“My favorite Russian expression:
‘Pozhar idet po planu’.”
An interview for readers of "English" with John Brown,
former US Cultural Attachй to the Russian Federation 1998-2001, who resigned from the
State Department in March 2003 to protest the Bush administration’s war plans against
Iraq. (John Brown has also been a periodic contributor to "English" over the
years.) John was interviewed by "English’s" Stephen LAPEYROUSE.
SL: John, you were in the diplomatic service for 22 years. How did
you choose this profession, and what were some of the postings you had before you came to
Moscow? Did you enjoy the work, and why?
Diplomacy ran in the family. My father, whom I admired greatly, served
as a diplomat in Western Europe and Mexico from the early 1950s to the late 1960s. He was
a poet and writer who never saw the Foreign Service as a bureaucratic endeavor or career
move. Indeed, in one of his hundreds of articles he compared his work as Cultural Attachй
to making love – not exactly the kind of statement you’ll find in a State Department
press release! Needless to say, few diplomats think that love has anything to do with
foreign relations, despite some of the implications of the term “foreign relations.”
So, my father was not a “typical” State Department official.
Aside from being genetically disposed to follow my father’s
footsteps, there was another reason why I joined the Foreign Service. I needed a job.
After getting my Ph.D. in Russian History from Princeton in 1977, I realized that
employment opportunities for aspiring scholars were very limited. Moreover, I always found
American academic life somewhat restrictive, with its emphasis on the production of
specialized research that could be “sold” to the rest of academe as a way to get
tenure. Indeed, I remember one of my dissertation advisers asking me, “Brown, when are
you going to get a job?” I tried to answer as humorously as possible by saying that “I
never wanted to work anyway.”
Well, more seriously, I did find work in areas that interested me: for
several years I was employed as a teacher, archivist, and editor. I was involved in two
interesting research projects: the compilation of a catalogue describing materials
pertaining to Russia and the U.S.S.R. in American archives and manuscript repositories;
and the publication of a book of documentary materials, The Establishment of
Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815, which appeared in both Russian- and
In 1980, I passed the Foreign Service exam and joined the Foreign
Service a year later. My first posting was in London. I always say that I was sent to such
a cushy assignment by computer error: John Brown is a common American name and perhaps (I
thought) “they chose the wrong John Brown.” In any case, I was in London for two
years, as a Junior Officer Trainee. I found London a great place to be, but I must confess
that I didn’t feel I was being used in a way that did justice to the taxpayers paying my
This leads me to the third reason for joining the Foreign Service: I
wanted to serve in Russia. The country’s culture had interested me since my high school
days, and the language was a constant intellectual challenge. (Americans say, a propos
of learning Russian, that the first twenty years are the easiest.) Before being assigned
to Russia, I served in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, and Serbia. By the time I arrived
in Russia in 1998 as Cultural Attachй, I spoke a kind of pan-Slavic that was, I regret to
admit, perhaps comprehensible only to myself. While in Moscow, cab drivers used to tell me
on repeated occasions, with smiles on their faces: “You know, you don’t speak Russian
badly for a Czech (or Pole, or Serb…)”.
I greatly enjoyed my work in Moscow, although it did take time to
adjust to the city. I had spent a year in Leningrad as a student in 1973-74 under an
IREX/Fulbright Fellowship to complete my dissertation research on 18th century Russian
history, and had developed some of the prejudices of the inhabitants of the “Venice of
the North” toward the “bol’shaya derevnya” to the southeast. But after six
months in Moscow I felt I really got into the swing of things – meeting fascinating
people in academe and the arts, and going to cultural events throughout the city several
times a week.
Stephen Lapeyrouse and John Brown
Like New York (no two cities are more alike), Moscow is a town that
never sleeps, full of energy; sometimes magnificent, sometimes – let’s admit it –
not so magnificent (I did not, for example, always enjoy being hit with elbows while
riding the crowded Moscow subway); but always challenging intellectually and emotionally.
Working with Russian partners, my colleagues and I at the embassy organized several
cultural events that I hope were important: an Andy Warhol exhibit; a festival of classic
American films; a two-day concert commemorating the fifth anniversary of the death of the
VOA jazz great Willis Conover; American ballet presentations. And I always enjoyed meeting
with your English Language Evenings (www.ELEMoscow.net)
to talk about American culture (among other subjects).
I always felt, however, that I was not doing enough to expand
US-Russian cultural relations. This was due in part to the very limited funding and
support that the State Department provides for the display of American culture abroad. I
was embarrassed when Russian friends told me that, in contrast to the French, Germans,
British and Japanese, the US did little in the field of culture. I would try to
“explain” this as best as I could by saying that the US didn’t have a Ministry of
Culture, but that argument didn’t get me very far with the Moscow intelligentsia.
Travel was an essential part of my job in Russia, and I visited cities
outside the capital as often as I could — Nizhniy Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Samara,
Saratov, Tomsk, Ufa, Volgograd, Yaroslavl, among others (regrettably, I never made it to
the Pacific, to Vladivostok). I found meeting with local audiences exhilarating. I’d
talk on various topics – “Re-Inventing Oneself in America,” “The Work Ethic in the
United States” – but my main aim was to engage in intellectual exchanges with my
Another important part of my job was managing (perhaps too strong a
word) educational exchange programs funded by the US government, and making sure these
programs were coordinated with our Russian colleagues and with the NGOs implementing them.
Thousands of persons have taken part in these programs, and I hope that they will
continue, although funding for them is becoming harder and harder to obtain from Congress.
America has become “Middle-East focused” and – allow me to be candid – Russia does
not stir the same interest in the US as during the “bad old days” of communism. What
an irony: Perhaps we should have remained enemies so that our educational exchange
programs could continue!
So then John, I must ask you how many years ago now, did you first
become interested in Russia? What year was that? And was it with its literature? What
And you came to Leningrad in 1973-74; what do you especially recall from that experience?
I think I was not untypical among my “baby boomer” generation
(persons born after World War II, between 1945 and 1964) in being interested in Russia.
Aren’t you, Steve, part of that, shall I call it distinguished [smiles], group? The USSR
(most Americans did not distinguish between Russia and the Soviet Union) seemed like a
fascinating place. Fascinating because of its peculiar alphabet and language; its unique
history and culture; and its extraordinary scientific and sports achievements. Russia,
let’s face it, also inspired fear: its nuclear weapons and huge army seemed quite
threatening. I’m sure few people my age don’t remember the military parades on Red
Square, with their eerie (to Westerners) massive displays of missiles and tanks. They were
not exactly reassuring, but did create an interest – slightly morbid, I must say – in
the kind of society that created them.
Russia, in other words, appeared to be a completely different world,
and as such led curious young people like myself to try to find out more about it (the
beauty of Russian women, such a contrast to the stern, unsmiling faces of its Soviet
generals, was an added stimulus). I began to read 19th century Russian literature in my
teens, and had caught the Russian “bug” after finishing Crime and Punishment.
(If I had to choose, however… the writer I would most prefer to read over and over
again is Turgenev. Blame it on the five years I spent in France as a child.) As I
mentioned, I went on to specialize in Russian History, writing my dissertation on the
eighteenth-century provincial Russian nobleman, Andrei Timofeevich Bolotov (1738-1833).
At the risk of boring you by talking about my research topic, let me
say that the main question of my thesis was the following: Did Bolotov’s familiarity
with Western culture, which he learned about during his military service in the Baltics
and through his extensive reading, lead him to feel uprooted or alienated from Russian
reality (specifically, his own country estate)? Did, in other words, Bolotov’s acquired
Western culture cause him to be uninterested in Russian agriculture? My conclusion, after
reading Bolotov’s numerous published and unpublished works, was that the fact that he
was “Westernized” didn’t mean that he didn’t care about his Russian land around
him. Indeed, Bolotov was Russia’s first agronomist, and wrote voluminously about the
Russian rural economy. To be sure, Bolotov was a dvorianin (but not of very high
rank) who was a proud member of his class, and his remarks on the Russian peasantry show
his prejudices against those who actually worked the land. He also considered himself a
state servant rather than a member of an independent, “free” landed gentry in the
British sense. But still Bolotov wanted to improve, as best he could, his modest pomest’e
– as is also indicated by his infatuation with gardening, especially pomology. Some of
his writing contains fascinating passages on his efforts to introduce potatoes on his
estate – to the initial opposition of his serfs.
When I was back in Russia as a diplomat, I had the wonderful
opportunity to visit the Bolotov museum/estate near Tula. In a way, it was like going
home, for I spent nearly five years researching and writing about Bolotov and his works.
He had become a kind of “dyadya” in my life. At last I saw where he had
actually lived! And much has been written about Bolotov in recent years by scholars.
I did most of my archival research for my dissertation in Leningrad in
1973-74, where I lived at the obshchezhitie Shevchenko for over a year. My
roommate, who was from Volodga, and I had a deal: He would cook his great mushroom soup
and I’d buy whiskey at the hard currency store. It was a very workable and enjoyable
arrangement. I made good friends during my student year in Leningrad, although of course
contacts with foreigners were quite restricted then. In a way I was living in a bubble and
never got to see the “real” Soviet Union. Today’s Russia, while less “exotic”
than the USSR, is a far better place to get to really know people.
But you wanted to know more about my other postings before coming to
Moscow in 1998. I was in Prague in 1983-1985, and had a very close relationship with the
Jazz Section, a group of young people that found music a form of escape, if not
liberation, from the repressive Czechoslovak regime of that time. In 1986-1990, I served
in Krakow, Poland, a very exciting time indeed, when Solidarity achieved many of its
aspirations, and I got to know a large number of talented persons in that college town
(its Jagiellonian University is among the oldest in Europe) with whom I could exchange
views on important matters, including the role of the United States in Eastern Europe.
After a brief posting in Washington and some time in Tallinn, I was in charge of the Press
and Cultural Section in Kiev (1993-1995), where I helped establish the first (and
regrettably last) “America House” in the former Soviet Union. From 1995 to 1998, I was
posted in Belgrade, where my main role was to handle press matters “on the ground”
during the U.S. efforts to end the conflict in the Balkans. And then, to my enormous
satisfaction, I was off to Moscow...
So yes, you can characterize me as a dangerous, twenty-plus-year agent
of American cultural imperialism [smiles]. But let me cite my father when he was asked
what he “did” as a Cultural Attachй. My father replied as follows: “As little
mischief as possible.” That is the example I followed in my career in the Foreign
Fine. Quite interesting. East vs West in 18th century Russia in the
person of Bolotov. I can imagine your excitement at finally visiting his estate!
But now, let us turn to more recent events: your resignation from your post in relation to
the then pending war in Iraq. I have heard you lecture in Moscow on American mentality,
the work ethic there, and other topics. I can say frankly that your insight and subtlety
did not to my mind seem to go well with the semi-literacy and world-attitude of US
President George W. Bush. I wondered about how you felt as the Cultural Attachй in Moscow
representing an America which I was not sure you felt you could genuinely support. Perhaps
you could say something about this, before we turn directly to Iraq?
Regarding your questions about President Bush, bear in mind that I
left Moscow in August 2001, before his so-called “war on terror” and “preventive”
military action were part of his stated policy. You will recall that during the 2000
presidential campaign Bush said relatively little about foreign affairs, and that his
infrequently stated views on the matter appeared to reflect what his adviser Condoleezza
Rice had said – that the U.S. should approach the world with humility. There is little
to disagree with in such a statement.
Bush’s speech to Congress after 9/11 – in which he said that
“every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or
you are with the terrorists” – started ringing alarm bells for me. I was not
enthusiastic about the invasion of Afghanistan, but it could at least be justified as a
legitimate retaliatory action the Al Qaeda; and, for the most part, it was supported by
the rest of the world. Where I really started to break with the administration’s
policies was in the summer of 2002, when the White House propaganda campaign to whip up
support for the invasion of Iraq began, with Vice-President Cheney at first leading the
charge. By the fall of that year, Bush too was threatening Saddam with military action far
greater than that undertaken by the previous administration. Other officials were part of
this offensive to get Americans – in shock after 9/11 – to go “get the enemy.”
You will recall that in the summer/fall of 2002 Bush’s public opinion
poll ratings were not the best. The November Congressional elections were coming up, and
the Republicans wanted to maintain their dominance in the US House of Representatives and
the Senate. So it suited their narrow domestic interests to make Bush appear as a decisive
commander-in-chief ready to protect America’s “security” against a dangerous
dictator with so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Support for Bush, in other
words, could translate into votes for the Republican Party. My reading of the situation
was that the White House was beating the drums of war in order to secure the ballot box in
Now that we know more (but still very little) about the reasons for the
invasion of Iraq, my original view of the war as a continuation of domestic politics
appears simplistic. Some argue that Bush had long wanted to get rid of Saddam, right from
the beginning of his presidency, in part because (some say) the Iraqi despot had tried to
assassinate his father; that the neoconservatives, with their ideas of using American
power to reshape the Middle East, gained ascendancy in Washington, especially after 9/11;
that the American empire, with its military-industrial complex, was, true to its nature,
just looking for another war to keep the profits of large corporations going. All these
arguments have points in their favor; unfortunately, however, they do not fully explain
the invasion of Iraq, either individually or taken together. So, more than three years
after the war began, I keep returning to my instinctive reaction, which I felt so acutely
in the summer/fall of 2002, for what I see as the main reason behind it: that it was good
(the White House believed) for Republican domestic politics, that it was a way to get
Republicans elected to Congress.
The more I followed the administration’s arguments for war the more I
became convinced that they smacked of the worst kind of base propaganda. All the elements
of that kind of cynical brain-washing were there:
– Simplification of the issues (“us” vs. “them”);
– Repetition of logically unconnected slogans (“weapons of mass destruction”;
– Demonization of the enemy (Saddam as the devil incarnate);
– Violence to history (making the past a simple justification for the present,
falsifying the historical record to make specious arguments – remember the old Soviet
joke, “we never know what will happen yesterday”);
– A near total disregard for truth (many of the claims used to justify the war have
proven to be false, including the existence of weapons of mass destructions).
As I mentioned, by August 2001 I had returned from Moscow to the US,
where my new State Department assignment was Faculty Adviser at Georgetown University.
This gave me much time to read the press, and the more I read it the more I was convinced
that the planned war in Iraq was not being adequately justified by the administration. It
was not making a just case for the war – although, through its base propaganda, it
managed to convince the US public, and much of the American media, that war was necessary.
I didn’t think it was. So did much of the rest of the world. But the Bush administration
cared much more about American public opinion that what “foreigners” thought. Indeed,
what most defines Bush – and, I believe, what will characterize his place in history –
is that few presidents have been less concerned about the views of other nations than he.
His military misadventures overseas are not so much the expression of an imperial
mentality as of a parochial one – he and his White House had no idea what they were
getting the USA into with their invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Knowing very little, if
anything, about these two countries and their history and culture, they thought that
invading them would be a “cakewalk,” that their inhabitants would love American
troops, that they would become “democratic” (i.e., like the United States) overnight.
All this is very naпve thinking, the reflection of provincial minds, similar to the
Soviet leadership at its worst. In many ways for Bush and his entourage the world does not
extend beyond the borders of Texas. That, in my view, is a key thing to remember about his
After my State Department colleague Brady Kiesling (whom I did not
personally know) resigned from the Foreign Service on February 27, 2003 in opposition to
the planned war, I too started thinking about leaving the diplomatic corps as a way to
protest the impending invasion of Iraq. By March 10, I had made up my mind, and sent an
e-mail to Secretary of State Colin Powell stating my resignation. I also sent copies of
the e-mail to news outlets, and the media gave my resignation some coverage. Was I after
publicity? Well, I did want my resignation to be as public as possible, to let Americans
and the world know that another American diplomat was against an illegitimate war.
I recall, John, being a bit surprised in my small kitchen in Moscow
hearing you on the radio on the BBC? being interviewed about your resignation... I guess
such public letters of resignation seldom receive answers?
All I know is that my e-mail to Powell never got an answer. That
didn’t particularly disturb me, and indeed it seemed to be a confirmation of how little
the Bush administration respects opposing views.
Well, then finally... did you ever regret your decision to resign?
You know the Edith Piaf song, “Je ne regrette rien” [I regret
nothing]. Since leaving the foreign service I have been writing, editing, teaching,
lecturing and compiling my “Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review” (PDPBR), which
summarizes articles on current issues in U.S. foreign policy, international broadcasting
and media, propaganda, cultural diplomacy, educational exchanges, anti-Americanism, and
the reception of American popular culture abroad. If your readers would like to be on the
free PDPBR listserv, they can send me an e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>. Some
items in the PDPBR also pertain to Russia, as the Russian government is showing an
increasing interest in public diplomacy, which is an effort by governments to inform,
engage, and influence public opinion in other countries.
We certainly hope you will visit us in Moscow in coming years.
Russia continues to be an important part of my life and I do hope to return there as
often as possible. Did I ever tell you my favorite Russian expression? “Pozhar idet po
planu.” In many ways that is the story of my life.