Shortlisted for the 2018 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, Rodric Braithwaite's book relates how the power of the atom was harnessed to produce weapons capable of destroying human civilisation and considers what this has done to the world
Where does you interest in Russia come from?
My father was a conductor at what is now the English National Opera when I was born. His fellow conductor had a remarkable Russian wife with a very strong personality. Our two families were close so I heard a lot about Russia when I was little. I started learning Russian in 1950. I then spent my military service in Vienna, but I resumed my Russian studies at university, and I was first posted to the embassy in Moscow in 1963. I didn’t go back permanently for some time, though I did spend much of the intervening period dealing with east/west issues, defence, and Soviet affairs. I was Moscow from 1988 to 1992 as the Soviet Union fell apart. I've visited it many times since, and I've written a number of books which are centred on Russia. That's given me the opportunity to get to know Russians from all walks of life I would not otherwise have met.
Why did you decide to take up writing?
I’d always enjoyed writing. But in the Foreign Office I was of course constrained by the need to produce official prose. Once I left I was free of all that. My first book was an attempt to work out what I thought about Russia and the events I witnessed there. It was partly autobiographical, although if I could have left out the first person pronoun I would have done. In my subsequent books - on the siege of Moscow in 1941, on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and now on the nuclear confrontation - I was trying to sort out things I did not fully understand, and in particular to tell the Russian side of the story, which I felt was often ignored, under-reported, or distorted. I learned a lot in the process, and I enjoyed that.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I was thirteen years old when I read the Times report about the bombing of Hiroshima, and since then I've been trying to work out what honourable and decent men in all countries - America, Britain, and Russia too - thought they were doing as they planned and built systems designed to kill millions of their fellows. I found the issues intellectually fascinating, and in many ways I envied my colleagues who were working on them. But I also wondered if I wanted to be involved in anything so horrendous: a moral cop-out, if you like. My eight-year old daughter Kate believed the world would be wiped out before she grew up. She encouraged me to write the book to explain that fear to a generation that didn’t know it. In fact the fear of nuclear war remained there, below the surface. Recent events have brought it back up again.
Did the nuclear deterrent work?
We don't know if it worked or not. There was no nuclear war. So you can argue that deterrence frightened everyone into behaving sensibly. We were just as deterred and terrified as the Russians. The inexorable logic was: "If they have nuclear weapons, we have to have them too, otherwise they'll blackmail us". But it was a gamble. Nuclear war might have occurred not deliberately, but by miscalculation, by gadgets not working, by a breakdown of discipline. The film Dr Strangelove tells it all. We were lucky.
Did the Russians over-estimate the threat from the West?
We believe in the West that the Russians were paranoid: we were never going to attack them. But the Russians didn’t know that. For example, when Reagan came to office, he indulged in provocative language, and provocative action too. American aircraft and ships probed right up to the Soviet frontier in a deliberate attempt to unsettle Russian nerves. They succeeded. The Russians got very jittery, and thought that the Americans might indeed be planning something. A tragic consequences was that the Russians shot down a Korean airliner which had strayed into Soviet territory. Then NATO mounted the Able Archer exercise a a couple of months later, which involved a simulated nuclear strike against Soviet forces "invading" Western Europe. The Russians picked that up, and began to put their own forces on alert. Nothing happened, but it was a turning point. Reagan - in my view a remarkable president - concluded that things were going too far (he was much influenced by watching a rather good American docudrama about the effects of a nuclear strike on an American town in the MIdwest). So he was prepared to work with Gorbachev to bring the Cold War to an end.
What things most surprised you in researching the book?
I was struck by the extent of the paranoia on both sides - we were no better than the Russians. I was struck too by the way governments, like all human organisations, have to develop a common mindset if they are to operate effectively: they cannot spend all their time arguing about first principles amongst themselves, they have to get on with the business. So they tend to ignore evidence that doesn't fit. One very good CIA analyst said that American estimates of Russian intentions were often wide of the mark because the analysts failed to put themselves in the Russians' shoes. But if you did that, he remarked ruefully, you were liable to lose your job. Kennedy said much the same thing in private at the time of the Cuba missile crisis. He was trying to put himself in Khrushchev's place: but it would very damaging politically if that leaked to the press.
What about the Russian perspective?
I started from the proposition that the Russians were also human, and looked for the evidence. They have published much less than we have - no intelligence assessments or military plans. But there is a great pile of fascinating documents about the Soviet nuclear weapons programme, a lot of generals have been interviewed, and politicians and officials have written their memoirs. Enough emerges to see that many of those involved, like those in the West, were worried about the morality and even the rationality of what they were doing. Scientists such as Sakharov believed that they had no choice but to follow where the Americans had led. But one Soviet scientist accused his colleagues of selling their souls to the devil. When a general asked Brezhnev during a nuclear exercise to press the button, he went white and asked ‘Are you sure this is just an exercise?’ And he went on to make a genuine attempt to improve relations with the Americans.
What lessons do you draw for the situation today?
During the Cold War the two sides were stoked up by ideological fervour. They faced one another with their nuclear forces on hair trigger alert. Their leaders could have had as little as fifteen minutes to decide whether to fire their weapons or not.
The world today is more complicated but less dangerous. Leaders are still trapped in the logic: "If they've got it, we have to have it too". But there is no heated ideological confrontation. The number of nuclear states has not increased as fast as we feared. And our fears of what we call "Rogue States" seem to me exaggerated too. As people acquire these weapons, they begin to understand how awful they are, and they moderate their language. That was true of the Russians and the Chinese. And it seems to be true of President Kim of North Korea, who turns out not to be the madman depicted by Western propaganda, but someone who is healthily aware that if he is not careful he and his country could be wiped out.
That doesn't mean that all danger has disappeared, of course. All the nuclear powers are modernising their weapons. The Americans spend about three times as much on defence as the Chinese, and nine times as much as the Russians. Perhaps because people are less afraid of nuclear war than they were, they feel more able to use provocative language: both Trump and Putin have spoken about nuclear weapons in ways their predecessor tried to avoid during the Cold War. Some of their supporters are worse. The willingness to talk soberly and discreetly about nuclear arms control has almost frayed away, Relations between Russia and the West have descended to almost unprecedented levels of vituperation and mutual demonisation. Putting all that right will be very hard.
So there is still plenty to worry about.
What is your next project?
It’s provisionally called "Russophobia: Russia’s tangled relations with the outside world”. I’m fascinated by the way both Russia and its neighbours all believe they are the age-old victims of aggression from the West, and the saviours of Europe from the barbarians to the East. And I’m bemused by the specifically British animus towards Russia. I perfectly understand the Poles and the Balts. But when did the Russians last invade Britain?