Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Why dean of Western diplomatic corps leaves Moscow on glum note

After 16 years as a Western ambassador in Moscow the dean of the diplomatic corps here leaves his post gloomy about the state of detente, and advocating "patience and firmness" in the days ahead.

Robert Ford of Canada, tall and dignified, has had an unrivaled firsthand experience of Soviet leaders since the Khrushchev era.

About these ads

In an interview just before he left, the ambassador said the West was in a "difficult time" on detente.

"The Soviets show no sign of willingness to withdraw from Afghanistan," he said, "or even to admit that the reactions of the West, and over 100 countries in the United Nations, had any justification.

"Until the Soviets are prepared to accept that our reaction was not just petty anti-Sovietism, it is hard to see how detente can return to the state it once had."

He saw "patience and firmness" being necessary over the long run. Eventually , he believed, a way to live together could be found.

"But don't expect quick results," he went on, adding that he saw no radical changes ahead, even after Leonid Brezhnev leaves the scene.

The ambassador was an institution in the small Western community in Moscow, a one-man research library and political department in his embassy, a man who could reminisce about Nikita Khruschev's striking size and personality and who had met most of the key Kremlin leaders since he arrived here in January 1964.

He had served as charge d'affaires in the early 1950s, quickly establishing a niche as a diplomat with a unique entry into the Soviet intellectual elite.

About these ads

The son of a Canadian newspaper editor, Mr. Ford is himself a poet with two books of verse to his credit. Trilingual in English, French, and Russian, he has translated works of Boris Pasternak, Andrei Voznesensky, Anna Akhmatova, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and knew them personally.

Some of his impressions of Soviet political leaders:

Nikita Khrushchev:

"Extremely approachable, charming, rude when he wanted to be, unpredictable. . . . He could be way off target at times, such as during the Cuban missile crisis, and trying to shake up the Communist Party apparatus here at home. . . ."

Anastas Mikoyan, one of the most durable Soviet officials:

"The wily Armenian, smooth, polite, sophisticated, tough as nails, an internationalist from his Armenian heritage and a dedicated revolutionary from his early experiences. . . ."

Leonid Brezhnev:

"Before illness curtailed his schedule, energetic, quick-moving, always smoking, surprisingly emotional when talking about the Second World War and the need to avoid another. . . . Quick with an anecdote or joke, well-briefed, always No. 1, the top man in the room, the boss. . . ."

Alexei kosygin:

"Cool, collected, logical. Seldom departed from his brief. At his best talking abour foreign trade, the economy, foreign affairs. In Canada in 1971, he asked the questions of an expert, not of an amateur."

Mikhail Suslov:

"Dry, ascetic, astringent -- a kind of purity of approach befitting the man who is the conscience of the [Communist] party, the ideological chief. His influence has been enormous. A fascinating figure."

The half-dozen men at the top of the Kremlin he found to be impressive in their toughness and knowledge, dedicated to communism and to the Soviet Union as a communist state. All the very top men were Russians rather than Ukrainians or other nationalities. All were nationalistic, yet all viewed the West through the blinkers of their ideology.

They lacked detailed, firsthand knowledge of the Western world. When Brezhnev and Kosygin traveled abroad, it was under special circumstances.

Ambassador Ford and his Brazilian wife Maria Thereza entertained in stle her: waiters in livery and white gloves, and excellent food in a capital where good food is often hard to obtain.

He also won lasting admiration for the way he has resolutely battled a disability he contracted as a young man. He has walked with the aid of a crutch ever since.

He leaves Moscow for a chateau in the south of France and a job as special adviser on East-West relations to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.