Suzanne Massie taught President Ronald Reagan this important Russian phrase: 'Trust, but verify'

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: Next we're going to hear from a woman who wasn't officially elected to the US government but she did have the ear of the President. That president was Ronald Reagan who called on historian Suzanne Massie to explain the Russian worldview. Pretty heavy task. Massie met with the President regularly for a number of years. Their conversations are the subject of her latest book "Trust, but Verify: Reagan, Russia, and Me." Suzanne, thanks so much for coming into the studio today. Suzanne Massie: Thank you Marco. Werman: I want to start by talking about your role in the White House during the height of the Cold War. In 1984 you met President Ronald Reagan for the first time and your task: explaining to him the Russian worldview. So remind us what you told him. Massie: Reagan was the only politician I ever met who really wanted to know not what did the Kremlin think but what did the Russians think. No one had ever told the President of the United States that the Russians were religious. Even though it was being persecuted and even genocide, that they hung onto it. It was the only non-Marxist, Leninist thing to be able to exist at all. Werman: In your wonderful description of that first meeting, Reagan was kind of like "I've never heard that before," it was like an "Ah-ha" moment for him. Massie: It was. I think that humanized the Russians for him in a way that he could understand and in fact, because he was always worried that if they had no morality, they might engage in world expansion and even in a "nuclear armageddon," his words. He began to talk about religion with Gorbachev in private, so I think that was perhaps the most important thing I told him. Werman: Your big claim to fame, if we can call it that, is a phrase that's in the title of your book, "Trust, but verify." It was a Russian phrase that you introduced to Reagan and we actually have Reagan using it with Russian secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Ronald Reagan: The importance of this treaty transcends numbers. We have listened to the wisdom in an old Russian maxim, though my pronunciation may give you difficulty, the maxim is Dovorey no provorey. "Trust, but verify." Repeat that at every meeting. Werman: That's a wonderful piece of tape there. So "Trust, but verify," Suzanne Massie, what is the story behind that Russian expression, where does it come from? Massie: Well it's an old expression, very old. I was having lunch with President Reagan and Mrs. Reagan, just before Reykjavik. Werman: Big, big political summit in Reykjavik, in Iceland. Massie: I said "Mr. President, you know the Russians often like to talk in proverbs and there's one that might be useful. You're an actor, you could learn it in a minute. It's Dovorey no provorey, 'Trust, but verify.'" Well he leapt on it and so did Mrs. Reagan and then he made it his and it has passed into the American lexicon. I will tell you a little something I just learned a short time ago by a reporter who had long ago interviewed Gorbachev. He asked him when Gorbachev realized that he could really work with Reagan and he said "When he used the Russian proverb." Werman: The present generation always seems to think it knows more about the past than its predecessors but the predecessors also thought the same thing when they were in power. That's one of the striking things in your book about that first meeting with Reagan and his inner circle, just how much the Kremlin knologists in the room didn't know, hadn't even considered these things that you were telling them about Russia. What do you think are the biggest pieces that the Obama administration doesn't get right now about Russia, Ukraine, Crimea, the whole thing. Massie: History, particularly in this situation, is critical. Ukraine did not exist as an independent country until 1991 and it had not been "taken over by Russia." It was part of Russia. In fact, Kiev was the birthplace of Russian civilization so it has been Russian since the 9th century. Crimea, even more, it was won by the Russians in the 18th century from the Ottoman Turks and annexed peacefully to Russia in 1783. Werman: It sounds like, Suzanne Massie, you're making a case that Russia has a legitimate claim to Crimea, maybe even a legitimate claim to all of Ukraine. Massie: I'm not arguing for Putin at all but I'm just saying that there are things we consider that we have a sphere of influence. We almost went to war over Cuba and it's wise to remember that when there was Grenada, a tiny little place, where suddenly Soviets were building airfields, Ronald Reagan did not hesitate one second. He sent the marines and he said he was protecting the American citizens. Well there were only a handful of medical students there. We consider that our sphere of influence. We seem now, today, to have denied the Russians any right to a sphere of influence. We don't recognize and consider that they have a sphere of influence too. Werman: Suzanne Massie, Russian scholar and the author of the just published "Trust, but Verify." Thank you very much for coming into the studio Suzanne. Great to meet you. Massie: Thank you, Marco.