163. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • U.S.

    • President and Mrs. Reagan
    • Secretary and Mrs. Shultz
    • D. Zarechnak, Carolyn Smith (Interpreters)
  • USSR

    • Gen. Secretary and Mrs. Gorbachev
    • Foreign Min. and Mrs. Shevardnadze
    • P. Palazhchenko, E. Lagutin (Interpreters)
[Page 1117]

Shortly after the dinner started, the General Secretary asked about the President’s speech at Moscow State University.2 Secretary Shultz noted that the students had been very responsive, and the General Secretary alluded to the “universal principle”, which had also been the subject of discussion for the Joint Statement.3

The General Secretary poured some vodka, and Secretary Shultz, turning to Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, recalled the vodka in Geneva. Mrs. Gorbachev then asked Secretary Shultz if he remembered the first question she had asked him in Geneva. When he replied that he did not, she declined to remind him of what it was.

Mrs. Reagan noted that people were standing in the theater that evening. There followed a discussion of the cost of theater tickets in the Soviet Union (very low), and the cost of books. The General Secretary compared the very low cost of his book, Perestroika, in the USSR, with the $20 it cost in the U.S. He also mentioned that he had received the collection of President Reagan’s speeches in the Russian translation.

Secretary Shultz asked if the Summit was getting a lot of media coverage in the USSR. Gorbachev replied in the affirmative, and noted that recordings were being made of all the TV broadcasts, and copies would be sent to the President.

The President inquired about the General Secretary’s concern about the President being shot, and the subsequent lateness of the President’s arrival at the theater. Gorbachev indicated that the concern was not on his part, and that there had never been any trouble with a dignitary’s arrival at the Bolshoi. He seemed annoyed that the President had arrived late.

Secretary Shultz brought up the General Secretary’s and the President’s walk around Red Square. Gorbachev indicated that certain “provocative” questions about nuclear arms were directed at the President. Secretary Shultz noted that at the President’s press conference, the President had spoken of his desire to see a world free of nuclear weapons. Mrs. Gorbachev mentioned that she had spoken to the press while waiting at the art gallery for Mrs. Reagan, and noted that the press were rather quiet as a whole.

Gorbachev noted the large number of questions asked at the press conference.

[Page 1118]

Secretary Shultz indicated that he felt that the press realized that something important was taking place, and they stood back and refrained from being provocative. Gorbachev agreed with this assessment. He added that the INF Treaty was an achievement for the whole world. He also said that questions had been asked at the press conference about regional issues and their resolution. He again alluded to the universal principle.

Secretary Shultz said that he thought that he and the Foreign Minister should focus on regional issues at upcoming ministerials. Gorbachev indicated his hope that discussions of these issues by the ministers or their deputies would take place 2 or 3 times a year. The process of improving US-Soviet relations should not be undermined by regional conflicts.

In connection with the press, the President recalled what President Johnson used to say about them: if one day he were to go down to the Potomac and walk across the river, the press would report the next day that “The President can’t swim”.

That reminded Mrs. Gorbachev of a Soviet Chukchi joke (like the old “Polak” jokes in the U.S.): a Chukchi is concerned about the new General Secretary because he is not like the former one, who would read and read and read. The new one doesn’t look at any paper at all when he speaks, which apparently indicates that he cannot read!

The General Secretary then started to tell a joke about himself which he said he had heard in Washington, but Mrs. Gorbachev stopped him before he got very far. However, he had said enough for the President to recognize the joke—and the President said: “Is it the one about the man standing in line for vodka. . . .?”, and Gorbachev laughed, saying, yes, it was, and he liked it (I presume that the joke, although it was never actually repeated at the dinner, is the following: A man is standing in line in the Soviet Union, waiting to buy vodka. He finally gets fed up, says he’s going to kill Gorbachev for making people stand in line for vodka, and leaves. Several hours later he returns, and is asked by the man he was standing next to, “Well, did you kill him?” He replies: “No, the line there was even longer than here.”).

The Gorbachevs mentioned the various stories in Time magazine and other places about Mrs. Reagan. Mrs. Reagan said that the press had asked her about these things all during the trip to Leningrad, but that she refused to dignify those kind of questions with replies. Gorbachev mentioned that there had been a story in the press about an island being especially created on which the Gorbachevs would vacation—total fiction. Mrs. Reagan replied that all those stories in the U.S. press were the same type of thing. Mrs. Gorbachev said that leaders should be able to trust in the confidence of the people that work with them.

[Page 1119]

Secretary Shultz agreed wholeheartedly, and indicated that he had no respect for people who write such things. They are Judases and this is what he tells reporters that ask questions about this.

The mention of Judas led Gorbachev to recall that his wife had studied and taught about religion, but that he had been connected with religion only twice in his life, one of which events he did not remember (when he was baptized) and the other just recently, when he had met with the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy. The President mentioned that he had heard that many old churches had been won back recently in the USSR. The talk of religion reminded him of a story about the Pope and the lawyer who died and went to heaven. St. Peter asked them who they were, and when he found out, he took the Pope inside to show him his quarters. It turned out to be a rather ordinary apartment. The lawyer was certain that if the Pope got such ordinary quarters, his would be worse. But St. Peter showed him to an enormous mansion. When the lawyer asked in surprise why the Pope had gotten an apartment, and he had gotten a mansion, St. Peter explained that there [were] many Popes in heaven, but he was the first lawyer.

Gorbachev said that nothing had ever come of his law degree, but it was economics that he now knew better and was interested in more, to which Mrs. Gorbachev added that he had been successful in becoming General Secretary.

Gorbachev indicated that the “Theses” which were to be discussed at the upcoming Party conference contained a provision to the effect that elected officials should be allowed to remain in office for only two terms (of five years each). Mrs. Gorbachev added that the term of office should be as long as the Party and the people decide. Gorbachev continued that the press asked him how long he would remain General Secretary, and he replied that it would be as long as the people let him.

Mrs. Reagan asked if the General Secretary thought that this proposal would be adopted, and Gorbachev replied very categorically that he thought it would. Foreign Minister Shevardnadze indicated that there was also a proposal that an official might be elected for a third term. Gorbachev said emphatically that he thought that the two-term rule would be adopted. Mrs. Gorbachev interjected that even in France the term of office is 7 years, with a chance for re-election. Gorbachev added that the whole issue was being very actively discussed. He recalled President Roosevelt, and Mrs. Gorbachev added that he was remembered in the Soviet Union as the one that established diplomatic relations with the USSR. The President indicated that President Roosevelt’s situation at the end of his life was tragic. One of Roosevelt’s sons had told President Reagan that the Democratic Party leaders, sure that Roosevelt would be re-elected, talked him into running for a fourth term. Since Roosevelt was very sick at the time, this guaranteed his early death.

[Page 1120]

Mrs. Gorbachev made an allusion to the ways of God.

Gorbachev mentioned that stress, can, however, also mobilize one’s resources, and the President said that this was what happens in time of war.

Gorbachev mentioned President Zia of Pakistan and wondered why he had chosen to dissolve Parliament.

Mrs. Gorbachev said that anyone who understood the East well should raise his hand. This reminded the President of a joke about a scorpion and a frog. The scorpion comes up to a river, and wants to cross it. He sees a frog sitting there, and asks the frog to take him across. The frog is concerned that the scorpion will sting it as they are going across, but the scorpion assures it that he wouldn’t do that, because he would then drown, since he can’t swim. This sounds logical, and the frog agrees. But as they are making their way across the stream, the scorpion stings the frog. As they are both sinking, the frog asks, “why did you do this?”, and the scorpion answers: “Well, this is the Middle East.”

The President then asked Mrs. Gorbachev if the General Secretary had told her the joke which the President had told him in Washington about Gorbachev leaving his dacha late one morning. Gorbachev said that he had forgotten to tell it to his wife, but it was a good joke, and suggested that the President tell it, which he did: The General Secretary is late leaving his dacha for work one morning, so he tells his driver to sit in the back, so as not to get into trouble for speeding. As they are zooming down the road, they pass two motorcycle policemen, and one of them gives chase. When he returns, the other asks, “Did you give him a ticket?”, to which the first replies, “No.” The other asks why not, and the first answers that he didn’t because a very important person was in the car. “Who was it?” asks his partner. “Well, I don’t know who the fellow in back was, but his driver was Gorbachev”.

The President then told another joke about an aide to Gorbachev coming to tell him that five thousand people had gathered outside the Kremlin, to which Gorbachev replied, “So what? Let them gather”. The aide then returned to say that ten thousand people had gathered, to which Gorbachev gave the same reply. Again the aide returned to say that fifty thousand people had gathered, and that they were all wearing red and eating. Gorbachev answered—“What’s wrong with that?”, to which the aide replied: “They’re all eating with chopsticks!”

Gorbachev noted that the Reagans should now be well-acquainted with the color red. They had seen it in the White House, in the Kremlin, on Red Square, and in the wine at the table. Mrs. Reagan said that she heard that it was an insult if a guest to an event in the Soviet Union wore red. Mrs. Gorbachev was very surprised, and said that this was absolutely untrue. Knowing that red was Mrs. Reagan’s favorite color, [Page 1121] Mrs. Gorbachev always tried to wear a different color—blue or beige or something else. Mrs. Reagan remarked how misleading the information they receive from the press can be.

The subject of mistakes led Gorbachev to recall a “Radio Yerevan” joke; Radio Yerevan is queried: “Is it true that academician Arzumanyan won a car in the lottery?” Radio Yerevan’s reply is that it’s true, except that it was not academician Arzumanyan, but soccer forward Arzumanyan. And it was not a car, but a ball point pen, and he didn’t win it, he lost it. But otherwise everything is correct.”

Gorbachev also told a joke about the rivalry between the Armenian and Georgian national soccer teams. It seems that the Georgian team was scheduled to play the Brazilians, and they were wondering what they could do to beat them. The solution was to have the Brazilians dress up in Armenian uniforms, which would get the Georgians so fired up that victory would be guaranteed.

Secretary Shultz recalled his visit to a church in Georgia, and the time he had spent with an artist there. Mrs. Gorbachev mentioned that he was an old friend of hers. Secretary Shultz added that the artist had been commissioned to make a sculpture for a locality in the Washington, D.C. area to commemorate the INF Treaty.

Secretary Shultz also fondly recalled his meetings with the Foreign Minister’s children and grandchildren, noting that some of them speak English well, and that the Foreign Minister’s daughter-in-law teaches English Literature. When Secretary Shultz asked where she had studied English literature, she replied that it was at the University of Tbilisi. In connection with Armenians, the President recalled that that nationality had often been referred to in the context of “the starving Armenians”. This led Mrs. Gorbachev to mention that Russia was only one part of the Soviet Union. There were other, older republics. Her father was a Ukrainian. It would be good if Secretary Shultz, in addition to the Russian Republic, could visit the Central Asia republics, Armenia, the Baltic republics, the Ukraine. Gorbachev added that a summer cruise across the Arctic would also be interesting. Mrs. Gorbachev continued the list of places to see: the Far East, Siberia, the Steppes, Stavropol. Secretary Shultz agreed; just as it was not enough to see Washington to know the U.S., it was not enough to see Moscow to know the USSR. Places like Sochi, Leningrad and Kiev were all so different from Moscow and from each other. Gorbachev noted that he liked Kiev and Tallin. It was such a big country.

Gorbachev mentioned that Russia once had a foothold in California, and the President added that as it had turned out, it had been unwise, from the Russian point of view, to have given that up. The President noted that everyone on the U.S. side of the table was from California.

The President then said that he hoped he was not being tactless, but in the Book of Revelation it was said that when the third angel [Page 1122] blew his trumpet, a star would fall to Earth that would poison one-third of the land, one-third of the waters of the land, and people would die when they drank it. The star’s name was “wormwood”, which is “Chernobyl” in Ukrainian.

Gorbachev replied that it was a great tragedy, costing the Soviet Union billions of dollars to clean up. He mentioned the effects that a major war would have only as a result of the destruction of atomic power plants. This would apply in the U.S. and USSR, and even to a greater extent in a country like France, where such a large percentage of the power comes from nuclear energy.

The President recalled that the energy released by Chernobyl was less than the energy released by one nuclear warhead. Secretary Shultz mentioned that the title of Dr. Gale’s book about the incident was “Final Warning”, and Mrs. Gorbachev agreed that this really was a “final warning”, adding that Europe was covered with nuclear power plants.4 The President said that human error was the reason for the accident, and that the same thing had occurred at Three Mile Island.5 Gorbachev indicated that if Chernobyl caused such difficulties, what would it be like if this were to happen to hundreds or thousands of such plants? The story of Chernobyl is a story of people working together tirelessly to liquidate the problem. Secretary Shultz mentioned the heroic efforts he had read about in connection with the accident.

Gorbachev confirmed that Chernobyl really was a final warning, and then he recalled the tragedy of the Challenger, and the attractive faces of those that had died in that accident.6

Mrs. Reagan asked the General Secretary if he had read Dr. Gale’s book. Gorbachev replied that he had not, but that he had a lot of respect for Gale, and that it was obvious that he was a serious and dedicated person.

At this point Mrs. Gorbachev indicated that dinner was over, and invited the guests for coffee into an adjoining room. The party split up into two groups: the Reagans and Gorbachevs in one and the Shultzes and Shevardnadzes in the other.

Mrs. Gorbachev told the President and Mrs. Reagan about the heavy responsibility and burden one bears in public life, and both she and Gorbachev talked about how important it is to have good personal relations and good memories.

  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S Records, Memoranda of Conversations Pertaining to United States and USSR Relations, 1981–1990, Lot 93D188, Moscow Summit 5/29–6/1, 1988. Secret; Sensitive. No drafting information was found. The discussion during the farewell dinner took place at a Government Dacha outside Moscow.
  2. See Reagan, “Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With the Students and Faculty at Moscow State University,” May 31, 1988. (Public Papers: Reagan , 1988, Book I, pp. 683–692)
  3. See Document 162. See also “Joint Statement Following the Soviet-United States Summit Meeting,” June 1, 1988. (Public Papers: Reagan , 1988, Book I, pp. 698–706) For the controversy surrounding Gorbachev’s use of the term “peaceful coexistence” in a draft of the Joint Statement, see Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, pp. 1104–1105.
  4. Reference is to Dr. Robert Peter Gale and Thomas Hauser, Chernobyl: The Final Warning. (New York: Warner Books, 1988) A physician specializing in treating cancer, Dr. Gale coordinated Soviet efforts to care for victims of Chernobyl.
  5. Reference is to the 1979 partial nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania.
  6. Reference is to the January 1986 break up of the Challenger space shuttle just over a minute into its flight leading to the deaths of its seven crew members.