Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Matthew Brzezinski

Matthew Brzezinski's new book is Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age.

Brzezinski is a former Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and has reported extensively on homeland-security issues for the New York Times Magazine and other publications. He is the author of Casino Moscow: A Tale of Greed and Adventure on Capitalism’s Wildest Frontier and Fortress America: On the Front Lines of Homeland Security.

The political scientist Ray Taras, whose scholarship includes many publications on Russian and East European politics, interviewed Brzezinski about his Russia books:

Taras: I've assigned Red Moon Rising as a required text in my class on Russian Foreign Policy this semester, just as I assigned Casino Moscow to students in my Russian Politics class a few years back. Both books are very accessible, but Red Moon Rising required a lot of historical research and is in no way a sequel to Casino Moscow. What made you put on a historian's hat at a time when Russia's politics are intriguing the world?

Brzezinski: Part of the reason is personal. I'm ten years older, I have three kids, and no longer run around the world looking for trouble the way I once did. So, I suppose the shift to history is a way of growing up; a compromise that still allows me to write about exciting subjects and not worry about orphaning the kids. The historian's hat also gives one an astonishingly broad perspective that is often lacking when covering current affairs. I find that big-picture view, that distance, intellectually liberating.

Taras: Three famous Russians who helped make the Soviet Union into a superpower have names beginning with the letter K. In terms of their importance to making Russia a military juggernaut, in what rank order would you place Mikhail Kalashnikov (of AK-47 fame), your main man Sergei Korolev (rocket scientist), and Igor Kurchatov (nuclear bomb maker)?

Brzezinski: I would have to go with my main man for the following reasons: Kurchatov, to be sure, was very important. But his atomic bomb was largely pilfered from stolen US blueprints, (which reduces his contribution) and of limited initial military value since Soviet bombers could not reach US soil. Also, Sakharov's hydrogen bomb very quickly replaced it. As for Kalashnikov, his assault rifle has probably killed more people than any other weapon since WWII. (I just read that there are an estimated 100 million AK-47s in circulation today.) But it has not done much to enhance Russia's global reputation. Korolev, on the other hand, almost single handed put the Soviet Union on the map as a superpower equal to the US with his rockets. Before Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin's historic space flight, the USSR was considered a second-rate power. After those (peaceful) achievements it was considered America's equal, militarily and technologically. Many, in fact, thought it was ahead of the US. For that reason, I have to go with Korolev.

Taras: Another man with a K name figures prominently in Red Moon Rising -- Sergei Khrushchev. How much of what he told you did you believe?

Brzezinski: There is always a self-serving element in all memoirs or recollections. Everyone tends to see things in a way that either puts them in a good light or pushes their agenda. Whenever possible you try to weed that out from all source material. But often, you only have one witness to certain events and part of the point of this book was to tell Soviet side of the story, since it had never been fully told before. So Khrushchev represents that other narrative, the flip-side to what we all grew up reading about in our history books. We may not like some of the things he remembers, or even find them plausible, but we should at least hear them so that we can better judge.

Taras: You capture the ethical problems involved in the American commandeering of Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun after the war and putting him at the head of a U.S. counterpart project. Can appearing on Walt Disney, as he did, whitewash any evil doer's reputation? Can you tell us what you really think of the decision to appoint von Braun as head of the U.S. space flight program?

Brzezinski: Though I've tried to keep my antipathy toward von Braun in check throughout the book, I am not a big fan of that decision. Tens of thousands of prisoners -- slave laborers -- died under the most horrible conditions building his V-2 rockets in WWII. That more than his membership in the SS or Nazi Party, which many people joined for career purposes, should disqualify him as the American prophet of peaceful space exploration. Having said that, I also understand why he was made the head of the program -- the stakes were so high and the US was so far behind that everything else was secondary. Realpolitik, I guess.

Taras: Finally, is the fast-and-loose Russia described in your first book gone for good under Putin's rule? Which Russia would be better prepared to take on another precedent-setting initiative in space -- fast-and-loose Russia or Putin's law-and-order Russia?

Brzezinski: I think that for the foreseeable future we can expect a "managed democracy" in the Putin vein. Historically, brief periods of reform and liberalization (and inherent chaos) in Russia are followed by long periods of clampdown. That said, a resurgent and energy rich Russia is very eager to show the world that it is back and wants to be a major player again. A breathtaking space stunt would go a long way to showing that.
Learn more about Red Moon Rising at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue