Washington -- If the second Russian revolution that swept the Soviet Union last month was testimony to the failure of 74 years of communist rule -- and it was -- then the suicide of Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev represents the tragic end of a true and disillusioned believer.
I first met Marshal Akhromeyev in 1986 at the Reykjavik summit where he took charge of the Soviets' panel of arms-control experts during our famous all-night negotiating session. He was the only one on the Soviet side who spoke no English, and I was the only member of the U.S. delegation who spoke Russian.
I asked him if he was the last officer on active duty who had fought in World War II.
"Da," he said, "ya posledny iz Mogikan." It was, he explained with a wink, an old Russian saying -- "I'm the last of the Mohicans."
This was my first indication that Marshal Akhromeyev had a sense of humor and that he might be more candid with me than his predecessors. Over the next several years, I had numerous conversations with him in which he shared with me his progressive views on military reform and his unique approach to arms control.
This is not to say that Marshal Akhromeyev was a democrat or a liberal reformer in the Western sense. He was a professional soldier who believed that the modernization of the Soviet military was long overdue. He was a true communist who concluded, like his long-time political patron, Mikhail Gorbachev, that reforms should take place by modifying the old system.
Sergei Fyodorovich Akhromeyev was born in 1923 and enlisted in the Army as a teen-ager. During the Nazi siege of Leningrad he was given command of a tank group because of his exceptional intelligence and leadership abilities. He told me that these were the proudest and most difficult days of his life. Over the 900-day campaign he wasted away to 90 pounds, avoiding starvation by eating whatever he could find, including cats, dogs and horses. Unlike others, he said, he did not resort to eating his fallen comrades in order to survive. After the war, he rose rapidly through the ranks and became chief of the general staff and deputy defense minister in 1984.
Marshal Akhromeyev admired and respected the U.S. armed forces. He was thoroughly impressed by the technological sophistication and automation of our military at every level. He was particularly concerned by the growing technological disparities between U.S. and Soviet forces. He realized that the modern battlefield would be dominated by high-tech weapons and computer technology -- both of which were in short supply in the Soviet Union. He recognized the need to reform the economy so as to make the military more competitive with the West, but honestly believed that the communist system was up to the task.
The marshal was also a supporter of certain types of arms control. He felt that the Soviets could save scarce financial resources by paring down their over-sized and outmoded conventional forces. He told me, however, that the Soviet Union could not be expected to go beyond making token cuts in its strategic nuclear arsenal, since it was the sole foundation of its claim to superpower status.
He also told me that the Soviets would continue pressing for naval arms control. He realized that almost all force reductions appeal to "logical and fair-minded Americans," and that, as a land power, the Soviets stood to gain disproportionate benefits from naval arms reductions. He understood our culture well and sought to use the arms-control process to benefit the Soviet Union.
The marshal told me that he joined the Communist Party young not only because he realized that it would advance his career, but because he truly believed in the system. It would take time, he said, to make the reforms, but he believed Mr. Gorbachev was on the right track. When I learned that he had hanged himself after the failed coup, I was shocked but not surprised. As he said in his suicide note, everything to which he had devoted his life was disintegrating.
Marshal Akhromeyev was a soldier's soldier whose credo was professionalism. He was also a devoted communist. There are many like him in the Soviet Union who, however, lack his personal integrity and sense of honor. To them the death of communism simply translates into a loss of power and prestige.
As the Soviet empire continues to disintegrate, we in the West must not become intoxicated with the notion that the Soviet military power has become benign or that the battle for democracy is won. We must not forget that there are those in the Soviet Union who may seek to use the suffering of their own countrymen to their own advantage. We must keep our powder dry and persevere in our efforts to bring about a Soviet Union free of tyranny.
Edward L. Rowny is the former head of the U.S. START Delegation and adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush on arms control.