BACK IN 1988, I was working on the Soviet Union in Australia’s national intelligence-analysis organisation, the Office of National Assessments (ONA). After a decade-long caravan of the comatose and the incompetent through the Kremlin’s key positions, the field of Sovietology had been glavanised by the emergence three years earlier of Mikhail Gorbachev, with his policies of glasnost andperestroika (openness and reform). Like all Soviet analysts at the time, I was preoccupied by the question: ‘What does Gorbachev mean?’ Clearly something new was happening but what was it exactly? A genuine internal reform of the Soviet system? A sneaky ploy designed to lull the West into a false sense of security? A sign of a fatal systemic weakness? Many people had views, but no one could be sure.
In November that year I was due to visit Washington for a meeting about the subject with our American intelligence partners. I had discovered, to my pleasure, that the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies – the umbrella group covering United States scholars working on these matters – was holding its annual three-day conference in Honolulu that year. (The organisers had a keen sense of how to attract Slavic specialists during the northern winter.) I persuaded my boss of the importance of my attending this conference and checked into the vast Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel where hundreds of academics, government officials and intelligence analysts milled around for three days of intense panel discussions. The political future of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was earnestly debated.
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