The Bitter Price

The second book by Andrei Amalrik—written earlier but published later—is different in substance but not in spirit from the first, and is equally remarkable. The first, an essay entitled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?,1 is a daring analysis of the Soviet state and a prediction of its doom. When it came out this year, it was generally described as “apocalyptic”; and yet, however startling the conclusions, its argument proceeds unemotionally and logically, with constant, fair-minded admissions of possible error. The second, an autobiography, bears the same quality of rational detachment, and is exceptionally moving because of its composure.

Amalrik writes about himself with the impersonality of a chronicler recording external events. His physical suffering, which has been considerable, is mentioned almost incidentally, and there is very little about his feelings and sensations. The details of the story are harrowing, but there is not a trace of self-pity in it, and his indignation is reserved for the implications of his life, which is interesting, he says, only because it is typical: “What happened to me is not surprising or exceptional in my country. But that is just why it is interesting.”

What happened was that on the 26th of February, 1965, four members of the police force walked into the room where Amalrik was entertaining two Americans who had come to look over his collection of modern pictures and demanded that he accompany them “for a talk.” Amalrik was annoyed and embarrassed, but not surprised. (He was aware that he had been under surveillance for over two years and that one of his neighbors was a spy who informed on him regularly.) Amazed that he refused to budge unless they produced a warrant, the policemen left, but several days later Amalrik received a summons to appear at the Precinct Station of his district. He was liable, he knew, on the charge of “parasitism,” that is, of not having steady employment, but he was questioned also on other matters, such as his relations with foreigners to whom, it was imagined, he sold the “abstract” paintings of his artist friends. Parasitism, however, was the official charge, and he was now given time to find himself a job.

The “anti-parasite” law, adopted in 1961, is directed against those who “avoid socially useful work” and “lead a parasitic way of life.” Although an “administrative” rather than a “criminal” offense, it differs in several ways from other administrative offenses and is punishable by “resettlement,” which is “very similar…to the ‘criminal’ sanctions of banishment and exile.”2 (The poet Josif Brodsky, convicted of this offense in 1964, was given a sentence of five years’ hard labor.) Amalrik describes it as a “punitive measure…meant to kill several birds with one stone: liquidate unemployment, provide a labor force for the remote areas, and cleanse the large cities of their ‘anti-social elements.’ It is also a useful way of dealing with ‘awkward’ intellectuals.” Among the many parasites whom Amalrik was presently to meet, none actually, “except…

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