I spent much of my college days studying the USSR, our great competitor in the “Cold War.”  I started with its geography, then its economics,  history, and politics.  I wanted to know the people against whom we were constantly being matched.  I was particularly fascinated to learn its economy since in the mid-20th Century the field of economics was dominated by “econometrics,” which was essentially a mathematical approach to the subject.  The fascinating part was that econometrics was invented by the Russkies since they needed it to implement their “planned economy.”

My college work was made flesh when I was stationed as a diplomat in two countries that represented the “keen cutting edge of democracy” facing the USSR, Turkey and Finland.   I visited the USSR a few times seeing Moscow, St Petersburg (then Leningrad), and Uzbekistan.   I dealt with Russian diplomats in both Finland and Turkey.   I monitored economic links between the two countries and the “Great Bear.”

I was amused by my intelligence colleagues who looked in the wrong places to see what was happening.  In Turkey they were focused on the Turks trading wheat for oil from Russia.  To get evidence of this they sent people to all of Turkey’s main ports to watch for oil tankers from Russia.  They did not believe me when I told them that any oil the Turks would buy from Russia would come through the pipeline to the oil fields in Iraq since the Russkies would simply trade the Iraqi oil due them for arms shipments to the Turks.  My point was confirmed when, in an embassy meeting with her, the Turkish Deputy Minister of Finance said this was the way oil from the Russkies would come to Turkey.

My intelligence colleagues were also convinced that US technology banned for export to the USSR was slipping through via Finland.  I reported over and over again that such was not the case.  The Finns had a perfect record in making sure no controlled US technology passed through their country to Russia.  When I left Finland I was invited to the CIA headquarters to meet with its leading expert on technology transfers to the USSR who thanked me profusely for providing the true story, i.e. no US controlled technology passed thorough Finland to the USSR.  He had to rely on my reporting to refute his colleagues’ wild tales of Finland being a sieve for controlled US technology reaching the bad guys.

In all of this I came to respect the Russkies and it was no surprise to me how rapidly they adopted capitalism after the “fall of the wall” and the demise of the Soviet Empire.   I knew they were intelligent, entrepreneurial, and quick studies.   In fact I worked with a currency trading firm in New York City owned by two Russians.  It was the most successful outfit in this chaotic business fraught with con artists.  And it was successful because it scrupulously complied with the relatively few laws regulating the business.

So now when I hear comments about “clumsy Russians officials” and stupid Russian policies I urge people to not underestimate or dismiss the Russkies.  They are very sharp and astute politicians and players in the international arena.