From The Archives

Summits Past: When the Evil Empire Out-Charmed the Great Communicator

Back when Putin was an unknown KGB agent, the Soviet Union was already attacking the U.S. with soft power


In November 1985, Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev in Switzerland for a summit at which the two leaders hoped, among other things, to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Voice correspondent A. Craig Copetas reported that Gorby “came to Geneva to field test the weaponry of public relations instead of the weaponry of war. He may not have met Reagan missile for missile, but he beat him badly press event for press event. The ultimate irony of the summit was that the Great Communicator was bested at his own game by a former Soviet agricultural minister.”

But even as the Communist leader was winning the PR stakes, the Soviet Union was tottering under its own paranoid ineptitude. Toward the end of an article that draws parallels between Reagan’s Star Wars defense initiative and the movie it was named after, Copetas points out that a nation that was already keeping its typewriters and copying machines under lock and key was also extremely wary of the burgeoning personal-computer revolution: “That’s the great irony of the Soviet Union, a country that yearns to give its people the tools necessary to compete with America yet remains frightened to allow them the personal freedom necessary for real growth.”

No one knows what KGB agent Vladimir Putin, assigned to a dreary post in East Germany, was up to at this time, but perhaps he was already fantasizing about using all that kompromat his agency had gathered on politicians, celebrities, and business moguls around the globe to blackmail his way to world domination. Whatever he was contemplating six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, he clearly got over Russian qualms about utilizing computers.