Whitefield resident Louis Sell joined the U.S. Foreign Service fresh out of graduate school in 1971.
For the next 28 years, he supported the Soviet dissident movement while stationed in Moscow, worked on nuclear arms control negotiations with the USSR, served in the former Yugoslavia as it disintegrated into a brutal ethnic war, and worked as an adviser in the process that brought peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Sell presented a lecture entitled “Who Killed the Soviet Union” at the Skidompha Library in Damariscotta Feb. 3, to promote the upcoming 28th annual Camden Conference.
The Camden Conference will bring foreign policy experts from Russia, China, Europe, and the U.S. to Camden Feb. 20 to examine the resurgence of Russia as a global power.
The heightened tension between the U.S. and Russia, which escalated over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine, has been called a “new cold war” in the media and by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who dissolved the USSR.
Sell said he is “dismayed at the deteriorating relationship” between Russia and the U.S. The current tensions, however, are not in the same arena as America’s prolonged confrontation with the Soviet Union, Sell said.
“The Cold War was a global confrontation between two ideologies – two ways to organize human existence,” Sell said. “The Soviet Union was a global universalist movement. Communism wanted to radically transform the world.”
The Soviet Union failed. It dissolved in 1991, ending the Cold War that dominated international relations for over four decades.
The list of institutional, economic, social, and political factors named as causes for the fall of the Soviet Union is long. In the midst of those broad causes, however, there were men like Louis Sell – U.S. diplomats stationed in the heart of enemy territory whose everyday actions had a dramatic impact on historic events.
Sell applied to the State Department to serve as a foreign service officer, responsible for implementing U.S. foreign policy around the globe, while attending the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Intensive Russian studies, an interest in foreign affairs, and a taste for international travel prompted Sell to pursue the profession.
Through an “unheard-of” stroke of luck, Sell was assigned to the Soviet desk to work on some of the most important foreign policy issues facing the United States. It was right where he wanted to be.
As a junior officer in the bilateral political relations branch of the Soviet desk in D.C., Sell was charged with assignments not wanted by senior officers. From his desk, he began to follow human rights issues and the Soviet dissident and Jewish refusenik movement that were slowly subverting the authority of the USSR.
Stationed in Moscow with his young family in 1977, Sell would cultivate relationships with many of those leaders over the next three years and transmit information about their persecution to the western world. “It was a lifeline to them,” Sell said of his work. “It gave them immunity for awhile.”
The dissidents that Sell worked with included nuclear scientists, Jewish refuseniks demanding to emigrate to Israel, and Pentecostals brutally repressed for practicing their religion. Many people Sell worked with were eventually arrested, imprisoned, or exiled. Pentecostals had their children taken away from them because of their beliefs.
“It was the perverse nature of Soviet persecution,” Sell said. “The Pentecostals had the traits the Soviets were trying to instill in their own people. They didn’t drink. They had large families. They were hard workers, but they were religious, so they were persecuted.”
Despite the risks involved, dissidents sought out Sell to tell him about the abuses happening in their communities. Sell disseminated the information through select media outlets and internal State Department channels.
Andrei Sakharov, the “father of the Soviet H bomb” turned human rights activist and political opposition leader, relied on Sell more than once to communicate with the United States.
Sakharov began writing his memoirs in the 1970s. The manuscript was repeatedly seized by Soviet security forces but news broke in 1986 that his memoir was successfully smuggled to the U.S. for publication.
Sell was the man responsible for smuggling out the first half of the manuscript in 1979 – a fact never before published.
“Memoirs” by Andrei Sakharov was published by Knopf in 1990.
Sell was also responsible for smuggling Sakharov’s Nobel Peace Prize, which Sakharov won in 1975 for his human rights work, to Sakharov’s family in the United States. “He was the single most incredible person I have met in my life,” Sell said.
Sell would continue to work on Soviet issues throughout his career at the State Department. After leaving Moscow in 1980, Sell worked as a special assistant to the chief negotiators of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, one of the most comprehensive arms-control treaties for weapons of massive destruction in history.
“It was fascinating, intellectually challenging, and absolutely terrible,” Sell said about his work on nuclear war issues with the Soviet Union. “You start to treat (nuclear weapons) in a routine fashion.”
Sell recounted a tour of a U.S. military nuclear installation where he accidentally leaned against a nuclear warhead to rest.
“I don’t think anyone who deals with nuclear weapons doesn’t come away with a feeling of how terrible and how absurd they are,” Sell said.
In 1985, Sell returned to the bilateral political relations branch of the Soviet desk in D.C. as its director. The same year, Gorbachev became secretary general of the Soviet Union. Soon after, there was a visible thawing in the Cold War, Sell said.
“Relations were beginning to turn,” Sell said. “They went from purely confrontational and difficult to one of respect and partnership.” The political leadership of the Soviet Union was attempting to normalize their country and began to make overtures to the United States.
According to Sell, negotiations with the Soviet Union on nuclear arms control had previously been nearly impossible. Post-Gorbachev, the U.S. was able to negotiate more than it had ever imagined, Sell said. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed by the Soviet Union in 1991 and fully implemented in 2001.
According to the Defense Department report “National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century,” it resulted in the removal of approximately 80 percent of the United States’ and Russia’s nuclear arsenals.
Each year, the State Department pressured the Soviet Union to permit the emigration of dissidents and Jewish refuseniks on the “representation list,” a list of individuals requesting State Department help to leave the Soviet Union. In 1986, in a single day, Sell went through the list of hundreds of names with his Soviet counterparts.
After decades in the Soviet Union, many of those individuals were finally permitted to leave.
The Soviet Union officially dissolved in 1991. Sell spent 1991 to 1994 in Moscow and witnessed the democratization of former Soviet states and the Soviet Union’s transition to the Russian Federation.
He would spend two more years in Moscow in 1996 as head of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, responsible for providing intelligence for use in U.S. diplomacy, before retiring from the Foreign Service in 1998.
In 1999, Sell moved with his wife, Catherine, to Whitefield. They had spent numerous vacations with Catherine Sell’s family in Boothbay Harbor and chose to make Maine their new home.
Despite retirement, Sell is still active in the local and global community.
In 2003, Sell published his first book, “Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia,” with Duke University Press. The same year, he helped open the American University in Kosovo, where he teaches a course every summer on conflict resolution and war and peace in Yugoslavia.
He is currently working on a book about the fall of the Soviet Union for Duke University Press. Its publication, in 2016, will coincide with the 25th anniversary of the end of the Cold War.
Sell also serves as a volunteer firefighter on the Whitefield Fire Department, was a member of the Whitefield Roads Committee, and is teaching a course on the collapse of the Soviet Union for the Coastal Senior College in Rockland.
“It was fascinating,” Sell said of his career. “At times, it was heartbreaking; at times, heartwarming, but it was always fulfilling.”
“I can’t really say much about my personal achievements,” Sell said. “I was part of something much bigger. I was a diplomat for 28 years and I was proud every day.”
The 2015 Camden Conference titled “Resurgent Russia” is scheduled for Feb. 20 to 22 at the Camden Opera House in Camden. For more information, visit www.camdenconference.org/2015-conference.