Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag
The Education of Lev Navrozov
In bare outline, Alexander Dolgun’s is the story of twenty-four years in the life of an innocent American, from “one day in 1948” when on his way to lunch he was kidnaped on Gorky Street in Moscow by agents of the MGB, the Soviet Secret Service, to “that brilliant day” in January 1972 when, with his Russian wife and their young son, he boarded a Boeing 707 and arrived at Kennedy Airport—twenty-four years, of which eight were spent in jails and hard labor camps and the rest in enforced residence in the Soviet Union. His release was obtained only through the unremitting efforts of a devoted sister who happened to be in a position to pull the right strings and, after many years, succeeded in getting the American secretary of state to intercede on his behalf. What happens, one wonders, what has happened, and may perhaps still happen to the countless victims who have no one to take their case to the highest authorities? The question is chilling.
Dolgun was incarcerated on a pre-posterous and wholly unfounded charge of spying. He was a twenty-two-year-old clerk, employed in the consular file room of the US Embassy, and, being lively and attractive, was often invited with his fiancée to the parties of his superiors. To the Russians, unable to understand the elasticity of American social relations, this looked suspicious. They determined to make him confess, and since he had nothing to confess, subjected him to prolonged “interrogation,” that is, torture. His mother, as he found out years later, was also tortured; she lost her mind in consequence.
To reconstruct these dreadful years and compose his book, Dolgun relived in memory such anguish as few men could have withstood, or if they had, would have been unwilling to call up again. He forced himself to do so, recorded his recollections on tape, and Patrick Watson transcribed them, with what appears to be complete fidelity, for manner and substance are perfectly blended in this admirably unpretentious narrative, graphic, matter-of-fact, objective, sometimes even humorous—and resolutely accurate:
Most of my story is what I actually remember, but some is what must have been. There are episodes and faces and words and sensations burned so deeply into my memory that no amount of time will wear them away. There are other times when I was so exhausted because they never let me sleep or so starved or beaten or burning with fever or drugged with cold that everything was blurred, and now I can only put together what must have happened by setting out to build a connection across these periods….
The lapses of memory are scrupulously noted.
There were months of unimaginable suffering, notably in the notorious torture jail of Sukhanovka which in Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn described from Dolgun’s words, for he knew no one else who had come out of it alive and sane. I will not rehearse the appalling details. The wonder of Dolgun’s story is survival, its grandeur the character of the man who survived. It was mental and moral, as well as physical, strength that saved him: alertness and ingenuity; intellectual vigor of a practical kind; exceptional common sense; a generous interest in people; curiosity about everything; and an abundant capacity for gratitude and enjoyment.
In solitary confinement he conjured up incidents, faces, stories, songs out of the past; his excellent memory helped him to stay alive. And he was endlessly resourceful in devising schemes to keep his sanity, learning to snatch moments of sleep in a way to fool the guards, taking advantage of a deafening wind tunnel to sing at the top of his voice all the songs he could remember, occupying himself with the manufacture of a calendar from scraps of bread. And so on. He was resolved to preserve his mind and his will, and he contrived elaborate plans for suicide in case he felt them giving way. His small triumphs were easier to recall than his misery, but as to their relative balance, he set the matter straight with his readers:
I am often afraid that people will forget what a hell I was living. I see them smiling and nodding cheerfully when I tell about making the calendar, for instance. That was, I guess, a reasonably ingenious thing to do and it gave me pleasure. So I recall it readily enough and tell about it with relish. But this was something that was done in a cell purposely designed to create a waking nightmare for its occupant. It was even called a “psychic cell.”
No indeed, one does not smile. Moved by awe as well as pity, one stands aghast and full of admiration.
In the labor camp of Dzhezkazgan he picked up a variety of skills: worked as locksmith, welder, machinist, blacksmith; invented a method to fabricate spoons, which were in great demand; learned to play the guitar; and above all, while in the prison hospital, acquired considerable expertise in surgery, enough indeed to perform an emergency amputation. Many of his mates in camp lost hope, and died “without any apparent cause.” Many committed suicide. Some “kept themselves alive with hatred.” Others took refuge in religion. He himself had for support a simple credo of his own:
My own belief in God, which is real, is more like a given than an active faith. Although I routinely went to Mass as a child, I was never a church person, or a ritual person. I believed it was up to me to make the best of what God had given me, and what kept me alive always was a determination to do just that. To survive at least, and at best to survive and find some pleasure.
He made many friends, most of whom were dead by the time he came to write his memoir. They are remembered in it with affectionate appreciation, and their names are invoked at the end in a kind of litany of praise, a testament of generosity, friendship, and grateful love that befits his unassuming, grandly simple, heroic story.
Lev Navrozov’s ambitious book has nothing in common with Dolgun’s except that it too is an indictment of the Soviet Union. The author is a Russian writer, now in the United States, whose interests and experiences, character and motives are totally different from Dolgun’s. It was not physical hardship but intellectual revulsion that prompted him to emigrate. At home he lived comfortably enough in a secluded country house, where after Stalin’s death he could even receive foreign correspondents without being molested. But he lived in isolation. Although as a translator he might have joined the Writers’ Union, he could not bring himself to do so, or to become part of any organization, and would not even send his son to school. He was, as a friend of his called him, “the only strictly private person in the country”—“a psychopath, a real psychopath,” his mother lamented. But beyond his “extraterritorial estate,” there was only serfdom. This was why he elected solitude and then, escape.
His book is a commentary on the “serf society” from which he fled; and, despite its title, is only fractionally concerned with his own life. He gives his views, but not the story of how he came to hold them. There is little about his education in it, certainly nothing comparable to Alexander Dolgun’s tribute to Arvid Atsinch, the doctor in charge of the hospital in Dzhezkazgan who made him his assistant and taught him not only how to attend the sick but how to think, so that for the first time he sensed his mind at work and felt himself “growing as a human being.” Nothing of the kind seems ever to have happened to Lev Navrozov.
What we learn about Navrozov is that he was the only child of a couple who belonged to the prerevolutionary intelligentsia, his father a Russian writer in Moscow, his mother a Jewish doctor from Vitebsk; that he was called Lev in honor of Tolstoy whose centenary was being celebrated in 1928, the year of his birth; that after a brief stay in the Urals, the family lived in one large room of a five-room communal apartment which was once the handsome residence of a rich foreigner; that his father drank too much; that one of his childhood summers was spent miserably in an expensive kindergarten, that the following one he was permitted to stay one whole month with his father and mother in a “House of Creativity,” among a group of writers who “made up the last enclave of Russian culture”; and that at the age of seven he had one entirely blissful summer with his parents in a rented peasant cottage. There are a few more details about his life scattered through the book: minor episodes, incidental bits of information, but he is more interested in recording his opinions than his memories. These serve only as starting points from which, in a process resembling free association, his mind glances off to general observations.
The gist of his wide-ranging views may be summed up as follows. The Soviet Union came into being through the “megacrime” of Lenin and his henchmen who, operating on a larger scale than Al Capone and his gang, seized not just a section of Chicago but all of Russia. Their maneuver, called “revolution,” was in effect a foreign conquest under the leadership of “an ethnic German-Kalmyk,” for Lenin was of Kalmyk origin on his father’s side and half-German on his mother’s. This foreigner became “pseudo-tsar-god I” and was followed, some years later, by “an ethnic Georgian,” Stalin, “pseudo-tsar-god II.”
Russia might just as well have been conquered “by a pure German like Hitler,” for “a war of aggression and socialist revolution“—Mr. Navrozov’s pages are as thickly peppered with emphatic italics as the letters of Queen Victoria—“are only different names for a ruthless war of conquest to enserf a population,” the only difference between them being that “In a conquest from outside a military force faces a front line. In a conquest from within there is no front line.” Had Lenin been jailed in 1917, democracy would have taken root in the entire world, but to “the babies of the Provisional Government,” such innocents as Milyukov, the depths of Lenin’s evil were inconceivable. And so a country that was “a semi-constitutional monarchy,” on the point of becoming “a full-fledged constitutional monarchy,” became the property of tyrants, a vast realm where all freedoms were abrogated and men were no longer individuals but useful properties or noxious pests.
“Great Lenin” and “great Stalin”—the ironic epithets recur with monotonous iteration—were concerned exclusively with “possession-power.” Lenin—a thinker? Nonsense. It was only “after Ulyanov-Lenin grabbed the country, one sixth of the inhabited globe, in a game of chance” that “many scholars all over the world began to analyze each drab cliché of his as a priceless gem of versatile (and in particular prophetic) genius,” while Stalin learned from Lenin all he needed to know for establishing his own hegemony: to splash acid into the eyes of enemy victims, to do away with his fellow robbers, to effect complete mobilization by means of “torture-murder stations,” and always to have in readiness a scapegoat for his own “megacrimes.”
As for Marxism, presumably the basis of their power, what is it but a medieval prejudice in modern guise, the substitution, quite simply, of “the Capitalist” for “the Jew, the Swindler-Usurer” of earlier centuries? “The later-day greatest discovery” of “good old Marx” is to Mr. Navrozov no more than an aspect of anti-Semitism, in keeping with “the machine universe” where human beings are “expendable machines” and, as a matter of fact, with science itself that has produced this universe:
If a hare suddenly appears from a hat, this is a deception or a miracle. But if a hare gradually appears from a hat—if it evolves (slowly, gradually, imperceptibly) from the hat, or from earth, or whatever it might be—this is a truth, a fact, an axiom of science….
A hare evolves from the hat, and man from the ape, and therefore the difference between hare and hat or man and ape is negligible….
Unfortunately, what can this penetrating insight signify to the ignoramuses of the twentieth century, “the intellectual illiterates who cannot think though they can read and write educated phrases,” who accept without question certain clusters of words in a manner that Lévi-Strauss, describing the mentality of primitive tribes, has called “coparticipative association,” to whom the cluster “revolutionary-proletarian-progressive-socialist-democratic” is inexorably good, the cluster “counterrevolutionary-capitalist-autocratic-bourgeois” evil?
Against this society of thugs and savages Mr. Navrozov warns “the adult babies” of “sheltered, free, wealthy” Western democracies, “innocent, trusting, devoid of defense mechanisms” in the face of the devious machinations of this “militarily daily growing, globally expanding…all-infiltrating serf caste war society” to which no diplomacy is equal, which cannot be trusted, where “not a single law has ever been observed,” so skilled in deception and secrecy that “compared with its ‘counterpart’…the intelligence/counterintelligence of democracies…is a thirteenth century cartwright’s shop compared with General Motors.” When Solzhenitsyn proffers similar warnings, as he has been doing recently, we are compelled to listen, though hoping all the while that he is wrong, because his voice resounds not only with the vehemence of a man whose suffering and courage have been immeasurable but the conviction of one whose descent into hell has not destroyed his sense of human worth. But Mr. Navrozov’s voice is querulous, opinionated, devoid of generosity.
Carried away by what is certainly justifiable disgust for the inequities, cruelties, and hypocrisies of a barbarous despotism, he has allowed his hatreds to overflow the banks of rationality. His style resembles nothing so much as that of Pravda, his most frequently quoted source, with its taste for malicious innuendo, blunt sarcasm, specious logic. He has unconsciously imbibed the mental attitudes of those he most despises. One’s sympathy goes out to a man who, under the pressure of ubiquitous propaganda, forced to live, as it were, “inside a deranged brain” with its sequence of obsessions, has resisted as much as Mr. Navrozov has been able to resist. But it is difficult to admire a hardened cynicism for which men’s motives are always suspect or to respect a habit of petty denigration and petulance where indignant wrath is called for.
To ridicule indiscriminately, deride not faulty men but men’s ideals, invariably to impute baseness—Gorky “enserfed” himself to achieve status, Mayakovsky feathered his nest, Churchill was impressed by Stalin because of the ingenious bathroom appointments in the villa where he was housed—is to insult mankind and turn tragedy itself into trivial nonsense. If Mr. Navrozov has meant to be satiric on the order perhaps of Gogol or George Orwell whom, in his pervasive disapproval, he singles out for admiration, he has failed to emulate the seriousness that underlies their work.
One hopes that in this book, the first of a cycle, composed clandestinely over many years and smuggled out on microfilm, Mr. Navrozov has rid himself of his miscellaneous aversions and that in the books that follow his gifts are put to better use. He writes English as to the language born, better than many a native—I only wish the editor had corrected his consistent misuse of like for as; he is a skillful translator and, although too impatient for sustained portraiture, an able miniaturist. One hopes for more such reminiscences as the touching sketch of his neighbor, Dr. Marlevich, and less of his intemperate invectives on matters outside his immediate experience.
For neither intellectually nor emotionally is Mr. Navrozov equal to the complex, majestic theme of Russia that, as history, demands meticulous study, for which he lacks the necessary objectivity and patience; that, as an experiment in ideology, requires philosophic analysis, and he has no interest in philosophy; and that, as drama, calls for such writing as, in Pasternak’s words, can “make the heart stop beating” and a respect for human beings far beyond his reach. Whatever the justice of his views—and one may well agree with many of his conclusions—Navrozov’s tone is offensive and his method inadequate to the great tragedy of which he writes.
A Reply October 30, 1975