Fat Sasha and the Urban Guerilla: Protest and Conformism in the Soviet Union
Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition
Ten Years After Ivan Denisovich
I Am a Jew: Essays on Jewish Identity in the Soviet Union B’nai Brith
Jewishness Rediscovered: Jewish Identity in the Soviet Union B’nai Brith
Boomerang: The Works of Valentyn Moroz
Report from the Beria Reserve: The Protest Writings of Valentyn Moroz Chicago, Illinois 60680)
Church, State and Opposition in the USSR Communism
A decade ago in the Soviet Union a series of relentless, sometimes desperate struggles got under way. On one side was the powerful apparatus of the regime, long in power, ideologically ossified beyond regeneration, instinctively and persistently reactionary in suppressing almost all the aspirations of its opponents. On the other was a steadily increasing number of dissenting groups—cultural, intellectual, humanitarian, political, nationalistic, religious—which realized they would have to fight, and for a long time, to attain even a few of their aims. No longer, under Brezhnev and Kosygin, did the hope of the Khrushchev period persist that concessions might be made voluntarily “from above” and that peaceful coexistence, or even dialogue, with the regime might become possible. Now it would be a struggle of attrition which might last for decades and of which the ultimate outcome was unpredictable. Today the prospect remains unchanged.
These struggles inside Russia deserve careful study, and not only because they are continuing human dramas in which the stakes are high, where one side tries to keep us ignorant, misled, or indifferent, while the other continually and often urgently appeals to us for support in the name of values we claim to hold. There is a second and at least equally important reason. Study of these struggles can tell us more than most other sources about the ways in which the Soviet Union is evolving, about the priorities and values of its political leaders, their strengths and vulnerabilities.
On this second point Western efforts have so far been unimpressive. The essential basis for study—an intellectual and above all emotional understanding of the quarter-century of Stalinist slaughter and social atomization—has been made accessible to us, in more brilliant form than we really deserve, by new sources, in particular the works of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Some intellectuals and students have, it is true, begun to discern the richness of these new sources, but not yet governments. Otherwise we might have been spared such spectacles as Harold Wilson’s recent homage to Mr. Kosygin as “almost part of the British way of life” and Messrs. Nixon and Brezhnev boisterously feting each other in Washington and Moscow.
If, however, one absorbs the voluminous writings and materials of samizdat, and brings one’s conclusions to bear on what is known of the Soviet Union from other sources, the picture is far from reassuring. On the one hand the emotions pent up throughout the Stalin era (when the only honest emotion most people could wisely display in public was fear) are now beginning to be expressed—not as yet, with any clear purpose, among the workers and peasants, but among those groups which have preserved or recreated their values and have produced articulate leaders. The result is gradually mounting pressures for a more plural society, for some genuine politics (after the apoliticism of a near-perfect totalitarianism), and for the legitimation of minority nationalism.
On the other hand we see a regime increasingly on the defensive, physically powerful but (partly because its public discourse is pervaded by a degree of hypocrisy that must be unmatched in world history) morally weak. A regime prone, therefore, to viciousness. Hence the domestic repression of forces for change and renewal, the bullying and deception in international relations which regularly show through the mask of respectability, the vast sums spent on intelligence activities and military build-up, and the skillful wheedling of loans and economic aid out of capitalist enemies (getting them—to paraphrase Lenin—to provide the rope for their own hanging).
In all this certain echoes of the last decades of tsarism are uncannily loud. Yet few people pay attention. Some Western firms, indeed, apparently have few qualms at negotiating barter deals with the USSR that would produce no returns for twenty years. Others are more prudent, recalling their forerunners at the turn of the century and taking care that the risks are not run by themselves but by the US taxpayers, who, in the end, bear the cost of the Export-Import Bank.
The unspoken assumption is often that the Soviet system will be politically stable for the indefinite future, or even forever. The system’s very longevity, compared to the short life of many modern autocracies, contributes to this assumption. So does the memory of the false predictions of the regime’s demise in the 1920s and 1930s when in reality its power was rising.
The short-sightedness of such thinking is sharply if often implicitly revealed in the books under review. The historians Valentyn Moroz and Andrei Amalrik, the physicists Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Voronel, the cybernetician Pyotr Grigorenko, the Christian socialist Anatoly Levitin, and the late poet and essayist Yury Galanskov—all of these men ask awkward questions about the stability of the regime. Moreover, Moroz, Amalrik, and Galanskov sometimes go further, becoming prophets whose voices often seem to have the ring of truth.
David Bonavia’s Fat Sasha and the Urban Guerilla is an admirable introduction to the entire subject. Written in 1972, after Bonavia spent three years in Moscow as the London Times correspondent, it is an unusually illuminating and honest account of the reaction of a sensitive Westerner to prolonged acquaintance with both officials and dissenters. The author has retained his critical sense, resisting the self-censorship which the system induces in some intelligent observers, by means both crude and subtle, even after they have left the Soviet Union.
His detailed descriptions of the deceptions and and perversities that permeate the system, of the “callousness and instinctive mendacity” of its officials, support his intelligently argued conclusion that any belief in a simple “convergence” of East and West is illusory. Although he likes and admires the dissenters, he describes the ones he knew with all their failings. His thinly disguised portrait of the historian Pyotr Yakir, for example, helps to explain how a few months in jail in the experienced hands of the KGB could make him “sing” and thus facilitate the big crack-down on dissent of 1972. Yakir’s fourteen years in Stalin’s concentration camps, his impulsiveness and weakness for drink, his fear of a new fifteen-year sentence and of his own death in captivity: these factors were ruthlessly exploited by the KGB to overcome his courage and high principles and turn him into an informer.
Since Yakir and others portrayed by Bonavia were involved in producing the samizdat journal A Chronicle of Current Events, a picture emerges of roughly how that remarkable record of the activities of the main dissenting groups in the USSR is compiled. Numerous telephone calls are made; couriers hurry back and forth with information and documents between far-flung cities; political prisoners spirit desperate appeals out of forced labor camps and “mental hospitals”—with most of the material ending up at the Chronicle‘s constantly mobile “editorial office” in Moscow.
The admitted deficiency of Bonavia’s account of the dissenters is its Moscow-centricity. He knew Muscovite members of the democratic and Jewish movements, but, because of the severe travel restrictions, no provincial members, or members of other national or religious movements.
The principal defect of George Saunders’s otherwise useful anthology Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition is not geographical limitation but editorial interpretation. Despite his own warning that “it would be wrong to exaggerate the strength or significance of the pro-Trotskyist moods among Soviet dissidents,” Saunders, throughout the collection, does precisely that. For the uninformed reader of the documents, some of which have not appeared in English before, this creates the illusion that liberal communist and liberal Marxist dissenters like Grigorenko, Kosterin, Yakhimovich, and Plyushch either are already Trotskyists or are about to become such. In fact, the general tendency of these people over the years has been to question their very adherence to Marxism. Not one, by contrast, has shown signs of moving toward Trotskyism.
Another product of wishful thinking is the editor’s belief that the Soviet working class is militantly proceeding toward some kind of revolt along Trotskyist lines. The evidence for this has, he believes, been concealed from the West by the capitalist press, which has deliberately not reported workers’ protests. In reality, and to the dismay of the intellectual dissenters, there has been little evidence of such protest so far. Widespread worker discontent clearly exists, but it is not yet coordinated, let alone organized.
Saunders includes in his book two memoirs of the 1920s and 1930s written by Trotskyists who somehow survived the camps. Both are of interest, but they do not add very much to our knowledge. One is anonymous, the other apparently pseudonymous, and neither seems to have circulated in samizdat. The longer and more important one contains many moving passages on life in the camps but also an abundance of elementary errors, some of which (e.g., the ascription of Politburo membership to Riutin) the editor has failed to note. Clearly it was written from an often faulty memory and without access to reference works.
Zhores Medvedev’s Ten Years After Ivan Denisovich traces the decade after 1962, when Solzhenitsyn’s famous camp story appeared, concentrating on the fate of the author and his works. We learn little that is wholly new, and gain no fresh insights into Solzhenitsyn’s complex personality, but the book is nonetheless absorbing, authentic, and personal. Medvedev was on friendly terms with many of the people involved in Solzhenitsyn’s struggles—the Novy Mir editor Tvardovsky, the writers Kaverin and Lakshin, the physicist Kapitsa, the Norwegian journalist Hegge, and, of course, Solzhenitsyn himself. He can therefore flesh out many familiar episodes with new and often revealing detail. Of particular interest are his descriptions of the methods used by the authorities to break up the editorial board of Novy Mir in 1969-1970, to monopolize the ceremonies that took place after Tvardovsky’s death a year later, thereby stealing some reflected glory from the man they had just destroyed, and to prevent Solzhenitsyn from receiving his Nobel Prize in Moscow in 1972.
Since he wrote the book in Russia, before he lost his Soviet citizenship while abroad, it is not surprising that Medvedev has more to tell us about the skulduggery against Solzhenitsyn which the KGB organized on such a large scale within Russia than about the actions against him pursued by various figures abroad. In particular, he appears to have known little of the activities of the Slovak journalist Pavel Licko and some of his British associates. He refers to Licko only as an “impostor” who, posing as a “representative” of the author, signed a contract for Cancer Ward with Bodley Head in London; in fact Licko went further, attempting to spread false and extremely compromising information about Solzhenitsyn, in one case in the form of a sworn affidavit. Again, because of his lack of full information, Medvedev appears to have believed that certain émigré publications were major proponents of the KGB’s attacks on Solzhenitsyn abroad, a belief for which he produces no convincing evidence. It should also be noted that Medvedev throws little new light on the close but complicated relationship between Solzhenitsyn and the main groups of democratic dissenters.
Happily, the relation of these groups to the Jewish emigration movement has at last been examined in some detail in Leonard Schroeter’s pioneering work The Last Exodus. Superficially, the Jewish movement appears easily explained: following a resurgence of Zionism in the USSR a certain proportion of Russian Jewry wanted to go to Israel; and this has caused prolonged conflict because until 1970 the Soviet regime operated an almost total ban on emigration. But Schroeter reveals how many complexities this process has involved, and will continue to involve for the indefinite future. He shows how significant in the Zionist resurgence of the late 1960s was the residue of Russian Zionism which had kept itself alive since the 1920s; how important for the Jews were the influence and example of the human rights movement, and especially, from 1970 on, of a central figure in it, Academician Sakharov.
Schroeter explains why the Jewish movement arose simultaneously not only in the major cities of Russia, the Baltic, and the Ukraine, but also in Georgia and even Central Asia, where the Jewish communities led a much more traditional and religious existence and experienced relatively little persecution; why the movement gathered momentum so quickly; why the authorities radically changed their policy in 1970 and permitted emigration on a significant scale (this was less because of pressure from abroad, which had hardly begun, than because the example given by the militancy and skillful coordination of the Jewish movement to other discontented groups was simply intolerable to the autocratic regime); why some Jews adopted methods of underground conspiracy and others those of open struggle and persistent legalism; and why, after the big trials of 1970-1971 had revealed the dangers of conspiracy, the latter methods came to predominate. Some of the emigrants, it now seems clear, are not convinced Zionists but exhausted democrats, anti-Soviet malcontents, or just plain adventurers. Schroeter believes the movement has an impetus which is likely to pose strong demands for emigration for a long time to come.
Schroeter discusses these issues with skill and directness, telling in the process some awkward truths which the world Jewish community has tended to suppress. In particular he reveals how the Israeli government has hesitated to give the Jewish movement its full backing, has caused severe resentment by suppressing samizdat documents, and has tried (with only partial success) to prevent the movement’s members from associating with the democrats—all, apparently, out of a misplaced fear of provoking the regime into retaliatory steps such as reducing emigration. He also describes some of the methods the Israelis use to try to keep the western diaspora in line with Israeli government policy. Since he is the first person who has studied the voluminous documentation, interviewed many key figures in Israel, the US, and the Soviet Union, and, though an American, worked on the question of Soviet Jewry for the Israeli government, he has much to tell.
The small volumes I Am a Jew and Jewishness Rediscovered complement The Last Exodus. Edited by Moscow activist Alexander Voronel and Victor Yakhot, they first appeared in 1972 in samizdat and have been followed by a further three in the series. Yakhot is now in Israel, while Voronel, a prominent physicist, still awaits an exit visa in Moscow. Their books contain sophisticated articles on history, philosophy, law, politics, and personal identity. Voronel points out that many Soviet Jews are passionately studying the Hebrew language and ancient Jewish history, but not Yiddish or the history of Russian Jews in the last century: their attention is riveted on Israel and they see no future for themselves in the USSR. Part of the reason, he believes, is that Soviet education policy has been changing, and a steadily declining percentage of Jews are now able to receive higher education.
These books include painfully moving essays by Larisa Bogoraz, a democrat, and Nina Voronel, a poet in the Russian language, on the crises of identity they face as intellectuals who have been formed by Russian language and culture, yet have also come to see themselves as Jews. As they show, for some people the question “Russian or Jew?” has no conceivable simple answer. Andrei Tverdokhlebov provides a learned legal commentary to an absorbing set of documents on how a young physicist was administratively consigned to forced labor for “parasitism” by one part of the bureaucracy, while another part fully approved of the honest living he was earning by private tutoring. Mikhail Klyachkin describes the regulations for Russian Jews in the late nineteenth century, quoting, inter alia, the now re-echoing words of finance minister Polovtsev, who was trying to negotiate a foreign loan: “Success with Rothschild is possible only if something is done about the Jewish question; this something could be the issuing of decrees…containing provisions for bettering the conditions of the Jews.” The decrees, Polovtsev remarked cynically, would “in no way restrict further legislative action.”
Plus ça change…. And again the banks rush to open their branches, not in St. Petersburg but, this time, in Moscow.
Jewish nationalism is a different creature from Ukrainian nationalism, but the passions and intelligence which fuel the latter can be equally formidable. Most formidable, beyond doubt, of the articulate Ukrainians is Valentyn Moroz, whose writings have been collected in two volumes (the one edited by Yaroslav Bihun being somewhat fuller) which have now appeared in English.
In his combination of elegance, precision, and power of thought Moroz surpasses all other Soviet dissenters. His defiant views are roughly summed up in what he told the authorities at his trial in 1970:
The awakening of national consciousness is the deepest of all spiritual processes…. Your dams are strong, but now they stand on dry land, by-passed by the spring streams, which have found other channels. Your drawgates are closed, but they stop no one…You stubbornly insist that all those you place behind bars are dangerous criminals…. You can pursue this absurd policy for, let us say, ten more years. But then what? These movements in the Ukraine and in the whole country are only beginning.
His trial—for circulating his essays on Ukrainian nationhood and KGB methods—was closed, and took place as if in an occupied country. Extraordinary KGB measures in various cities prevented many of his friends from gathering outside the cordoned-off courthouse, and those who overcame these obstacles and got there were closely watched by some 200 troops and KGB agents. He was sentenced to fourteen years of imprisonment and exile.
One reason for this severity was probably that Moroz collected evidence of what can only be called cultural genocide. He noted in an essay, for example, the mysterious destruction, by fire, of national libraries and other national treasures in the Ukraine and elsewhere, and analyzed the activities in the Ukraine of the Society for the Preservation of Historic and Cultural Monuments. He wrote: “What a strange Society…. It is not clear whether it protects historic treasures from pyromaniacs, or pyromaniacs from public wrath…. [Its leaders] are not concerned about drawing up lists of national monuments, yet lists of the people interested in these cultural monuments were drawn up long ago.”
In 1972 the poet Anatoly Radygin, now in the United States, had a chance meeting with Moroz in Vladimir Prison, where Moroz is still imprisoned, reportedly near death.* Radygin’s account appears in both collections of Moroz’s writings. “He brought to mind…,” he writes, “photographs of the not-yet-dead victims of Auschwitz. His prisoner’s garb hung loosely on the body of this tall man as if on a thin wire skeleton. His hair stood in sparse tufts of bristle on his dry, sallow skin, and the skin itself, horribly greenish like a mummy’s, was drawn over his high forehead and raw-boned jaws.”
Some dissenters, including Moroz, are religious, and for many of the nationalist dissenters the churches have a definite part to play in national regeneration. Partly because national and religious traditions in Lithuania are so closely intertwined, the Catholic Church there has been much more vigorous in asserting itself than, as yet, any other church. Its priests and laymen have organized mass petitions against the persecution of religion and national culture, have printed literature on secret presses, and have edited a remarkable samizdat publication, The Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church. The church’s position has thus come to resemble somewhat that of the church in Poland. Although the Lithuanian case is unique, in several other churches, notably the Uniate and the Russian Orthodox, one finds sympathy for dissenting, often nationalist activities, and in most denominations there is a movement for greater religious freedom whose members regularly clash with the KGB and maintain links with the main groups in the democratic movement.
Gerhard Simon’s unusually competent Church, State and Opposition in the USSR, which deals with these activities, thus helps to fill in the broad picture of dissent. He gives a detailed account of the Russian Orthodox and the Baptists, but, unfortunately, devotes much less attention to the Lithuanian Catholics. His chapters on the ways in which the life of the churches became more varied and even more political between 1900 and 1917 give a valuable perspective on what is happening now. He also includes a strong but balanced critical analysis of Richard Wurmbrand’s Christian anticommunist crusade on behalf of the Russian and East European churches, conducted from California and elsewhere. He criticizes in particular the crusade’s unreliability about facts and its tendency to see those churches as leading a much more “underground” existence than is really the case.
If history should be repeating itself in certain ways, then the USSR today could perhaps be compared with the Russia of the 1880s. Then, as now, there was little or no mass support for the oppositionists, the regime used a similar variety of weapons against them, and large-scale emigration of Jews and others had begun. Today, we should note, the Turkic Meskhetians and the two-million German minority, as well as some communities of Pentecostalists and Baptists, are beginning to follow the Jewish example by demanding to leave, but so far only the Germans have had much success.
Are, then, the present regime’s ideological supports any more secure than were the tsars’ three pillars of Orthodoxy, Nationalism, and Autocracy? The following, perhaps, are the equivalent Soviet supports, as they might be seen by a perceptive citizen: the Party’s claim to be the agent not of God but of History; its profession of virtuous internationalist principles as prescribed by History (in reality these are diluted by a lot of semi-disguised Russian nationalism); and its monopoly of political and economic power (justified by History’s revelation that only the Party “understands the laws of social development”). In the long run these do not look like a strong or lasting combination, and there is growing evidence that some sections of the ruling class may favor a new and undisguised commitment to Russian nationalism, or even chauvinism, which they could exploit both at home and in foreign affairs (“the threat from China”).
In this eventuality the danger of military adventures could sharply increase, especially if, as some think, the Soviet military leaders feel their armies lack the combat experience gained by the US in Vietnam, having themselves in recent years had only a few brush-fires to extinguish in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Manchuria. Unfortunately none of the books under review examines Russian nationalism of either the official and semi-official varieties to be found in parts of the Soviet press, or the nonconformist variety which has been rapidly growing and taking diverse forms in samizdat. Scholarly work on all varieties is badly needed.
But whatever the future may be, we would be foolish to underestimate the likely pace of change in the Soviet Union. The near-universal literacy of the Soviet people and the enormous influence of Western radio stations are new elements that will make the pace faster today than it was in the nineteenth century. What samizdat in fact suggests most strongly of all is that the Soviet regime is even less flexible than the tsarist autocracy was, and therefore even less able to cope with the many changes—including those demanded by the various dissenting groups—that will increasingly be demanded of it. This said, it is still hard to have great optimism about the future evolution of a country in which tendencies toward pluralism and compromise have been so persecuted since 1917 and are only now reviving. There is always the ultimate danger of disintegration and anarchy, as foreseen by Amalrik. But if the future is so uncertain, that is, perhaps, all the more reason to study the unique materials of samizdat for what they can tell us about Soviet society and its rulers. And it is certainly reason to support the voices of sanity and moderation which began to speak in this genre a decade ago, and have, through the resulting storms, continued somehow to make themselves heard.
See the letter concerning Moroz's situation from Jeri Laber, NYR, November 28, p. 45.↩
See the letter concerning Moroz’s situation from Jeri Laber, NYR, November 28, p. 45.↩