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The quotation, appearing in a 1992 New York Times opinions article, is as follows:

"We cannot equal the quality of U.S. arms for a generation or two. Modern military power is based upon technology, and technology is based upon computers... we don't even have computers in every office of the Defense Ministry. And for reasons you know well, we cannot make computers widely available in our society... We will never be able to catch up with you in modern arms until we have an economic revolution. And the question is whether we can have an economic revolution without a political revolution."

Leslie H. Gelb claims that the Chief of Soviet General Staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, had confessed this to him in an off-record conversation (further details are mentioned in the article).

Now, I am not trying to propose a conspiracy theory of any sort; I just wanted to know whether Ogarkov's statements can be validated due to the fact that Ogarkov's quote has often been used as a pivotal piece of evidence in analyses of the Soviet Union (e.g. in a publication in the CIA archives).

Does anyone have insights on its veracity?

  • I don't think that Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov ever wrote an autobiography, so we will never know his recollection of that conversation. However, he didn't die until January 1994, and he never challenged the veracity of the quote when he was alive. – sempaiscuba May 30 '17 at 0:56
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    Well, it's not really a proper quote, to begin with. In the article it's given as an indirect speech. That is, Gelb's summary, in his own words, of what he claimed Ogarkov had said to him. – Felix Goldberg May 30 '17 at 2:07
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    So are you asking, exactly? Whether Ogarkov really said this? (There is no answer to this question because this was a private conversation). Or whether this statement reflects the true situation in Soviet Union at that time? Please edit your question if you mean the second interpretation. – Alex May 30 '17 at 20:27
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It is a fact that Gelb reported Ogarkov as saying this. Gelb was working for the New York Times as their National Security correspondent at the time of the metting, so it would have been his job to report this accurately. It is of course still possible that Gelb was either lying, or misremembering. Ogarkov was still living to refute this in 1992 (although perhaps not reading the New York Times).

Here's another version, taken from an interview with Gelb archived here at George Washington University. I'm not sure of the interviewer or the date of the interview, but it was apparently added to the archive on February 28, 1999.

When I had gone back to the New York Times in 1981, I had a meeting in Moscow with Marshall Ogarkov, the chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces, one of the most brilliant and impressive people I had ever met in my life. He was able to combine strategy and military affairs and politics with technology and economics. He was truly a strategic thinker. And in my conversation with him, I was talking about Soviet military advantages in Europe, sort of the usual con-job we did on each other at the start of any conversation, talking about all the bad things that they were doing. And he said, "Les, cut this out, will you? You know you're ahead of us in Europe and in every other respect, and you know that America's lead on the Soviet Union is increasing, not decreasing. All modern military capability," he said, "is based on the computer, and you have weapon systems now based on computers that we're only beginning to have. I'm just beginning to install computers here in the Soviet Defense Ministry," he said. "You have little kids in America, three years old, who know how to deal with computers. It takes years here to train Soviet recruits in the military to use them, because they've never used them before. We're afraid of computers. If we start deploying computers, it's going to mean loss of political control for the Soviet leadership: it'll mean information can be spread without the okay of the central government, so we're afraid of that; it puts us at a major strategic disadvantage with the United States. And unless we change that situation, we're going to fall irretrievably behind America," he said. "So, in order to change this technological situation, we have to change the Soviet economic," Ogarkov continued, "and in order to change the Soviet economy, we have to revolutionize the political system, and that Soviet leaders are unwilling to do." So he concluded: "Don't tell me your worries about Soviet military superiority."

I will add on my own that if this is accurate, Ogarkov would have been drastically overstating the situation with commercial computers. In 1981 the state-of-the art home computers in the USA were Apple II's and Atari 800's. These were command-line based machines that really smart kids could use, but not toddlers. They sold for the modern equivalent of about $5,000. So by 1981 there would have been some but certianly not a lot of recruits joining the military who had experience using one. However, when the Mac came out in 1984, yes toddlers could use it*.

So you could argue the part about 3-year-olds was prescient exaggeration on Ogarkov's part, or an anachronism likely inserted by Gelb.

* - I can say this first hand. I had an Atari 800, and my parents bought one of the first Macs in 1984. My 4-year-old baby sister loved MacPaint, but her involvement with my previous computers consisted mostly of sneaking into my room while I was sleeping and gleefully unspooling my cassette tapes.

  • Does the reality of the level of saturation of computer use in the US at the time actually reflect on his perception of the same? (and I, though started on Apple, preferred Tandy and Commodore) – justCal May 30 '17 at 15:01
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    @user2448131 - Yes, that is another possibility; it could be that's how things looked from his side of the curtain at the time. – T.E.D. May 30 '17 at 15:37
  • I do wonder if Gelb, as a NYT journalist in post-Watergate America, would have recorded the interview and, if so, whether those tapes would still exist. – sempaiscuba May 30 '17 at 23:56
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I don't think that Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov ever wrote an autobiography, so we will probably never know his recollection of that conversation. However, the interview with Leslie H. Gelb was published while Ogarkov was still alive (he didn't die until January 1994), and the story was quite widely reported elsewhere.

The fact that the story was never challenged by Ogarkov probably means that the sense of the quote at least, if not the exact words, is correct.

  • and the story was quite widely reported elsewhere? Where exactly? This is the first time I hear about this citation. A query in Google with an approximate translation at least by keywords from the citation: "огарков мы не сможем сравняться с американским оружием" gives nothing. So how could it be widely reported and remain no trace in the Russian segment of the web? I doubt Ogarkov ever heard of this story, to challenge its veracity. – user907860 May 30 '17 at 23:36
  • It was certainly reported here in the UK, but I wouldn't know about the state of the Russian media in 1992. Were they picking up stories from western media? Either way, Ogarkov certainly remained a fairly public figure to the end. He was highly, and publicly critical of the failed coup by the Generals in 1991, and presumably would have maintained his contacts with the media after that. I think it likely that a story in the NYT that mentioned him so prominently would have been brought to his attention. – sempaiscuba May 30 '17 at 23:53
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    okay, I understood. You think that it is likely that he heard of the story. I think that this is unlikely. It's all speculation – user907860 May 31 '17 at 0:23

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