MOSCOW — The United States has no detailed record of President Trump’s five face-to-face interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the past two years, The Washington Post reported last week.
Russia, on the other hand, almost certainly does. Just don’t expect to see them anytime soon.
The interpreters working for Soviet leaders were trained to take nearly verbatim stenographic notes. Declassified Soviet records of Cold War talks are often more detailed than official American notes on the same conversations, said Svetlana Savranskaya, the director of Russia programs at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
Savranskaya said she assumed Putin’s interpreters follow the Soviet tradition. Moscow, then, may well possess a far more detailed record of Putin’s talks with Trump than does Washington — where senior officials are said to be still searching for details about what exactly the two have discussed.
“The irony might be that in some years, historians will have the Russian record but not the American — and then we will learn something incredibly interesting just from the one side,” Savranskaya said in a phone interview. Trump, The Post reported, took possession of his interpreter’s notes after meeting with Putin in Hamburg in 2017.
But the Kremlin’s notes on Putin’s meetings with foreign leaders aren’t covered by any kind of automatic declassification regime, meaning the fate of Russia’s Trump papers will depend on the future of Russia itself. Some 30 years ago, it was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies and then the collapse of the Soviet Union that gave historians unprecedented access to archives in Moscow.
“It’ll depend on the desire of the successor to the current president to publish the documents of his meetings,” said Grigory Lanskoy, deputy chairman of the Russian Society of Historians and Archivists. “When they need some kind of news hook, they might publish these documents in whole or in part.”
Lanskoy said some of Russia’s Trump documents might start to emerge in the next 20 years, since former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s papers have already started to be published. Savranskaya surmised it could take 50 years. “It may not be, maybe, in our lifetimes,” she said.
When it happens, it won’t be the first time that Americans will learn of the words of their own president from Russian sources. After a summit in Washington in December 1987, Vice President George H.W. Bush rode with Gorbachev to see him off at the airport. In Gorbachev’s limo, with only Soviet interpreter Pavel Palazhchenko present, Bush promised that he’d be committed to improving Soviet-American relations if he was elected president.
Palazhchenko took no notes because it was clear that Bush wanted to have an off-the-record conversation, according to Savranskaya, who included the episode in a 2016 book. But as soon as Bush left, Savranskaya said, Gorbachev ordered his interpreter to write up what was said. The memo ended up in the archive of the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow.
“If there was a new age of openness in Russia and these documents are declassified, we will be looking at them like we were looking at the documents of the Gorbachev period,” Savranskaya said.