“Russia Upside Down” – with Creator of The Americans Joe Weisberg
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Andrew Hammond: How dare you, Joe Weisberg, make me rethink my comfortable loathing of the Russians? So said former chief of CIA Counterintelligence, James Olson, in our review of the book featured in this week's episode. I sat down with Joe Weisberg to dig into his book, Russia Upside Down: An Exit Strategy for the Second Cold War. Listeners may know him as creator of the award-winning and hugely popular TV series, The Americans. And a much fewer number of listeners may even know him as a former CIA officer. Hear Joe's take to see how we get out of the Second Cold War. Along the way we discuss the book as essentially an argument with his younger self, who hated the evil empire. His trip through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the twilight of the cold war. Especially experiencing it as an American Jew. The KGB corruption and Vladimir Putin. And his journey from Illinois to Langley to New York City.
Andrew Hammond: Well I am so pleased to speak to you about your book, which I really enjoyed. Russia has been a perennial topic on SpyCast and never more so really than now, for a whole variety of different reasons, that we can get into. I just wanted to speak a little bit more about your book, Russia: Upside Down. But I wanted to start off with one of encomiums that I read, which I thought was quite interesting, James Olsen, former Chief of CIA Counterintelligence, he said "how dare you Joe Weisberg, make me rethink my comfortable loathing of the Russians."
Joe Weisberg: I love that. I told him that was the best blurb I ever saw, the whole thing was so funny.
Andrew Hammond: I was wondering how did you manage to do that? How did you manage to make him rethink his loathing of the Russians?
Joe Weisberg: Well I think that in a way that is the goal of the book. So, I had 300 pages. And I wanted to make an argument, not to necessarily get people to abandon everything they thought about Russia and the Soviet Union. I have not abandoned everything I thought about it. But to kind of look through a little bit of a different lens and maybe shift perspective a little bit. I really appreciate what Jim wrote about that. It is a little bit tongue in cheek too because he has always been one of the smartest people ever, and very thoughtful and nuanced views. But I would not say that about myself. I would say that when I was working at the CIA and in my younger years, I had a very one dimensional view of this evil empire, this totalitarian state that we had to fight because we were the good guys and we were the bad guys. And the book that I have written is essentially a kind of argument with myself. Or maybe with my younger self, to say huh, I think you were not looking at that in all the complexity that you might have been.
Andrew Hammond: So, you started off looking at the world like George W. Bush but later on you ended up like George H.W. Bush?
Andrew Hammond: It is funny, I think you may be a little bit younger than me because anyone of my age would have said so, you looked at the world like Ronald Reagan. And yes I did.
Andrew Hammond: I guess I was trying to keep the analogy and the Bush family. Before we get into the book, one of the things that I love about podcast is that it ranges from people working the Russia desk at CIA or NSA through to just the average person on the street that loves a good spy yarn. Let us just get up to 30,000 feet for a minute. Could you just tell our listeners a little bit more about who you are and when you were in the CIA?
Joe Weisberg: I am currently a 55 year old guy living in New York City. My main and day job is writing for television. I created a show called The Americans, which I do not normally expect that many people have seen it but I would expect a high proportion of your listeners, probably have seen it. And that TV show in part came out of some of my experiences actually working in intelligence. I did not work long or much in intelligence. I joined the CIA in my mid 20's. I worked there for about three and a half years. I was really in training almost the entire time and then worked a couple of office jobs. And I quit before going on my first tour abroad. But that was enough to give me a kind of inside look at how espionage works, learn some things, and kind of break the spell of that fantasy that kids growing up in America have about the CIA and how it works.
Joe Weisberg: And that kind of put me in a unique position to write a interesting TV show about it. So, I will just say a little bit more that from a very young age, I was really obsessed with the Soviet Union. I loved it. And what I mean by loved it is I love to hate it. I loved hating that place. It was the greatest thing in the world. First of all, truly it was a fascinating place. It was so interesting, there were so many people being repressed there who I felt great sympathy, and still feel sympathy for them. Again, I do not think I had everything about it wrong. But when I joined the CIA and saw what I saw there, and then came out of the CIA, things started to slowly appear to me that maybe I did not know quite as much as I thought I did.
Andrew Hammond: Where did you grow up? Give us a sense of place.
Joe Weisberg: I grew up in Chicago on the north side of the city, very close to Wrigley Field. On game days I could hear the fans cheering and I was a big Cubs fan. There was something called the Lakefront Liberals and those were people like my parents who were all Democrats and were all liberal. They were called that really because they were engaged in a kind of long running conflict with Mayor Daley, First Mayor Daley and the kind of political machine that he had. They did not like the sort of bureaucracy and corruption that went along with that. One of the things I write about in the book is that they were not that different from Conservatives in their foreign policy. Maybe that is an over statement.
Joe Weisberg: In their views of the Soviet Union, there was a pretty non-partisan consensus that this was a evil, evil place. So I got that probably as strongly as Ronald Reagan's kids got it.
Andrew Hammond: Just thinking back on the Cold War that certainly comes through in Truman, Kennedy and Carter after the Soviets invade Afghanistan. But I think you are right in your analysis that probably most of our listeners have seen your show. But we are here to talk about the book, so tell us a little bit more about the book, Russia: Upside Down. One of the first things I thought when I saw it was, I do not know if this is something you had in mind, but it is almost related or reminded me of Churchill's quote about the Soviet Union being a riddle inside a sphinx trapped in an enigma. And Russia: Upside Down I think certain people certainly see that when they look at Russia, it is like things are not what they seem. Things are upside down. Things are mysterious, we need to cut through the smoke. Tell us a little bit more about the title and about what you set out to do in the book.
Joe Weisberg: It is a interesting comparison you make there and I think that, that sort of wide spread idea of Russia being indecipherable and a puzzle is one version of upside down. I think my version of upside down is a little bit different and I like to start with myself and kind of personalize. Because I know myself best and how my own mind work, that what I have upside down was not that it was or was not understandable. It was that I thought I understood it and I thought it was all black and white. And they were evil, bad, determined to spread totalitarianism, communism everywhere and we were good, virtuous, the guardians of and spreaders of freedom and democracy. When I say that was upside down, I do not mean it was the reverse. I mean we were so wrong headed that it was upside down. And fundamentally both countries had good sides and bad sides. Both countries did good things and bad things. I do not really like to try to compare them and say which is worse because what is the point? There is no reason you have to compare and say which is worse.
Joe Weisberg: Maybe if you were living in one and you had to go and live in the other, maybe then it would be relevant, who actually is worse or what is a better place to live. But in just politics in general, I think that is actually a weird question. It is a question born of kind of competition and negativity and hostility. So, the real question is can we accept that they have good sides and bad sides, and we have good sides and bad sides? And that it is our job and our role to focus on our problems and what we are doing wrong. And if we take on the job and role instead, as I did personally and as I would say, our foreign policy establishment did, and as I would say our country did to a significant degree. If you take on the job and role that we have got to fix them, that usually goes hand in hand with kind of a blindness and denial that we have plenty to work on at home. Otherwise why not work on that and you might actually be able to do something about that.
Andrew Hammond: We have discussed one part of the book, let us go to the other side of the colon. Let us go to an exit strategy for the second Cold War. What is that exit strategy?
Joe Weisberg: I will give you sort of two parts of it. The first part is to a certain degree what I just said. The first part is for people, I would be this myself, I am not saying everybody has to do it. I am not saying everybody should do it. I am not saying everybody thinks like I did as one dimensionally. But if you are stuck in a kind of one dimensional thinking, the first thing is to kind of expand your horizons, be less judgmental, recognize how complex things are. And start to let go of the idea that just as we felt about the Soviet Union, that Russia is a fully autocratic, in every way repressive state, determined to spread autocracy around the world, determined to undermine American democracy. By the way, I am not saying all of that is a 100% false, I am saying that if we have only seen the country that way we are missing the boat.
Joe Weisberg: Now, if you can expand your horizons a little bit in that way, then you can look afresh and say is Russia and Putin, are they just attacking us over and over and over because we are so good and we are so virtuous and we are so democratic and they do not like it? Or is it possible that we have attacked them just as much as they have attacked us, and we have got caught in this kind of mutual series of attacks and escalations? I think that is what happened. I will give you one example, which is that after the Soviet Union fell there was obviously a pretty disastrous decade in Russia in the 90's, and then Putin came in. And there are strong indications that I think were pretty clear at the time, and they were pretty clear in retrospect, that he did not have the level of hostility to the west then that he has now.
Joe Weisberg: In fact he was somewhat open to a positive, cooperative relationship with the west. He wanted to strengthen the Russian economy in part through positive economic ties with the west. After September 11 he was incredibly supportive in a very emotional way, vocally but also practically in terms of sharing Russian airspace and letting us put military bases in central Asia-- not that he was in charge of central Asia but he had influence and he did not complain about it. He passively accepted it. So, there were practical things like that. And also just he was not out railing against us all the time like he is now. What did we do at that time? Did we give that back to him? Well, first we expanded NATO to the east.
Joe Weisberg: People argue about this a little bit, I tend to lean towards the school of thought that we had literally promised not to. But whatever, whether we did or not, it seems like a pretty obviously aggressive act. But you asked me about the exist strategy. The exit strategy is that if you can come around to seeing that it is a mutually constructed new Cold War, rather than just them as the bad guys, maybe the next thing to do is pull back on some of what we are doing. I, for example, recommend a couple of things in the book, including let us just lift sanctions. Let us just lift that. They do not work. They do not accomplish what they are intended to. They are a very aggressive and hostile attack on the Russian economy.
Joe Weisberg: I do not know what would happen if we did that. Maybe nothing would happen. I do not see how things would get worse but maybe they could even get worse. But I think there is a reasonable chance that they would respond in kind by pulling back on some of their attacks. And what is the cost? If it does not work you can always put them back.
Andrew Hammond: One of the things I was thinking when you were talking there was it sounds a little bit like the revisionist historians, the first wave of historians. We were the good guys, it is all on the Soviet Union. They were the aggressor. We just reacted. Then the revisionists came along and said well it was not quite that simple. We did some things that got us locked in this dynamic as well. Is that right?
Joe Weisberg: Yes I think that is correct in two different ways. One, I will point to a very specific guy who was writing in the 80's when I was deep into my Cold War year phase, which is Stephen Collin, who was a professor at Princeton and a write. His academic specialty I think was Buccaran but, he wrote a lot about politics. When I read him in the 80's, even though I was like a college student and he was a professor, I thought this guy is very naive. I thought it was interesting what he said but I thought he just did not get it. Then when I sort of came around to a lot of his ways of looking at things without really remembering him, and then I kind of connected it back and thought I wonder if he put a little germ of an idea in my head that even while I was rejecting him, was in there to kind of grow.
Joe Weisberg: Which, by the way, is one thing teachers do. The guy was a teacher as well so he would not have much of a following, and I think was really on the fringes, not the far fringes, he was one of the only guys with those views who had any public forum. He was printed in the Nation, he would sometimes be on talk shows. He would do public debates but generally people with those views were sent so far to the margins I never heard of them or saw them. I really was not exposed to very much of that, which is part of the problem. If you have a narrow view, it does not help if you are not hearing alternative views a lot. So, that is one thing I will mention. And I will also speak about something more recently, if you do not mind me on your podcast plugging another podcast.
Joe Weisberg: There is something called the SRB podcast, which is a guy named Sean Guillory at the University of Pittsburgh. I think he is at the University of Pittsburgh, I do not know if I got the name right. But he has this podcast which if you are interested in the Soviet Union or Russia, you can just disappear into this for a couple of hundred hours, because it is essentially professor after professor with kind of esoteric and wonderful specialties talking about what they have been able to learn, largely about the Soviet Union but also a lot about modern day Russia. Because it is freer there now than it used to be, although they are not as open as they were once. The archives were very open and a number of them go there and live there.
Joe Weisberg: Just as a random example there is a whole hour on what it was like to be deaf in the Soviet Union. So, the reason I come up with that example is if you were me and that was a evil totalitarian empire, part of what you were doing was reducing this whole complex country to just a few little things. That kind of question would never occur to you. What it was like to be deaf in the Soviet Union? Who cares? Whatever. Do they have deaf people? I mean it is crazy. Now someone has studied this and when they put together what it was like for people to have that experience, which is, we can compare to people that have that experience here, we can relate to it. It is just one of a 100,000 ways in to getting how complicated that society was. I think that is a big part of what I missed. I missed that it was a full country like ours.
Andrew Hammond: That is true even for the United States. People turn up and they go to D.C. and New York or maybe Disney Land and they think they know the country. But there is lots of ambiguity, lots of different textures that you can prise apart and uncover. I used to always tell my students try to capture some of the complexity and the depth.
Joe Weisberg: Exactly. You have got to resist that, you have got to resist it. And I think people of that age are particularly vulnerable to it. I think that not just because of my own experience but because I have done a little bit of reading and sort of basic psychology that suggests that, to a certain extent, that is a stage in life where you have this-- and not everybody goes through it or some people don't have that issue. But it is not uncommon and so the trick is just to make sure you eventually get out of it, the sooner, the better. But I want to mention one more example that I was thinking of when you started talking about the United States and how complex it is.
Joe Weisberg: That every American understands both intuitively and logically that whoever the president of the United States is, they do not have full control over everything that happens everywhere in America. That would be laughable to think that. So, if some terrible thing happens in Omaha because of whatever, a state senator or a policeman or a pedestrian or whatever did X, Y, Z, he cannot generally say that is Biden's fault. Why did Biden not make sure that did not happen? But they do not extend that to looking at Russia. I do not want to generalize but at least a fair number of people think that Putin is responsible for every single bad thing that happens in Russia, when Russia is as big as we are.
Joe Weisberg: It is actually physically bigger, its population is not quite as big but in the same ballpark. It has got as many regions and states, they are called different things, but as many different divisions. And it is just a massive place that cannot be controlled by one person. I have got into a new habit which is any time I say something that sounds like I am trying to defend Putin, I like to clarify that is not right. I actually am trying to see him in a more balanced way with good sides and bad sides. So, I do not dispute the vast majority of the complaints against Putin and the things he has done wrong, some of them really horrific and immoral. I do not think everything that is said in that area is true but I would say a lot of it is factual. It is just not the only thing.
Andrew Hammond: You are saying that if we think about Vladimir Putin, it is not quite as simple as the kind of popular narrative that he has always just had it in for America. He has always been impeccably opposed to the United States. Being slightly flippant here, he has always been pissed off that he was in the KGB and the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. They had to kind of pick up the pieces after the Soviet Union dissolved. You are saying it is not quite that simple?
Joe Weisberg: That is what I am saying. It is hard to know because you cannot really see in his heart. You cannot know exactly what is in his mind. And the fact that he is a former intelligence officer and sometimes has a problematic relationship with the truth makes it even more complicated to quite get what is going on there. But certainly what it looks like to me, is that he was a KGB officer. The strong majority of KGB officers had kind of uni-dimensional, anti-American views. He seems to have been more or less in that camp. And then when he sort of started going on a different path, he opened up and broadened his view.
Joe Weisberg: And let go of some significant amount of that anti-American, anti-western animosity. It seems now to be back. But as I was saying earlier, it seems that at least a significant part of the reason it is back is things we have done.
Andrew Hammond: I just wondered if we could just open that up a bit more. Obviously if people want to get the full context on all of this they are going to have to buy the book. I just want to pull apart the five things to reconsider about modern day Russia and then early on in the book you talk about eight things that I misunderstood. We have touched on this a little bit already and I do not expect you to go through the eight and then the five programatically. But, just help us understand that pivot from here is the Soviet Union that I thought I knew and then today, here we are, here are things that people are getting wrong about Russia. Because like you say, you were writing this book to yourself. And I think that if our listeners can look in that mirror that you were reading yourself from, I think that it will be quite instructive and helpful.
Joe Weisberg: Well I will just mention a little bit how I sort of launched into reassessing things in that way that I think will be interesting to your listeners. There was a KGB officer who many of you may have heard of called Victor Cherkashin. He either ran or had a profound hand in running both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. So, not surprisingly he was a very successful KGB officer. And after the fall of the Soviet Union, a number of KGB officers wrote books, which again you all understand would not have been possible in Soviet times. But once the Soviet Union fell, that was now an open possibility. I read his book and I had a very powerful reaction to it because even at the time I read it I maybe started to open up a bit in my views about the Soviet Union.
Joe Weisberg: But I still saw the KGB in very simplistic terms. And almost like the people who worked there I almost saw them as like Bond villains. Like just blood thirsty, conscienceless, robotic killers. I knew to say the line oh they have families just like us and on some level I believed that. But on a lot of other levels I did not really think it was just like us. I thought that there were sort of the evil instruments of this place. I read his book and in fact, he and his friends we described, sounded an awful lot like me and my friends at the CIA. First of all they liked their jobs, they cared about what they did. They were patriotic, they believed in their country. They had different values and a different political system they believed in. But they believed in a sort of a similar way.
Joe Weisberg: Which ultimately is not that much of a surprise because anybody who goes to work for an intelligence officer, and remember this includes Putin, is kind of a highly idealistic person who wants to fight for their country. And especially Putin that tends to get sort of turned around into well he is devious, untrustworthy, a liar and a creep. But I would not describe that as the main profile of an intelligence officer. There can be elements of that of course but I would say more significant is the desire to serve one's country and patriotism and idealism. So, Cherkashin and his friends were like that. And also I think a lot of people listening here know that intelligence agencies specifically hire in part people who have good social skills.
Joe Weisberg: Because they have to be able to go out and recruit foreign agents, which requires good social skills and being able to get people to like you. My friends at the CIA, it was a pretty friendly, likable, social bunch. I would sort of challenge you not to like most of the people I worked with. And that seemed to be true, maybe not as fully, but somewhat broadly also in the KGB. Or at the very least it seemed extremely true of Cherkashin himself. So, I started thinking well okay, I seem to have really been highly off base about the KGB, which was one of the things I had studied the most. I had read all about it. I read all the books that were available, not all the books, but I had researched widely and still not had my balloon punctured.
Joe Weisberg: So, I started thinking what else did I have wrong? And I started kind of systematically trying to identify specific areas where I had a misunderstand and try to develop a more complex view. One of the ones I do warn about the KGB, where I go into great depth, a couple of interesting things about the KGB, are that everybody knows the Soviet Union is very corrupt. The economy functioned in large part through corruption because it was not very functional. Well, interestingly enough the KGB was not very corrupt. It actually was one of the least corrupt kind of organs of the entire state. People knew that and KGB officers had a kind of a esprit de corps built in large part around the fact that they were this sort of uncorrupt oasis in the middle of the county.
Joe Weisberg: I read a great book about anti-corruption campaign launched by the KGB by Andropov, I think in the 70's and then going through into the 80's, where they took on the Food Grocers Association. If you said who is going to win, KGB or Food Grocers Association, you are going to be like the KGB. And they did not. They lost. I have the name wrong, it is a food grocers association, it is people who are responsible for bringing food in to the cities and distributing it. They did have a lot of power. But they had so much power, so many connections and so many powerful people who got food from them and bribes from them and everything else, that even the KGB could not take them on.
Joe Weisberg: But it is interesting that they wanted to. Because they felt corruption was destroying the country and they wanted to keep it from happening. Well that is just a different KGB than the one I imagined. And again I want to make sure to mention they did grossly repress and mistreat dissidents. They did in some instances torture dissidents. They did in quite a number of incidents put dissidents into psychiatric prisons and torture them with psychotropic medication. I mean we are talking really evil stuff. However, that was not where most of their resources went. It was not where most of their energy went. And it was not what the vast majority of their officers and employees were involved with. It does not diminish it or make it less significant.
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Andrew Hammond: I was just thinking when you were talking about reading the KGB memoir, it reminded me when I read Yuri Modin, who at one point was the handler for the Cambridge Five, his book My Five Cambridge Friends. What you were talking about reminded me of reading that book.
Joe Weisberg: That is interesting. When did that book come out?
Andrew Hammond: That book must have come out, I think it may have been the early 90's.
Joe Weisberg: I should read that.
Andrew Hammond: Sorry give us one more please Joe.
Joe Weisberg: The other one I was going to mention was that I was really brought up both in my community, I am Jewish and my family was not religious, but we went to synagogue a couple of times a year. Pretty reliably at any high holiday service there would be at one point a speech about the Jewish Refuseniks, the Jews who had applied to emigrate from the Soviet Union, been refused and then technically I think were forced to resign from their jobs when their exit visas were denied, then became sort of pariahs a little bit. That was a very significant cause, and one that I cared about and related to and I could not believe this evil empire was doing this to these people. By the way, it was awful. So again, don't get me wrong, it was awful. I then went to the Soviet Union for a summer. It was pretty late, about 1988 so things were starting to change there but I do not believe what I am about to say is fully explained by that change.
Joe Weisberg: I met a Refusenik. I smuggled in like a Seiko watch that I was given by an organization in Chicago and I was told that he would sell this on the black market and be able to live for a whole year. I went to meet this guy who was great, a really lawful, great guy. But he did not live in some kind of basement, hovel, shoveling coal into a boiler the way I expected. He lived in a nice apartment, pretty nice. When we were talking he mentioned something about his subscription in News Week. I was like huh? You have a-- how? No. That does not make any sense in terms of everything that I have spent the last decade learning about the Soviet Union. You cannot have a subscription to News Week. He said somebody sent me a subscription.
Joe Weisberg: The way it works is I get a notice each week in my mailbox from the Post Office that it has arrived. I go to the Post Office, they put me in a special room, they bring me my copy. I can sit there and read it for as long as I want. Then I give it back and I leave. And I was like wow, that is so weird and great and different from how I thought things work. It is so bureaucratic. It is so specific. It is so odd. And again I am not saying that would have been like that in 1955 but I think it was like that for quite some time before 1988 as well. And I just started to sort of rethink some things, like for example, how come almost every Soviet Jew that I ever met had a university education? It was interesting because they complained very bitterly about having quotas that made it difficult for them to get into top universities. And that was true.
Joe Weisberg: And yet most of them got to go to some university and get a college education, and interesting enough it was not just Jews there were quotas for. It was all the nationalities. Because one of the things the Soviet Union was trying to do was create balance and give everybody opportunity. So was that anti-Semetic to have those quotas? Maybe some of the implementation was more anti-Semetic. It is a very complex issue, we know ourselves in our country how complex those issues are. But the way I would phrase it is, that is an example of many things I saw where it is not that there was not plenty of antisemitism, but it was not the clearly, boldly, vicious anti-Semetic state I saw, that I had imagined.
Joe Weisberg: This is a very rough analogy but it tended to make me think the Soviet Union in the 60's or 70's or 80's, tend to make me think more like America in the 1930's. There was a lot of similarities in the way antisemitism functioned in those two places. Also, like America in the 1930's, there were counter forces, very powerful ones that were against antisemitism, including the fundamental ideology of the state, which provided no small protection. So, as usual I am not dismissing some of the things I thought and knew, but it was essentially a misunderstanding to see them as the whole story.
Andrew Hammond: You had been to the Soviet Union before the wall came down. You went to Leningrad...
Joe Weisberg: Well just before.
Andrew Hammond: ...yes just before. Could you tell us about that experience being at the highlight of the Soviet Union. And I know that the younger Joe maybe read that in one way, but I wondered in writing this book, could you tell the listeners if you reflected back on that experience? Or has time has unfolded has your view on that experience of being there changed?
Joe Weisberg: It was a trip that had a huge influence on me but not in the most obvious ways. Also in the same trip my brother and I went all through Eastern Europe. I remember a lot of things from right through Eastern Europe including going to Romania. And Romania was still, in a lot of places including places we went, it was horses and buggies. It was Ceausescu, it had a kind of Stalinist feel and it was scary. The border patrol people on the railroads were intimidating. I thought oh well, I am getting a little bit of a look at what Stalin-ism was like. So that was fascinating all those years after Stalin. But then when I went to Leningrad-- and I always slip up and still call it Leningrad, that is one of the dangers of going somewhere, it is hard to adjust to a new name.
Joe Weisberg: But I spent a summer there. I was studying Russian at Leningrad State University. The thing that sticks out for me was there were a number of these things that just did not fit with this view I had. I told the story of one of them, of the Refusenik and the subscription in News Week. I also think about the fact that I went to this organization in Chicago, a Jewish relief organization, and they had me smuggle something in to the Soviet Union. It is interesting. Based on my view of the Soviet Union at the time, I should have though, why would you have a 22 year old guy do something like this? I could go to jail.
Joe Weisberg: I could go to the remnants of the Gulag. They could throw me out. Nobody could have cared less. And I think there was sort of this combination of wanting to perceive the Soviet Union as an incredibly dangerous, repressive place, that would get not just its own people but go after me. That did not sink with the reality of how they generally treated visitors. Which was it was not remotely dangerous to sneak something in to a Refusenik. And I think that indicated something about the system. I am not saying it indicated there was no repression. I am not saying that. And of course most of the people who suffered there were Russians, not visitors.
Joe Weisberg: But it says something. It says something that it more liberal in that respect than I ever anticipated. But you asked me about the impact of the trip. And this is I think for me the most interesting thing. Because I had such a strong kind of dogmatic view, I could not absorb any of that information. The things that did not fit, I kind of did not see them. Even the thing about News Week, I sort of raised by eyebrow and then I think I sort of somewhere between forgot about it and tucked it into the very back of my brain, where I imagine it sort of lingering for 20 years. Until the moment was right where my mind was a little more open and then it jumped back into the front. And I think the whole trip was sort of like that.
Andrew Hammond: We are talking about your book but many people will have seen The Americans and this will be a question that will be going through their head. When you wrote The Americans, was it the Joe 2.0 or was it the Joe 1.0? Because it seems to me as someone that is a huge fan of the show, Phillip and Elizabeth and people of their ilk are humanized. They are given a face, they are people with hopes and dreams. I know that may sound a little bit cliché but they are not just this reductionist, monolithic, they are not just atomotones who do not think about anything. They are driven by desires, the ideology and so forth. So, just break that down for us in relation to your current book.
Joe Weisberg: I like that you asked in numbers and I am going to answer in numbers. It was Joe 1.8.
Andrew Hammond: Okay right.
Joe Weisberg: I had gotten to the point where I had really rethought my fundamental uni-dimensionality and seen the world. And I had rethought it so significantly that it seemed not just possible and true, but like a good idea to write a show where the heroes were KGB officers. Where they were going to be portrayed as sympathetic. And I was going to ask an audience to relate to them and connect to them. Again you can imagine for anything I am saying it is not like I expect the audience not to be concerned with some of their murderous activities, on the contrary. But I wanted the audience to treat it sort of the same way they would a CIA officer who did some murderous things. Or in a fictional role did some murderous things. That they could also understand the person as having good motivations and patriotic.
Joe Weisberg: And not just Phillip, who was more sort of open minded and a little more open to the west, but even the more dogmatic Elizabeth, that should be boy, I could really relate to her. I mean I was changing, that is sort of how I saw the world, just on the other side. I had come along far enough to get to that point, which was pretty far. By the way, it is not to say, I do not expect to spend the rest of my life at Joe 2.0 either. I hope I am going to keep moving wherever, in some direction or another. Maybe no longer in numbers, I do not know. The final thing, the last couple of points from 1.8 to two, now you are probably regretting asking me...
Andrew Hammond: No it is very helpful.
Joe Weisberg: ...the last couple of points were that I did so much reading and was exposed to so much new information while researching story lines for the show, that I just continued to expand my view of the complexity of the Soviet Union. I will give you two examples that I think are interesting. One, is that the guy was our consultant on the show, Sergei Kostin, had written a book that I read before the show about Farewell. That was the codename for a French spy, a Russian who had been recruited by the French, or volunteered for the French and gave them a lot of information, I think in the 70's or 80's, I cannot remember which. There was this passage in the book where it talked about his execution. Because he was caught and executed. It is an amazing, crazy story, I could not recommend this book highly enough. The Soviets were very concerned about how to execute people, even traitors.
Joe Weisberg: And they wanted to be done in a humane way. So they put together this whole system that they used over and over and over again. By the way, the rate of execution was not sky high and capital punishment went in and out of legality there. But they did execute people. And the method was was that there was a special team, an execution squad. Anybody who was sentenced to die would have an appeal and they would be at the appeal. Then they would know what was going on. The execution squad would come to get the guy from the jail cell. There were like only one or two of them, they had no signs they were an execution squad. And they would tell the guy, we have to move you to a different cell or something like that. Then they would march them down to the basement and they would go in front of like a kind of official there. The official would say your appeal has been denied and your are sentence is about to be carried out.
Joe Weisberg: At that exact moment somebody would shoot them in the back of the head. And their ideal is they did not want people to suffer by knowing their execution was coming and then spending weeks, months, years, sort of the way that we do it. There is a tremendous amount of psychological suffering there. I do not want to over-hype their method either. They got buried in a mass grave. Their family had trouble finding out it had ever happened. The family could not know where they were buried. There were flaws in their system too. But the idea that they would care about being humane, and additionally there was a pretty robust investigation before anybody was executed. My view would have been they thought somebody was a traitor, shoot them in the head.
Joe Weisberg: That is not how it would be. It was very hard. They really had to prove it in a very different way than our courts and our judicial system works. But people who they were like 95% sure were guilty, and were guilty, were not executed because they were not 100% positive. So, that really opened my eyes some things about the system as well. Another example I was going to give was that I wrote something in the pilot where after this KGB trainer rapes Elizabeth, where somebody says-- I think it is him-- but somebody basically says "nobody cares, I can do whatever I want here. The authorities almost encourage it." And I really regretted that because I should have known already, and I certainly knew soon after that that was false.
Joe Weisberg: That was no true to that organization remotely. So, even though I had gotten to the point of seeing that these were sympathetic human beings with a complex organization, I still was carrying some prejudices, or some things I was willing to compromise for the sake of a good dramatic line.
Andrew Hammond: I am almost anticipating some of the listeners. Like I say it is a very diverse, intense book. But there is definitely Russia hawks and they are going to push back a little bit on some of this stuff. I guess people would proffer the moral equivalence kind of argument. Come on, you trying to build them up and make them not seem what they were, which is probably history's most murderous regime in Europe. Trying to pull America down to be on their level and you are trying to blur the boundaries and stuff. I wondered if you had any thoughts on that. I guess the other one be some people might uncharitably think, it makes sense, Joe 1.0 was in the CIA. Joe 2.0 is a liberal TV guy who lives in New York, that is why the shift has taken place. I just wondered if you could respond to the first one which is systemic blurring of the lines between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Andrew Hammond: And the second one your personal journey from being in a more moral seeking sort of institution to being in the TV world, which is kind of a different beast.
Joe Weisberg: Yes that is great. I really want to answer both of those, I am anxious I am going to forget the second one.
Andrew Hammond: Okay I can come back to that one.
Joe Weisberg: I can do the first one and you can tell me again. First thing I want to say is that you said so you knew it was one of the most murderous countries in history. Well that was true under Stalin. But it was not true post Stalin. They were not even in the top tier. And they were not on that list after Stalin. I think one of the problems for me was that I knew that was true, I knew that obviously Stalin had killed millions of people in all kinds of different, horrific ways. And I understood that it had changed markedly after. I was a student of the history. But the importance of that change did not quite affect me enough. So, once I had it set in my mind that this was an evil empire, I do not think that is really a good way to think about the Soviet Union or Stalin either, but I sure get it.
Joe Weisberg: I do not think it is a crazy thing to say about the Soviet Union or Stalin. Okay, fine I have some counter arguments but also I agree. But it just all remained that for me. It remained totalitarian. It remained incredibly murderous. It remained evil, it remained the place we had to fight and destroy. So, I just want to make that distinction between the two Soviet Unions. And then also the thing about moral equivalence I think is really for me interesting, because I think now they are using what about-ism, which is a very similar concept. But when I was growing up if you really ever tried to say well okay, the Soviets or whoever did this, but what about we did that, you could not get half way through that sentence before people would jump on you and say moral equivalence, moral equivalence.
Joe Weisberg: And it was such a common way to kind of attack you or get out of an argument. I did it to people by the way. I was on the oh that is just moral equivalence side. And here is what I think was misunderstood there. I think that for a lot of us, and maybe all of us, when we are looking at something for example, like crimes or terrible things done by another country, our brains naturally produce what we have done that is similar, for a couple of reasons. One, our brains want help understanding. They want help understanding what happened there and they want help understanding us ourselves and what we are doing. And one way to do that is to sort of look at things and say it is similar, it is not similar. How does it compare?
Joe Weisberg: And I believe the brain may also be trying to say stop looking so one dimensionally. Stop being so judgment. You are not exactly the same. Maybe what you did is not as bad but you do-- can I swear on this podcast?
Andrew Hammond: Yes sure.
Joe Weisberg: You do plenty of bad <bleep> too. So, I think it is serving a function to try to look at those things in comparison. And I think it is running away from the benefit to kind of throw it away or dismiss it by saying moral equivalence, moral equivalence. The other piece I would say about is that I think people tend to get into trouble, and I try to be very cautious about this myself, it is not a great idea to use those analogies to try to have them be exact. And it is not a good idea to use those analogies to try to decide who is better. No two crimes against humanity for example, are equivalent or the same or need to be compared to each other to see who is worse. Who cares what is worse? The Gulag or slavery. Who cares? What does that question mean? The questions diminishes both crimes against humanity.
Joe Weisberg: But the fact that our country also committed long standing horrific crimes against humanity should be thought about when we are looking at other peoples crimes against humanity. Again, not in any way to diminish the crimes. But to see ourselves more clearly.
Andrew Hammond: Question two if you can remember. Basically just Joe 1.0 of course he thought that way. He worked for the CIA. Joe 2.0 of course he thought that way, he is in the TV business.
Joe Weisberg: Well I really like that question. I have a whole section in my book where I try to ask questions like that of myself. Because one of the things I am saying in the book is it is probably a good idea for people to sort of try to have a little more awareness of where their politics are coming from. There is what I believe a common misconception, and you see it all over America today, where it is really damaging from all sides, that people believe they are right. They know the truth. They hold the truth. The people who disagree with them are factually, clearly wrong, are lying all the time about everything. They are so wrong they could not even believe it themselves so they have to be lying.
Joe Weisberg: I think that is a very destructive way to think and is not really consistent with too much about human nature. Much more persuasive and these are not my arguments, these are other people I have read, Jonathan Haight makes this argument very persuasively, is that you really have all these emotions and feelings and experiences and things that happen from your childhood on. And they shape you in a certain psychological way that then causes you to glom on to a certain set of political beliefs. And if you can recognize that and you can start to take yourself apart a little bit and see what some of things work for you, you may not change your beliefs, fine, but you may change the rigidity and certainty you hold them with. And the contempt you hold people who disagree with you in.
Joe Weisberg: And I, just from the time I was 10, just a counter-intuitive thinker. It makes me feel good to argue with the consensus. I just like that feeling, I like to be like a gadfly. First of all I think it is fair to give that reader that information about myself. When I take on that question I am not trying to dismiss it but I can chart a sort of progress for myself where I became less interested in being a counter-intuitive thinker. And when I look at a lot of the issues I discuss in this book, I have much deeper sources of feeling about them than trying to be counter-intuitive. I will give you an example of one. From a very young age, I think without being aware of it, I felt very sympathetic towards people I thought were misunderstood.
Joe Weisberg: And I asked myself in the book this question about Putin. Do I think that Putin is misunderstood in America and it is my job to explain him? Well when I look back at my childhood I was pretty lonely. I did not have a lot of friends and I felt very misunderstood. So I developed this sympathy. Now I think that is compared to the thing about counter-intuitive, I think there is some truth to that. I think that is part of the reason I am interested in sort of rethinking and reexplaining Putin because I think he has been misunderstood. But since I know that, since I am thoughtful about it and know it, I could be careful with it. I could be careful that I am not going too far in one direction. I can be careful that I am not slipping into denial of all the horrible <bleep> he has done.
Joe Weisberg: Because that is the risk. When you have something like that that is driving you but you do not know it, you start screwing up and you start making kind of logical and emotional errors. So, I can kind of protect myself for some degree about those. Now to the one you asked, I do not know. I have not thought about it enough. I really start thinking about stuff like this for a long time before I can come up with an answer. I think off the top of my head, I think that there were just more powerful factors influencing me. And I was indicating with the counter-intuitive thing that milieu will sometimes influence me in the reverse. I wanted to go against the milieu.
Joe Weisberg: So, when I joined the CIA, I did not know one person who had ever done that. I did not know one person who had ever considered it. People did not know what I was doing but people did sense at least in foreign policy I kind of shifted to the right and had become a little Reagan-y. And my friends did not like that. That was considered almost like a personality flaw bordering on a crime where I grew up. And I really softened on a lot of that stuff but working in television now, I do not talk that much to people about politics and I do not feel that influenced by it. I think most of these changes were before I went to work in that environment. And is that environment sort of uniformly liberal as people think? Probably not but I am not trying to say it is balanced, I do not think it is balanced either. But I do not think that has had a big effect on me. I may have to call you next week and say I put a couple more hours into that and there is a lot of truth to that.
Andrew Hammond: Please do. One of the things that I am completely with you, I used to teach at college and I would say to the students read a different newspaper every day for three months, read one newspapers. And then go to the one that is on the other side of the political spectrum and read that for three months. This is something I have done myself for about a year and a half and it really kind of pulled my views in different directions and made me think them through. But the reality is that most people do not want to do that. Most people they have got a sense of identity, they want to sure it up. They do not want anything that is going to interfere with that. So, intellectually I 100% agree with you but I just wondered if you had any thoughts or maybe you can give me some wisdom. How do you get people to buy into complexity when so much of what people just want is I have got a busy day, I have got two jobs. I have got kids and so forth. The world just needs to be reduced down to easily digestible pieces. I do not really have time to sift through, reading Dostoevsky or engaging with Russia's social history or whatever. How do you get people to embrace that ambiguity and that kind of complexity when quite often what they just want is simplicity? And a great example of that which we brought up earlier is I think Reagan, Carter saw the worlds in shades of gray. The Miller speech and he wanted Americans to reflect on themselves and the energy crisis and they hated him for it. Reagan came along and said it is simple, we are the good guys, you are the bad guys and we are going to kick their ass. He carried every state except Minnesota. Sorry I know that is a lot but complexity...
Joe Weisberg: No, it is great. It is a very good question. By the way, I will just add that Masha Gessen writes really thoughtfully about the role that the need to reduce anxiety played for Soviets and for Russians. That that simplistic view creates a more understand world structure and therefore lessens anxiety. And it is a tall order to ask people to embrace more complexity if it is going to make their lives more anxious and make them more confused. That is a lot to ask. I am not even sure you can ask. I am not sure there is anything to do about it. I think that this book is my own small effort and I think that probably the thing I say in the book that would be most likely to help some small number of people who happen to be on that path anyway, is that as I have gone through this change from really being very rigid, very rigid in my thinking to more open, I feel so much better.
Joe Weisberg: I cannot tell you how much better I feel on almost every level. First of all even on the specific political questions, to not be so angry and not be so frustrated. And not have all these enemies who I think are out to get me and I am out to get. To just let that go is a great feeling. I feel better walking through life without that. In the same way, it tends to be I think, or least for me was, the same in personal relationships. If you have that rigidity it also can be harder, you tend to be more judgmental of other people. I certainly was. It makes it harder to connect with people, harder to get along with people. Harder to have intimate relationships. And all those things got better in my life. So, I just offer that as an incentive because it can be very life changing in a positive way.
Joe Weisberg: But in that section I was talking about in the book where I tried to look at some of my personality quirks and see how they were influencing me, I also have a little section on grandiosity. And trying to stay cognizant of my mine because to some degree writing a book like this comes from a proselytizing instinct. I want to say I know best. I know better. And parts of it that are still like I am right, I am right, I am more right than you. And I can change you and change the world. I do not think those impulses, I do not want to knock them 100% because they get you to write books and things like that which is good. But there is real danger to them that you fall into the trap of thinking it is your job to fix the world or change the world. And you can get a very inflated view of yourself. So I just note that also.
Andrew Hammond: I think just hearing you talk there from Socrates on down I think societies always need someone that kind of questions them or makes them see complexity. Or complicates the way that they view things. Like Socrates saying to a general, well what is bravery? At one level, of course I know what bravery is, I am a general. I think that that is an interesting function and I do not think there is a simplistic answer to it. Great book and congratulations on finishing it. Thank you for taking the time to speak to me Joe.
Joe Weisberg: Thank you for having me on. That was a particularly delightful conversation, just an open back and forth and have enough time to really air it all out. It was great fun, thank you.
Andrew Hammond: Thank you for listening to this episode of SpyCast. Go to our web page where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter at INTL SpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback please email us at spycast@spymuseum dot org. I am your host, Dr Andrew Hammond and you can connect with me on Linked In or follow me on Twitter @SpyHistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage related artefact's. The International Spy Museum. The SpyCast team include Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughan III. See you for next week's show.