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Soviet Heroes

Ease My Sorrows: A Memoir

by Lev Kopelev, translated by Antonina W. Bouis.
Random House, 256 pp., $17.95


by Petro G. Grigorenko, by Thomas P. Whitney
Norton, 462 pp., $19.95

Each of these books tells the story of disillusionment with communism. The authors are very different—the one an intellectual, the other a distinguished soldier who only late in life was confronted with problems of abstract politics, which he felt compelled to resolve. Yet in each case the motives for the break of allegiance to the communist regime were the same: its brutality and injustice which so outraged feelings of morality and decency that they could no longer be papered over or justified with theoretical formulas. Solzhenitsyn is probably right in his contention that the Soviet regime would collapse if those who are subject to it ceased to live by the lie and insisted on calling things by their right names, and not by the hypocritical disguises in which ideology envelops them. But will this happen?

Solzhenitsyn is, in fact, much in evidence in Lev Kopelev’s book, the third volume of his memoirs to appear. He is a fellow inmate in the sharashka within which the events described take place, and it is on this institution that Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle is based. A sharashka is a strange device invented by the NKVD to use some of the talent which would otherwise go to waste in the deeper circles of hell, the gulag empire. Scientists and other experts are housed in conditions of relative comfort in a building run by the NKVD. They are given tolerable food and accommodation, but are otherwise subject to very similar humiliations to those suffered by ordinary zeks, or camp prisoners. Their task is to carry out scientific assignments—the aircraft designer Tupolev, for example, spent some years working in a sharashka. The one to which Kopelev, as a distinguished expert on linguistics, was assigned consisted of a converted church on the outskirts of Moscow called “Ease My Sorrows,” from which the title of his book derives. Solzhenitsyn, who was a fellow inmate in his capacity as a mathematician, became a close friend. Kopelev features in the person of Rubin in The First Circle.

The Solzhenitsyn portrayed here with great sympathy and admiration is not yet the devout Christian that he has now become or, of course, since we are dealing with the immediate postwar years, as yet a writer. But it is interesting to recognize in him the Slavophile, or more accurately “native soil” ideas which have come to characterize him. (The members of the “native soil” movement, dating from 1850, who included Dostoevsky, advocated, as distinct from the Slavophiles, a nationality based on the whole nation, not just the peasants, and believed that the Russians were destined to achieve a universal, cultural synthesis with the national ideas of Western Europe.) In contrast to Kopelev, the assimilated Jew, Solzhenitsyn does not believe that a Jew can ever be a true Russian.

Sure, you know the Russian language, literature, and history very well. But you know German very well, too…. If you were to live ten or fifteen years in Germany, you could absolutely consider yourself a German. Just like Heine or Feuchtwanger. But neither Mitya nor I ever could…. Take our janitor, Spiridon. He’s semi-literate…. All he knows about Pushkin are some dirty jokes. But even if he were to spend his entire life in Germany or Poland—he would always remain a Russian muzhik.”

This attitude of Solzhenitsyn’s is in no sense that of anti-Semitism, but it is a refusal to accept assimilation of Jews—or Georgians—as a reality. “He did not believe,” Kopelev recalls him saying, “that…Stalin was concerned with the people [of Russia]—Lenin and Bukharin maybe had thought about them, but Trotsky, Zinoviev, Stalin, and Kaganovich, they didn’t give a damn what Russia, or Germany, or China was. For them what counted was their theory, the victory of Marxism-Leninism on a world scale.” He was astonished to learn that many leaders of the peasant socialists were Jews, or that all Trotskyites were not Jews or all Bukharinites Russians. But in Solzhenitsyn there is none of the folk anti-Semitism which occurs frequently in conversations in Kopelev’s book, such as, “The Jews have taken over music and medicine, the two best-paying professions.” On the other hand, it is notable that when anti-Semitism came into the open with the notorious arrest of the doctors in 1953, some of those who had shared anti-Semitic sentiments before now refused to be associated with a shameful official policy.

The technical task assigned by the NKVD to Kopelev and those who worked with him was to devise a method by which a voice could be identified as that of a particular individual. The technical process, to which Solzhenitsyn’s mathematical gifts made a great contribution, is described by the author in meticulous detail. The need for such a technique by the NKVD was prompted by the interception of a conversation by a Soviet citizen, on the telephone with the American embassy, offering to supply military information, and warning about the departure for New York of a Soviet spy. (The imbecility of anyone making such a phone call in Moscow is beyond one’s comprehension.) The assignment is crowned with a degree of success which does not quite satisfy Kopelev, but left no doubt in the minds of the NKVD officers that they had nailed their victim. Kopelev does not seem to have had any qualms of conscience. Perhaps the obviously treasonable nature of the conversation with the embassy helped to stifle any doubts about the correctness of the identification.

For the better part of this book, which ends with his release at the end in 1954, Kopelev remains a convinced communist, defending his beliefs against the arguments of Solzhenitsyn and others. He is aware of the gross injustice of the system under which he lives, and is indeed himself a victim of it. Much of his book is taken up with accounts of the stories of fellow-sufferers, condemned without a trial to twenty or twenty-five years of gulag, who had committed nothing which could be regarded as an offense in a civilized society. The rightness of the October Revolution and the greatness of Lenin were “unassailable” for him: Soviet society had decayed and degenerated, but nothing could halt the rightness of the historical course.

The arrests and killing of old Communists, the old friends and comrades of Lenin…horrified me, but at the same time did not seem unnatural. Accustomed to thinking in historical comparison, I explained them away as the internal regularity of any postrevolutionary development: Cromwell had the Levellers shot, the Jacobins guillotined the Girondists….

But even in his periods of ideological confidence, he had moral qualms—“about what I later came to call the contradictions between historical necessity and moral necessity.” He was never a militant atheist, and was inclined to commit the cardinal sin of a good communist—to see the point of view of those who were religious believers, or critics of communism. In the end, it was the moral necessity which prevailed, the realization that there are no truths which can be dogmatically asserted and taught, that “tolerance is the main condition for preserving life on this planet, which is being filled every day with more numerous and more effective weapons of mass destruction.” Before long, he was to join the ranks of the dissidents. His experiences among them will, no doubt, form the subject of another volume. He ends by thanking some of those who have helped him to find his moral equilibrium, among them Anna Akhmatova for her poetry, and Andrei Sakharov for “the purity of his soul, his chivalrous courage and selfless kindness,” which fed his “faith in the future of Russia and mankind.”

Petro Grigorenko, the son of a poor Ukrainian farmer, rose to the rank of major general in the regular Soviet army, after training as an engineer. A convinced communist, he accepted the famine and repressions that ensued from collectivization of the peasants, because he believed they were a necessary part of the building of socialism. He had a narrow escape at the beginning of the war, when a brush with the authorities resulted from a sarcastic remark on Soviet “wise policy” which was interpreted as criticism of Stalin: he had observed that Hitler always began his campaigns by attacking the enemy’s airfields, and that nothing had been done to defend Soviet aircraft against similar assault. He got off with a stern rebuke, and his promotion was delayed. By the end of the war, he had not only served with great courage and distinction, but had developed an admiration for Stalin as war leader. This led him to exonerate Stalin from any guilt over the terror of the Thirties, which he blamed on intemperate local leaders. But doubt set in even before Khrushchev had exposed Stalin in February 1956. His questioning now extended to the wisdom of the Party. Turning to Lenin’s works, he decided that the party had strayed from the true faith, and that this must be put right. Among the reasons for his growing skepticism about Communist virtue were the frequent incidents of anti-Semitism that he encountered in the Frunze Military Academy, to which he was posted as an instructor when the war came to an end.

The method that he chose for restoring the party to health may seem naive. But it is the only path open to the honest dissident, and the one that Grigorenko adopted when he eventually embarked on the course of open dissent. He used the occasion of a Communist Party conference, at which he was a delegate, to deliver a fiery speech. It was the period after Khrushchev had exposed the “personality cult,” and Grigorenko committed what in Soviet practice was the unpardonable sin: he argued that the fact that such terrible things could happen under Stalin was not merely to be attributed to the personal defects of one leader, but was a sign that there was something wrong with the system as a whole. This was the beginning of a long path of torment which was to lead to more than five years’ incarceration in mental hospitals, loss of his military rank and means of livelihood, and exile.

The immediate cause of Grigorenko’s first confinement to the tender care of the KGB psychiatrists was his part in the founding of the “Alliance for Struggle for the Rebirth of Leninism,” whose birth was announced in the first of seven political pamphlets. The other six dealt with the familiar “Leninist” criticism which, while accepting Communist Party monopoly, called for an end to the rule of bureaucrats, free party elections, greater incentives for the peasants, and the like. The leaflets were distributed by various means, including handing them out in public places by the fearless general himself.

He was released after a few months this time. “Too soon” was Brezhnev’s comment when he heard about it. Before long, Grigorenko became one of that group of courageous men and women who form the society of dissidents in the Soviet Union. Deprived of any kind of lucrative employment, they subsist on casual earnings, on the help of friends, and the fund set up through the generosity of Solzhenitsyn, with his royalties as its basis. (This fund has recently been under some assault by the KGB.) Grigorenko conveys a moving picture of the life of the dissidents. On the one hand, there are the hardships and the considerable risk (which have steadily increased in the last few years) of being faced with the choice between foreign exile at best, or prison and banishment without the choice after a rigged trial, or psychiatric incarceration. But on the other hand, there are the support of fellowship, the comfort of friends, the sustenance, when it comes, from sympathizers abroad and, above all, the freedom from the compulsion to lead the life of the lie, to pretend without end. A meeting with Volodya Bukovsky determined his future course. When he asked this young man’s advice on whether he should engage in open struggle or in conspiracy, Bukovsky unhesitatingly recommended the former. “Why should we hide? The law is on our side. People will hear public statements and the honest and brave among them will join us. What methods could one use for underground conspiracy? Given the corruption of our morality, I am convinced that from the very first one would encounter a provocateur. Only an idiot would go underground.” It was the philosophy of Solzhenitsyn as well: “Don’t live by the lie.”

Quoting a remark by Alik Ginzburg (now in exile) that there are “run-of-the-mill samizdat…action in defense of human rights” and “events,” Grigorenko was credited by this young man with five events. The first event was a spirited defense, on the basis of much personal experience, of Alexander Nekrich (now also in exile) against the attack that had officially been launched against his book about the outset of the Russo-German war, in which he had portrayed truthfully Soviet lack of preparation. Grigorenko’s letter was widely disseminated, and paved the way for his entry into the dissident world, and to meetings with groups of students, which had, of course, nothing to do with official university courses.

His next event was his defense of the Crimean Tatars, for which more than anything else he is famous. This small people had been deported, in circumstances in which more than 46 percent of them lost their lives, during the war. The allegation against them of disloyalty was rescinded after the war, and the Crimean Tatars were “rehabilitated”—except that they were not allowed to return to their homeland. For years, they struggled with petitions and the attempts by some of them to return and resettle in their homes—the struggle continues to this day. They have not met with great success. Of the 12,000 Tatar families who entered the Crimea in 1968, fewer than one thousand succeeded in resettling there.

The petitions carry thousands of signatures. In 1967, the number of signatures on petitions was three million: as if the entire adult population of 200,000 had each signed an average of fifteen petitions. For these unfortunates Grigorenko battled courageously while he remained in the USSR. His most notable performance, an “event,” was his speech at a banquet organized by the Crimean Tatars in honor of the birthday of their friend and champion, Alexei Kostyorin. It was a brave and rousing speech, but was only one of the many blows that the general struck for this sorely oppressed and unjustly treated nation, including a speech, in the face of KGB obstruction, at Kostyorin’s funeral in 1968.

The following year, Grigorenko was arrested once again. This time he spent more than five years in psychiatric hospitals. Before his arrest, he called on Solzhenitsyn, a man about whom he knew little, but whom he instantly recognized as “great.” They discussed many topics, but all that Grigorenko has chosen to tell us about their conversation was Solzhenitsyn’s strongly urging him to write about the war: “You have to deglamorize the war, show it as it really was.” The five chapters of this book that deal with the war may be a partial answer to this request.

The story of Grigorenko’s tribulations in mental hospitals and of the iniquity of the psychiatrists who prostitute their calling by doing the bidding of the KGB is now well known—it was indeed the subject of an English-made film, based on notes that he managed to smuggle out. He was eventually released in 1974, the day before President Nixon was due to arrive in Moscow. His last important act in promoting the case of dissent in the USSR was to participate in the formation of a group to monitor the observance of the Helsinki Concluding Act. The members of Helsinki Watch, which was set up at the instigation of Professor Yuri Orlov, did important work in exposing Soviet violations of basic civil rights. It was faced with savage repression by the authorities—most of its members are in prison or exile now. The same fate has befallen the groups that were set up in several of the Union Republics. In 1977, the general and his wife were, to their surprise, given visas to visit New York for medical treatment—the authorities were glad to be rid of a troublemaker and took the opportunity shortly afterward of depriving Petro and Zinaida Grigorenko of their Soviet citizenship.

This is both a heartening and a depressing book. It is heartening because it shows that a man from a simple background, who has courage and honesty, can be driven by the sight of injustice and oppression to abandon the conformity and acceptance induced by years of military discipline and training. It is depressing because it shows the ultimate power of the Soviet machine, and of the great majority of the population who back it, and for whom protests like those of Grigorenko appear as at best amiable eccentricity, and at worst treachery.

It is too early to assess the strength of the contribution that men like Kopelev and Grigorenko make to the strengthening of civil rights in the USSR. But their actions prove that bravery and integrity still survive in the Soviet Union in the face of all the hypocrisy, corruption, and cowardice. Posterity will remember these two men when the names of thousands of time-serving commissars and corrupt bureaucrats have long been forgotten.

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