Obama and the KGB

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I was arrested by the KGB in Stalin's hometown of Gori in March 1988. Six men interrogated me about my Russian-language skills, my lack of papers and my high-speed camera, but after several hours my explanation was accepted. Planning to write about Stalin, I wanted to see his childhood home, his school and his town. My passport was at the hotel in Tbilisi as Soviet law required, but I admitted to breaking another Soviet law -- not to leave the city where you were registered.

At the end, the leader said he wanted to ask one question about the U.S. primaries then under way and which included among other hopefuls, Jesse Jackson. He asked: "Is that negr going to be president?"

He had used the proper Russian word for a black person but had said it with worry and disdain. He could imagine nothing worse -- the United States revealed as a democracy not a hypocrisy.

Then I had the odd duty of delivering a brief talk on U.S. civics to a half a dozen KGB men. No, I said to their immense relief, the United States wasn't ready to elect a black president yet, it was still a little too soon for that.

But only 20 years too soon as it's now turned out.

On the day after Obama was elected president, Dmitry Medvedev gave his first state-of-the-nation speech and blamed the United States for most of Russia's problems -- from arming Georgia to causing the global financial crisis.

There are several things wrong with this approach. By blaming Washington for all his country's problems, Medvedev casts Russia as a passive victim that can at best react. It grants to the United States precisely what Russia fears it seeks: omnipotence.

The same rebuke Senator John McCain made to Obama can also be made to Medvedev. You're not running against George W. Bush. It was Bush's idea to place elements of a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and it was Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney who armed and encouraged Georgia.

It's not clear yet what sort of Russia policy Obama will conduct. He won't say much before the inauguration. And so it would have been a perfect time for Medvedev to seize the initiative and make a bold, innovative move to show that Russia was the master of its own fate and capable of "new thinking." But instead, he resorted to the language of threat, the old game of move and countermove.

It was clever to threaten to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad, near the Polish border. Now Medvedev has something to swap for the U.S. missile-defense system slated for Poland without having to give up anything in the Caucasus. He made a point of saying Russia would remain there.

What else could Medvedev have done? He could have taken a few plays from Obama's campaign and seen that words can be deeds and create real change. He could have sent Obama a warm-hearted, high-spirited greeting, saying that 2007 marked the 200th anniversary of U.S.-Russian relations, a perfect time for a new beginning. It would have cost Medvedev little and he would have gained in stature and created new possibilities for the relationship.

Hope and the future matter greatly in this new and youthful century. Obama embodies that spirit, while Medvedev's speech had a musty air about it.

Stalin's Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov said the problem with free elections is that you never know who's going to win. The U.S. primaries and the 2008 election had all the high drama and breathless suspense of life itself. Obama's election was proof that anything is possible in a free country. A real election shames the sham. The day those six KGB men feared 20 years ago has come at last.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."