Paul Kengor: Marc, this is a pleasure. When we typically do our
“V&V Q&A,” we interview a well-known expert on some major
historical event that everyone remembers. No disrespect intended, but
most people who have read this far into this interview are wondering, who is Marc Zimmerman, and what in the world did he do 25 years ago? So, let’s begin with where you were at the start of 1983, before you began your rendezvous with history.
That’s quite understandable. I occasionally wonder who I am as well. In
1983, however, I was a Legislative Assistant focused on foreign affairs
and defense issues for Olympia Snowe from my home state of Maine.
Kengor: At that time, Olympia Snowe was not yet a senator but a member of the House of Representatives.
Zimmerman: That’s right; she sat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Now, everything changed dramatically for you when you got a call one
day from a Soviet “visitor” to the United States named Aleksandr
Mikheyev. Who was Mikheyev? How did he come to you? How did he know who
Mikheyev was a Russian who served as a tour guide to my college buddy,
Bob McGee, from New York, who had gone on a
“Can’t-We-All-Just-Get-Along” excursion to the Soviet Union. Later in
the year, Alex Mikheyev came to visit the United States by way of the
United Nations and Bob asked me to show Mikheyev around D.C. when he
visited. He was there ostensibly, if you can believe it, to compile
fertilizer research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
You described your friend as a “left-leaning liberal.” Do you think he
was easily suckered into believing that his affable Soviet host back at
the Potemkin Village was merely a friendly tour guide in the workers’
In retrospect, that’s probably fairly accurate. If McGee had any doubts
whatsoever about Mikheyev’s bona fides, he never expressed them to me.
So, you and Mikheyev decided to meet. Where? Also, I understand that
Mikheyev, upon pumping you for information, kept describing himself
repeatedly as a “student of government and history,” but it turns out
he was a little more than that.
We went to lunch on Capitol Hill; I thought it might be appropriate to
take him to one of my favorite hangouts, the “Hawk and Dove.” Our
discussion started by comparing Moscow and Washington, but he
eventually swung the conversation around to his belief that the United
States was attempting to destroy the Soviet economy. I remarked that
the Soviet Union was already doing a much better job at it then we
could possibly imagine.
prefaced many of his statements or questions by saying, “You know, I am
a student of U.S. history and government; as such, it is particularly
interesting to me how things actually work here….” So, he continuously
probed for behind-the-scenes policy-making mechanisms and the details
of how strategic decisions were reached. He did it in a way that was
very conversational, almost academic; none of this seemed unusual to me.
He was extremely interested in something called NSDD-75, which was a
highly classified document signed by President Ronald Reagan on January
17, 1983, and which articulated the very specific, dangerous purpose of
trying to not only undermine the Soviet communist system but to reverse
communism’s hold on Eastern Europe and the USSR, including through
extremely bold forms of economic warfare. The secret directive had been
principally authored by Harvard professor of Russian history, Dr.
Richard Pipes, shortly before he left the Reagan National Security
Council. Pipes was unaware of how the Soviets learned of NSDD-75;
that’s a question that he and I have pursued. But you recently solved
the riddle for us, thanks to this incident you experienced: You told us
that Mikheyev had learned about the directive in the Los Angeles Times of March 16, 1983. Is that correct?
We’d been comparing the relative health of our economies. After I told
him that it was their reliance on a command economic model that was
responsible for their citizens’ poverty, rather than letting market
forces signal where the factors of production should be allocated, he
just shrugged. Mikheyev then stated that he could prove that their
problems were the fault of an established U.S. policy to destabilize
their economy. Subsequently, he pulled out a photocopy of an LA Times
story about NSDD-75, presented it as documented truth-from-on-high and
seemed quite pleased with himself.
Kengor: The article in the Times
was written by Robert Toth, who had a major scoop, compliments of one
of the unknown serial leakers in the Reagan White House. And, so,
Mikheyev was hoping that you, as a legislative aide on foreign policy
and national security to a member of Congress, might be able to procure
a copy or details of NSDD-75 for him?
He was very indirect about it. He asked, after I read the article, how
I would brief the Congresswoman on NSDD-75. First off, I told him that
the LA Times was just trying to sell newspapers by being
sensational, which was distinctly different from Moscow’s Pravda, a
government run propaganda sheet. Since I didn’t put much stock in the LA Times, I said that this would not be a subject that I would bring to Snowe’s attention. He then inquired, as a student of government and history,
hypothetically, if I wanted to inform her, how I would go about
researching NSDD-75. I told him that I would try the State Department
and see if they would brief me.
Was this rather obsessive interest in NSDD-75 by this casual “student
of government and history,” the reason you decided to inform the FBI?
I had a natural distrust of any Soviet government official since I had
studied the history of the Soviet Union and Marxism in college. Stalin
murdered tens of millions of his own citizens that disagreed with him;
their system of government denied freedoms that I held dear (speech,
religion, market economics) and threw people in jail for violations.
Additionally, I had recently applied for a security clearance from the
Department of Defense and had given approval to have my background
all of this, after I agreed to meet Mikheyev for lunch, I preemptively
called the FBI to let them know that Alex and I were going to have a
meal. They dropped by for a chat.
So, the FBI took over, turning you into a major Cold War asset to
gather more information from Mikheyev. Explain what happened.
They agreed that it was likely a personal visit, but told me to watch
out for a few indicators that might suggest he had other motives. It
shocked me that at the end of our lunch the two specific gestures the
FBI asked me to be on guard for, occurred.
Kengor: You told me that a plan was devised to feed a phony version of NSDD-75 to Mikheyev—classic Cold War disinformation.
The aim was that the FBI would construct a fake, legalese-infested
document that, without hours of study, would appear to be the real
McCoy. I was going to hand it over just before he descended the
escalator at the Metro station. The FBI planned to grab him with the
document at the base of the stairs before he could get on the subway.
Kengor: What happened to
this innocent lamb—this simple Soviet “student” on a quick stop-over in
Washington—who turned out, in fact, to be a KGB agent? Was he expelled
from the United States?
Somehow, Mikheyev got wind that something was up and unexpectedly
headed for JFK to catch a plane back to Moscow. The FBI grabbed him at
the airport in New York, brought him before Jeanne Kirkpatrick (U.S.
ambassador to the United Nations), and she kicked him out of the
That was when the American media caught wind of this, right? You held a
major press conference that ended up on all the front pages. I have
articles on this from the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post on April 22, 1983.
Zimmerman: Believe me, it was quite a spectacle.
Kengor: How about your liberal friend who started all of this? What did he think when he read about it in his New York Times?
Zimmerman: He called me at 6:00 a.m. after the Times
hit his front door. I told him I couldn’t speak with him for a few
weeks and he’d soon know why. The FBI pulled him in for a series of
“meetings” to determine if he was a scout for U.S. citizens who would
spy for the Soviets. He and I convinced them that he was nothing of the
Because of space limitations, I know you’ve held back on the many
fascinating details in this story. I understand that you’ve turned this
into a screenplay for a movie?
Zimmerman: Yes, Russian to Judgment illustrates the craziness and other bizarre incidents that occurred in the midst of a fairly stressful episode in my life.
Kengor: How about a book manuscript? Have you considered selling your story to a publisher?
Zimmerman: I always listen to offers.
You walked away from it all, fed up with Washington. You told me that
you moved to the West coast to get as far away from Washington, DC as
Zimmerman: I had a great run, but 15 years in D.C. was plenty.
Kengor: Do you ever sit back and sort of philosophize about this, thinking “why me?” and “what was the reason for all that?”
Zimmerman: No; anything can happen to anyone in this life.
Kengor: Marc, 25 years ago you had quite a ride. Good luck and God bless you as you continue your life.
Zimmerman: It was my pleasure.