In Memory of Yevgeny Primakov

Primakov was an expert in the Middle East, and earlier in his career, he had spent some time there. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Gorbachev sent him on a couple of missions to Baghdad to try to persuade Saddam to withdraw and thus avert a war.

I first met Yevgeny Primakov in London in the mid-1980s when he brought a team from the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations to meet his opposite number, Admiral Sir James Eberle, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Both men lost their wives at about that time and that created a bond between them that lasted many years.

Primakov was the first senior Soviet official I had had the opportunity to talk to properly. He was a thickset man, formally dressed in a suit, often with a waistcoat. He had an authority and a breadth of knowledge that commanded respect. His expression was always serious. He looked out at you from under hooded eyes. I rarely heard him laugh. But there was a twinkle in those eyes which told of an ironic sense of humor and an ability to look at the world with a degree of detachment. It was from him I heard my first Soviet political jokes. He always dealt straight, never deliberately misled you, but was never indiscreet: in short, he was a man with whom you could do business.

Primakov was an expert in the Middle East, and earlier in his career, he had spent some time there. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Gorbachev sent him on a couple of missions to Baghdad to try to persuade Saddam to withdraw and thus avert a war. This struck me at the time as a reasonable action in support of the Soviet national interest. Gorbachev and his government had been appalled as everyone else by the Iraqi invasion of a small neighbor; but apart from the death and destruction that any war causes, the Soviet Union had a number of material interests in Baghdad, which could only be damaged if war broke out. Not surprisingly, Primakov’s missions were regarded in Washington as meddlesome interference: they thought it another demonstration, as a senior American official later remarked, of Primakov’s anti-Americanism.

The West held his KGB connections against him. They typecast him as a spy and, as so often, jumped to simplistic conclusions. Like their Tsarist predecessors, officers of the KGB did indeed have a strong sense that they, not the Tsars and commissars who were their nominal superiors, were the true guardians of the Russian state. Primakov shared that sense of the state, and some of his more belligerent public pronouncements, for example over the Baltic Republics, lacked balance. But he was too canny and too intelligent to be a blind and simple-minded nationalist: he was, rather, a firm and on the whole judicious defender of Russia’s interests as he saw them.

Nor was he a simple-minded conservative in domestic matters. He loyally supported Gorbachev’s attempt to reform and liberalize the failing Soviet system. He stuck with Gorbachev throughout 1990 in the growing conflict with Yeltsin and the extreme right. But he joined Yeltsin in the besieged White House in protest against the coup of August 1991 - before it was clear that the coup had failed. It was one more sign that he combined a sharp political instinct with a sense of principle.

In the new Russia, he was appointed successively Head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (1991-1996) and Foreign Minister (1996-1998). As part of the complicated political maneuvering during his final years in office, Yeltsin appointed him Prime Minister in the autumn of 1998. Hitherto a comparatively unknown figure, Primakov became popular amongst ordinary people because he brought a degree of order into the economy after the default of 1998, though the new liberals feared (wrongly) that he wished to dismantle the market economy. He believed that American power had become too dominant, opposed NATO enlargement, and believed that Russia should carve out an independent role for itself. Like most Russians, he was incensed by NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, and his popularity increased when he ostentatiously cancelled a visit to Washington in protest.

Indeed, in Yeltsin’s eyes Primakov’s popularity was becoming a threat: he fired him in May 1999. In alliance with the populist mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, Primakov then launched himself on an independent political career. When he put himself forward as a potential candidate to succeed Yeltsin as President, the Kremlin launched a ruthless attack through the media to cut him down to size. Vladimir Putin was maneuvered into the succession, and Primakov abandoned the race.

Once again, he survived the transition. President Putin appointed him Chairman of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an apparently innocuous post which nevertheless allowed him to continue to exercise his skills on the international field. In 2003, President Putin sent him back to Iraq in an abortive attempt to persuade Saddam to make the concessions necessary to avert the American-led invasion.

Primakov was an ambitious man: the Moscow wits compared him to the British warplane, the Harrier – “You know, the one that goes straight upwards.” He had the political skills to remain more or less on the right side of whoever was in power in the Kremlin. But his actions, not least at the time of the coup in August 1991, showed that he was more than a mere careerist. With his death, Russia has lost a considerable public servant.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.