the Soviet Union is so tight that it would be extremely difficult for a movement from the grassroots to come up. Maclean’s: What impact did the 3,000-strong invasion of Canadian hockey fans have on the Soviets in 1972?
Ford: The Russians were terribly nervous. They
had no idea what was going to happen. It was the first time they had to handle a big tourist group from one country all at once. They had heard stories about how wild Canadian fans were. When they played the Canadian national anthem, all the Canadians stood up and sang it. Then they played the Soviet national anthem. The Soviets stood up all right, but they didn’t sing it because there weren’t any words—the words of their national anthem were all praise to Stalin and had been eliminated. This so embarrassed the Russians that they got to work and produced a new anthem. So we were responsible for the current Soviet national anthem.
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