Geneva summit stirs memories of 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev meet

Wednesday’s talks between US President Joe Biden and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin evoke vivid memories of the 1985 Geneva summit, when Cold War rivals Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the very first time.

The November weather in the Swiss city may have been chilly, but relations began to thaw between Washington and Moscow as the US president and the Soviet leader came face to face on neutral territory.

Now some 36 years on, Biden and Putin are holding decidedly less hopeful talks on the placid shores of Lake Geneva, even as history weighs on them.

Back in 1985, “the atmosphere was relaxed… They had both lined something up to seduce the other camp,” said former AFP correspondent Didier Lapeyronie, who covered the Reagan-Gorbachev talks.

“At the same time, we were all aware that it was a historic moment.”

And yet the encounter was preceded with what could have been an ill omen. Just before US president Reagan arrived at one of the summit locations, a Swiss soldier waiting in the ceremonial honour guard fainted, overcome by the bitter cold.

Six years before the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1985 Geneva summit focused on de-escalating the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers, and came with hopes of fostering better East-West relations.

The three-day summit was covered by 3,500 journalists.

Nicolas Burgy, who was at Geneva Airport for AFP to report on the Reagans’ arrival, recalls the sense of “joy” in the air.

“There was a casual sort of feeling,” he said.

– Fireside chat –

One of the most enduring images from the summit is a photograph of the two most powerful men on the planet sitting beside a fireplace and smiling at each other from their armchairs in what could be a cosy fireside chat between two old friends.

The conviviality extended to their wives Raisa Gorbacheva and Nancy Reagan, who chatted over tea under the gaze of photographers.

Marie-Noelle Blessig, charged with following the wives’ programme for AFP, remembers seeing Gorbacheva paying a visit to the United Nations’ Geneva headquarters “to greet staff at the UN, where she was received with loud applause”.

Another sign of the thaw was the first handshake between Gorbachev and Reagan, which lasted seven seconds.

The historic moment took place in front of the Villa Fleur d’Eau, a late 19th-century mansion on the shores of Lake Geneva.

The villa is currently up for sale.

The handshake took place before freezing photographers and reporters who stood waiting in the garden in the bitter cold.

As the Americans had chosen the large villa for day one of the talks, Reagan was there first to welcome Gorbachev, “seemingly in very good spirits”, said Claude Smadja, a former deputy editor of Switzerland’s TSR television, who witnessed the moment.

“Straight away there was the very American, very Californian side of Reagan, shaking Gorbachev’s hand, putting his other hand on his shoulder to usher him inside, and the exchange of smiles.

“The two wanted to show that they were very much at ease.”

– Awe-inspiring moment –

It was only when Gorbachev arrived at the villa that Christiane Berthiaume, who worked for Radio Canada, realised the importance of the moment.

“Not a single journalist asked him a question when he got out of the car. We were all simply speechless. It was awe-inspiring,” said Berthiaume, who later became a spokeswoman for various UN agencies.

The fact that the Soviet leader was there for a summit with the US president “was a sign that the Cold War, a period marked by fear, was coming to an end”.

In a sign of how high the stakes were, the US and Soviet delegations decided to impose a “total blackout” on updating the media until the end of the summit.

“In fact, despite the personal warmth, the initial encounter was very harsh. The two sides’ positions were very far apart,” said Smadja, who went on to become the World Economic Forum’s managing director.

Hosts Switzerland were also well aware of the gulf between the two superpowers — so much so that the Swiss president Kurt Furgler’s assistant Walter Fust had to prepare for his boss “two different welcoming speeches, taking into account the different cultures”.

The cultural divide was also evident in the formality of the two delegations, Fust told AFP.

“The Russian participants arrived in formation; very disciplined. The Americans were less strict on following instructions and the protocol order,” he said.

Meanwhile Nancy Reagan, he added, wanted to replace the bottles of mineral water provided with US ones, and also wanted an aide to try out her food before she did.

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