“I have a problem,” is how Leonard Puckleman struck up a conversation with me. “My 20-year-old girlfriend in Paris just learned about my 19-year-old girlfriend in Moscow.” It was 1991, and men could still say stuff like that to strangers.
He was a moderately good-looking, physically fit American in his early 30s, wearing a nubby red sweater that screamed California cool. He eyed me up and down, perhaps assuming that the 40-year-old sitting next to him in business class had womanly wisdom.
Our flight was from Moscow to Paris, so his claim was plausible, at least on the level of geography. He smirked as he revealed his problem so I smirked back and said something like, “I’m sure you will figure it out.” What I didn’t say, but later wished I had, was a phrase I’d recently learned from a Washington, D.C. insider: “That’s a high-class problem.” This was reportedly a favorite saying of Bill Clinton, a man who had recently become President and would soon have a 20-something girlfriend problem of his own.
Leonard Puckleman turned out to be a rapacious American in more ways than one, but before I explain, let me set the scene in which he operated. The early 1990s was a dizzying era when communist governments across Europe were crumbling; the biggest dissolution was the Soviet Union itself. One American philosopher declared it, “The End of History.”
It didn’t turn out that way, but philosophy has never been a strong point of the American character, and nuance is not our thing. Capitalist triumphalism was at hand, and in victory-besotted America much was made, for example, of the Russian people’s desire for blue jeans and BIC pens. These coveted items were promised to those who had faith in a new religion: ‘The Invisible Hand’ of market capitalism. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Premier of the Soviet Union, was a believer. He was cautious about democracy but all in on capitalism.
I was a non-profit worker, more idealist than capitalist, whose hippie roots made me skeptical of Russia’s new faith in the economic system they had opposed for so long. Nevertheless, I was truly optimistic, feeling that people like me could help Russia achieve democracy. And yet here I found myself, sipping complimentary Air France champagne with Leonard Puckleman.
Well, one thing led to another, and halfway into the flight, Leonard told me he was on an important mission to meet a few members of his Board of Directors in Paris, then on to meet others in the Midwest. He was asking them to approve a secret proposal.
I could see that he wanted me to ask, so I did. “What’s the plan?”
Being the type who plays hard to get, he answered with a smile, “I’m sorry I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”
I decided to divulge my own secret. I told him I worked for a billionaire, which I did, (albeit a do-gooder billionaire), who might be interested in an investment opportunity. Leonard had never heard my boss’s name, but after some theatrical pondering, he decided to believe me. Maybe he needed more investors and liked the idea of telling his board he recruited one on the flight to Paris. Maybe he believed me simply because I was sitting next to him in business class. He rummaged in the bag at his feet and pulled out something so extraordinary that I gasped. It was a foot-square, cardboard fold-out presentation covered in dark red cloth with a hammer and sickle embossed in gold on the fabric. In the 1980s, I had seen my share of official documents like these, when I worked with Soviet State Television in a sort of citizen diplomat jujitsu. This one made it clear that Leonard was up to something big. And that changed my life.
How my life was changed has to begin with how my life was a decade earlier, before the Soviet Union collapsed. The early 1980s was one of the coldest phases of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was ossified under the multi-decade leadership of Leonid Breshnev, who probably suffered from dementia. The U.S. was fired up by Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire rhetoric, in which he joked about nuking Moscow. Both the U.S. and the USSR built nuclear weapons as fast as they could. The threat of annihilation felt very real, very palpable and very scary. What was unknown in the West at that moment, but painfully clear to the leaders of the USSR, was that all the gold in the Soviet State treasury was gone. That meant the U.S. had already won the Cold War but didn’t know it, a situation more dangerous than we could have imagined. The Russians were dead broke, but they did have plenty of bombs.
Luckily, before one side nuked the other and sent us all into oblivion, something happened. And that’s where me and many others, Russians and Americans, came in. If I say that we saved the world from nuclear war, you probably won’t believe me. So let me convince you.
I was a television producer who was a part of the ‘citizen diplomacy’ movement of the 1980s. My colleagues and I used transnational TV satellites to connect people in Russia and the U.S. to each other, live on television. These programs were called Spacebridges and over a dozen were broadcast in both countries in the 1980s — more than 20 years before Skype or Zoom were created. We worked with our Soviet counterparts, young TV producers like us, and we won an Emmy Award.
The first Spacebridge, in 1982, connected musicians in two locations, live: a U.S. rock concert in the San Bernardino county desert, and a Moscow TV studio. The ‘US Festival’ was sponsored by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, in a bid to create a sort of West Coast Woodstock. He hired the rock impresario Bill Graham, who had made Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead famous. 300,000 people gathered to see U2, the Who and others. As a side dish, they got a live feed of Russian rock musicians between the acts.
But once the connection was made, and the big screens were showing Russian teens dancing under a disco ball, Graham, who was a native Hungarian and had a deep distrust of Soviet Russia, had second thoughts. He decided that Russian would never broadcast rock ‘n’ roll. Therefore, it was a fake. He literally pulled the plug, cutting off the signal from Moscow.
Graham was partly right: the smiling young Russians, bopping to the music under sparkling disco-ball lighting, had been bussed into the TV studio the night before, made to sleep in their seats and woken, bleary-eyed, at 7 a.m. Moscow time, when they were to pretend they were partying at a nightclub. But they really were in Moscow. Graham was convinced that the signal originated from somewhere like a basement in New Jersey.
He was not alone in hating the idea of the evil Russians scheming to brainwash starry-eyed Americans. The New York Times reviewed the first of these programs we got onto U.S. TV and declared the very idea of allowing Russians to access American minds “execrable.”
But I knew we were doing something real, something important, because I was there when a second Spacebridge took place, and this time Americans and Russians looked into each other’s eyes. Standing face to face via giant TV screens, for what was perhaps the very first Zoom between people in two counties, we were electrified to finally see ‘the enemy.’ After so many years of fear and anger, both sides were shocked to discover… human beings. People like us, with families and hopes, people who fervently did not want to fight a nuclear war.
I could suddenly see how insanely easy it was for rival nations to slide into demonizing and dehumanizing ‘the other.’ I was amazed that an official of the Soviet Union, the place President Reagan called ‘the Evil Empire,’ was allowed to say, in front of Americans and Russians, that the true evil, the nuclear arms race, must end. That’s when this cynical TV news type was transformed into an idealist.
Over the next few years, we created a whole series of Spacebridges. The programs ranged from children singing about peace to Russian and American housewives discussing sex; from Ravi Shankar playing sitar, to tearful reunions of World War II veterans, to earnest scientists warning of nuclear winter. They entranced 150 million Soviet citizens, featured luminaries including Carl Sagan and John Denver, and burnished talk-show host Phil Donahue’s reputation.
But these TV shows were just one piece of an extraordinary flowering of contact between Americans and Russians in the 1980s. These citizen diplomats were pioneers, determined to breach the unknown. They were also weirdos and oddballs, wild and brave characters who found their counterparts in a forbidden and dangerous mirror world. One of them was given lie detector tests by both the CIA and the KGB. Two were visionaries who bonded for life, one becoming a millionaire, the other getting thrown into the insane asylum. U.S. Astronauts conferred with Soviet Cosmonauts. Scientists, students, writers, actors and musicians, moguls and oligarchs, slick operators, mind-readers, mystics and psychics (some of whom advised Soviet premiers or U.S. presidents) — everybody was welcome.
The last Spacebridge took place in 1989, shortly before the whole sorry Communist enterprise collapsed. The last Spacebridge was one of five specials that aired live on ABC News and Soviet State TV Channel One. It connected U.S. Congressmen and Senators to members of the USSR’s governing body, the Supreme Soviet.
This last gasp of the Spacebridges brings to mind a quote from long ago that went something like this: every great idea begins as heresy and ends as orthodoxy. These very orthodox national TV specials featured droning old politicians, nothing like those first encounters when citizens cried and sang together, discovered something unique and shone with the light of making peace. Those last Spacebridges, by far the most boring of them all, were the ones that won the Emmy Award.
In the end, the biggest difference between Russians and Americans in the 1980s was that they wanted to live more like us, but we did not want to live like them. Our young Russian friends decided that the U.S. was a great country, and that they could become great by studying us. I guess some of that rubbed off on me, so that by the dawn of the 1990s, I too, thought that we Americans were on the right path: if idealists like us intervened, we could create, not ‘the end of history,’ but a world without nuclear war. And it worked! It all came together as if by magic, and nuclear war never happened.
So, you are welcome, America.
As I fast-forward, as we used to say, let me remind you that in 1991 when my fateful Moscow-Paris flight took place, America was swollen with pride. ‘American exceptionalism’ —the idea that our country was blessed by God, or for some other reason could do whatever we wanted — had never seemed more accurate than in those heady days when our enemy had been vanquished. We were the exception; everyone else except us had to follow rules, usually rules that we made up.
American exceptionalism was everywhere in the 1990s, and it shone most brightly among Americans who traveled to Russia in those days. Which brings us to two specific exceptional Americans, Leonard Puckleman and myself, flying from Moscow to Paris.
We left off as Leonard was waving his official Soviet document in my business-class, champagne-sipping face. He really was a theatrical type, so it took some fretting and posing for him to finally snap back the rubberized bands that crisscrossed the hammer-and-sickle-stamped cardboard. He unfolded a tryptic, a three-part map showing a huge swathe of Siberia, dotted with symbols which, he explained, represented untouched resources that have slumbered from time immemorial in the Siberian wilderness. These were now being sold, apparently, to the highest bidder. The plan was for his company to take it all: every last forest, coal deposit, gold vein, seam of copper, lithium, uranium and who-knows-what-else, in this chunk of Siberia. It was virgin territory and it would make Leonard Puckleman and his investors very, very rich.
Also getting rich would be the people with whom Leonard was standing in a photo he showed me as part of his presentation. I knew these people’s names and faces because they were the top-level apparatchiks of the day, the Soviet Poohbahs, high priests of the very un-American religion of Communism. In the black and white photo, Leonard was shaking hands with their leader, and a circle of men laid hands upon their handshake. They were all smiling broadly, thinking about how much money they would make.
Now remember I was a non-profit type, so I asked, “What about the Russian people? How do they benefit? I mean, do they benefit?”
Leonard looked at me carefully with his almost-handsome, almost earnest blue-gray eyes. “That’s the best part,” he said.
Sweeping his hand across the virgin cardboard landscape, very green and untrammeled, yet spangled with symbols of promised riches, he said, “In return, the enterprise will build shops across Siberia offering the most desired dollar-priced Western goods, like blue jeans and BIC pens, sold for rubles at reasonable prices. We will give the people what they want.”
His plan had something to offend everyone and enrich a few. I have described it with less flourish than Leonard, a natural salesman and a soldier in the battle of ‘spontaneous privatization,’ which was being waged against Russia by Americans and Europeans and, I guess (why not?), Asians and Africans.
Wait, what? Spontaneous privatization was a process by which foreigners bought enterprises owned by the state, paying not the state but the managers of the factories. It may be hard to imagine, unless you, like me, had recently bought huge cans of top-grade Beluga caviar from a waiter in a state-owned Moscow restaurant. These normally cost quite a few hundred dollars each; I bought them, literally under the table, for $30 a pop.
Shortly after my plane ride with Leonard, the proto-oligarchs he was shaking hands with in that photo were toppled along with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Ultimately, the coup against Gorbachev failed, but Russian Communism and the officials who were part of it were tossed into the well-used ash-heap of history.
I suspect that Leonard’s scheme also failed, but probably not in 1991. I say this because of what happened next. And that is, Boris Yeltsin, the mayor of Moscow, became the first elected President of Russia.
Yeltsin may or may not have believed in the cult of the Invisible Hand, but he bowed down, nonetheless. The capitalist religion’s priests were American economists, as rigid and doctrinaire as all true believers are. Now able to work their will on the whole of Russia, they prescribed a penance called ‘shock therapy.’ This was, in simplistic terms, an instantaneous switch of the Russian ruble to full convertibility on the world’s currency markets. Until then, the officially propped-up ruble had been valued as about equal to a dollar (based on the non-existent gold in the bank), although its true value was, say, 15 cents. The instantaneous conversion made the bank accounts of average Russians virtually worthless overnight. They could suddenly find blue jeans and BIC pens for sale but could not afford them.
At this point, what Russians wanted more than pants and pens was to not starve or freeze to death. By 1993, according to World Bank and Russian government figures, up to 49 percent of the Russian population was living in poverty; five years later, their incomes had plunged by another 15 percent. I saw the results of ‘shock therapy’ with my own eyes: elderly grandmas, dressed in worn sweaters without proper coats, standing in the snow at the entryways to subway stations, selling the family silverware.
I will never know for sure, but it may have been easier than ever for Leonard to launch his scheme in the shock therapy era. The reason I surmise that he probably failed in the end is because Yeltsin’s heir was Vladimir Putin. People like me have many reasons to hate Putin, including how he shut down all the projects supporting democracy that we do-gooders were creating with our Russian counterparts. And positive feelings towards Putin are not the most comfortable position for an American these days. But if you had spent time in Russia in the 90s, if you had met Leonard, seen the old ladies selling their family treasures, and bought some super-cheap caviar, you might feel the same.
Putin became prime minister in 1999, and as luck would have it, world oil prices rose rapidly during 1999 and 2000. The enforced penury of ‘shock therapy’ was lifted, and for a while at least, everyday Russians got wealthier on the boom in oil and other resources. Putin, whatever we think of him now, ended the rampant thievery by foreigners wallowing in the riches of spontaneous privatization and the worst effects of capitalism gone wild, like mafia-style shoot-outs in the streets of Moscow. The good times didn’t last for long nor were all enriched, but some Russians came out of it quite well.
So, democracy failed in Russia but crony capitalism succeeded. As vile an autocrat and warmonger as Putin has turned out to be, he saved his country from the likes of Leonard Puckleman, and still has tens of millions of grateful Russian citizens. They are willing to forgive his numerous transgressions; even, (so far), for waging war on a neighbor. And, in the ultimate irony, Leonard Puckleman’s scheme was probably carried out eventually, but by a Russian oligarch rather than an American would-be billionaire.
I googled Leonard while writing this but couldn’t find any reference to him. I decided to change his name slightly since he struck me as the litigious type. More important than who he is or was, the story has value because someone like me, a non-profit do-gooder, was able to glimpse something I was never meant to see. At that moment, sitting on the Moscow-Paris flight listening to Leonard’s horrific plan, I had a full-blown revelation. I am a shill, I realized, I am that sucker born every minute. I saw in my mind’s eye, first, an image: me presenting a clean and idealistic face, the face of a good American helping the Russians. And as I so earnestly address the world, just behind my back, a bit blurred, Leonard is running past, his satchel stuffed with cash. And not just him, but so many Americans, jetting from Moscow to Paris to Boise, Idaho or wherever, dollars stuffed in their pockets. My dark vision on that day included someone else: Bill Clinton, the 20-something woman at his side, beaming at those Americans as they scurried off with the wealth of the Russian people.
This vision didn’t end my work in Russia, but it destroyed my starry-eyed view of the American project. Never an unquestioning fan of capitalism, I now had to cast a jaded eye on democracy as well, or at least the version of it we were spreading around the former USSR. In that version, Ukraine was granted a well-deserved freedom from Soviet domination, but pushed to join NATO by American policymakers, some of whom had advocated shock therapy. Luckily cooler heads prevailed, but in the course of supporting Ukraine’s freedom, an elected (albeit corrupt) Ukrainian president was pushed out of office. American officials were recorded discussing who to install in his place, a recording played across media worldwide. Once again, our selective memory of America’s goodness has wiped this episode from our minds. But in Russia and in other potential democracies, a lesson was learned: Do not trust the Americans.
So here we are today, Russia and the U.S. once again angry and fearful, relations cut off amid propaganda that dehumanizes us all. But this time, the reservoir of goodwill that the Russian people had for Americans has dried up, so that our pleas on behalf of Ukraine are met with rancor and disbelief.
And yet, the nuclear bombs are still here, still poised to launch. They are being cleaned and updated, even as the structures that build trust and foster peace are being dismantled. Can the course of division be reversed again, can that lightning be caught in a bottle once more? Now that is what I call a high-class problem.•