Breaking with Moscow
Shevchenko was the senior Soviet citizen in the United Nations Secretariat, with the rank of undersecretary general, when he defected to the United States in April 1978. For several years before that—since 1973 apparently—he had been reporting to the CIA on matters coming to his knowledge in the course of his work as a senior Soviet diplomat, working within the United Nations, and as a trusted protégé of the Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko.
During at least the last five years of his official career, Shevchenko was living at least three kinds of a lie. First of all, he was (as required of him by his Soviet superiors) a liar in his relationship to the international organization he had pledged himself to serve. This he acknowledges in Breaking with Moscow. He quotes the oath or declaration required of all UN servants:
I solemnly swear…to exercise in all loyalty, discretion, and conscience the functions entrusted to me as an international civil servant of the United Nations, to discharge these functions and regulate my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view, and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of my duties from any Government or other authority external to the Organization.
Commenting on this, the former undersecretary general says:
I knew many people who fulfilled these obligations with integrity and diligence. But of course the UN is filled with vested interests, private and national. The U.S.S.R. and the Soviet bloc are not unique in their disregard of its international purpose. But in the UN the Soviet Union is alone in one respect among the other nations on earth: its mendacity and cynicism are fully institutionalized. Every Soviet national who takes the organization’s oath must commit perjury. Before an individual’s candidature is submitted by the Soviet Union to the Secretariat’s Office of Personnel Services, that individual undertakes an obligation to do his or her best in the interests of the Soviet Union and to use his or her prospective job to achieve this purpose.
With his defection, Shevchenko started lying to his real employers, as well as to his ostensible ones. He was also now lying to his family (wife, son, daughter), concealing from them to the last his intention to defect. Shortly after Shevchenko’s defection, Moscow reported the suicide of the defector’s wife, Lina. Shevchenko believes that in fact Lina was murdered by the KGB. Either way, her death would appear to have been the result of her husband’s defection. According to him, she heard about it only after it had happened, and so too late to save herself.
Even years before the decision to defect, Shevchenko’s life was a lie, as he now copiously acknowledges:
So I had become part of the stratum that tried to portray itself as fighting what it coveted. While criticizing the bourgeois way of life, its only passion was to possess it; while condemning consumerism as a manifestation of philistine psychology, a result of poisonous Western influence, the privileged valued above all else the consumer goods and comforts of the West. I was not immune. The gulf between what was said and what was done was oppressive, but more oppressive still was what I had to do to widen the gap.
I tried to remember everything I ever said, and what others had told me, because my survival and success depended greatly upon that. I pretended to believe what I did not, and to place the interests of the Party and the state above my own, when in fact I did just the opposite. After I had lived that kind of life for years, I began to see Dorian Gray’s real picture in my shaving mirror.
I smiled and played the hypocrite not only in public, at Party meetings, at meetings with acquaintances, but even in my own family and to myself. Every politician or diplomat must feign to one degree or another for the common cause or in the interests of his country—and at times for not such good causes. But to dissemble in everything, always and everywhere, having lost faith in what you are doing—not everyone can stand up under this. To be compelled to act in such a way is like forcing a deeply religious individual to live among militant atheists, not only constraining him to reject God but insisting that he curse Him and the Bible every step of the way.
That last sentence sounds a bit like an echo of Whittaker Chambers. And the position of the author of Breaking with Moscow has necessarily much in common with the position of the author of Witness. Both were obliged to argue, in effect: “I was a terrible liar, when I used to work for the Soviets. But since I saw the light I am telling nothing but the truth, and you must believe me.”
Against this background, I approached this book with considerable suspicion. It seemed to me that if Mr. Shevchenko’s contacts in the American intelligence community wanted him to put things into his book that didn’t actually happen, he was hardly in a position to resist their demands. And my suspicion was increased by the lapse of time—seven years—between the author’s defection and the publication of his book.
Yet, as I read Breaking with Moscow, I came to feel that, for the most part, it is probably a reasonably truthful account. If there are items of disinformation in it, they have been skillfully planted. To an extent, its uninviting picture of the Soviet ruling class may serve cold war purposes, but there is plenty of independent evidence that confirms the truth of that picture, irrespective of whose interests it may serve. But the Shevchenko picture is different from at least the more conventional cold war pictures. It does not portray an “evil empire” governed by fiendishly clever ice-cold brains. What it portrays is something perhaps more alarming: a cumbersome, ill-informed, mutually suspicious, apprehensive, and dimly improvising elite.
Arkady Shevchenko has been closer to the top than any other Soviet defector so far (unless you count Trotsky a defector). His job at the UN was cushy, rather than politically important, but it seems to have been a reward for his earlier service, and a promise of more to come. As disarmament adviser to Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko at the beginning of the Seventies—and in contact with other state agencies as “Gromyko’s man”—he necessarily learned a fair amount about the Soviet decision-making process in the field of foreign policy. His account of that process, in various pages of Breaking with Moscow, is by far the most important part of the book. I shall accordingly devote most of the rest of this review to a discussion of that account.
On the major matter of the Soviet Union’s basic intentions, the Shevchenko account tallies with that of Western cold warriors: “The underlying desire of the Soviet Union to dominate the earth remains ever fresh.” Shevchenko goes on, however, to qualify that picture significantly:
To be sure, the notion held by some in the West that the Soviet leaders have a secret master plan, a timetable for conquering the world’s nations one by one, is pure fiction; but while no such specific plan exists on paper, the idea of expanding Soviet power to the point of world domination is a fundamental long-range aspiration.
The accumulation of detail in Shevchenko’s pages is more important than those generalizations. The detail shows that the Soviet objective of world domination is being pursued in a remarkably inefficient and inconsequential manner. Take the main activities involved in formulating policy: information gathering; analysis and assessment; and decision making at the top. Also “long-range planning,” if any.
Information gathering. Shevchenko shows Soviet ambassadors, including some “key” ones, as reporting not what they find out about local conditions, but what the Soviet press leads them to expect their masters want to hear: “All an ambassador had to do was rewrite a few editorials from the latest Pravda as a political assessment and throw in some local color. That way he reassured everyone that the truth was exactly what the orthodox members of the Politburo thought it was.” One of the first tidbits Shevchenko had to pass on to the CIA was a cable from Vasily Tolstikov, the Soviet ambassador in Peking. The CIA contact got quite excited about this, but Shevchenko had to tell him that the cable meant nothing in particular except “the safety-in-repetition technique,” i.e., the ambassador wanted to hold on to his job. The ambassador had “practically no access to reliable Chinese informants.” This was the general picture, but there were some exceptions, the most notable being Anatoly Dobrynin in Washington (who will be less than entranced to find himself getting a rave review in Breaking with Moscow).
Analysis and Assessment. Here also the guiding principle is to hold on to your job, by not offering anything likely to be unwelcome. Thus Shevchenko, when a member of the Soviet mission to the UN, advised his superior that it was counter-productive, for Soviet purposes, to oppose the convening of the Security Council to consider Vietnam. His head of mission, Nikolai Fedorenko, refused to put such an argument to Moscow: “‘In principle, I agree with you,’ he said, ‘but it’s our basic policy. If we advise the government to change it, they’ll probably fire us and send people here who will do what they’re told. Would that be any better?”’
As Shevchenko says elsewhere: “Partly the fault lay in the Soviet decision-making system; it provides few channels for skeptics to use safely in questioning the drift of a basic policy choice.”
Of course in the West also there are diplomats and advisers who report and advise what they think the boss wants to hear. But the pressures making for that pattern of behavior seem to be much stronger within the Soviet system.
Long-range planning. Since some consider the Soviets to be outstandingly superior in this department, the Shevchenko findings are particularly interesting here. During the Sixties, the Soviets set up a special “Directorate for Foreign Policy Planning.” As Shevchenko tells the story:
Gromyko initially displayed interest in the work of the Directorate, but he soon lost it. At its inception, the Directorate looked as if it would be an important project. The Politburo authorized its creation with an unprecedented number of personnel (it was much larger than any operational department), with a special ranking system and higher salaries than other departments of the ministry. Several prominent scholars were invited to become employees along with the bureaucrats.
Within a few years, however, the Directorate had failed utterly. Its lengthy assessment papers with different options for policy proved to be a “scholastic and unrealistic academic exercise,” as Gromyko and other ministry officials described it. Gromyko put the Directorate’s products on the shelf and reverted to running his ministry on the basis of day-to-day priorities, along with a few short-term goals.
The Directorate gradually evolved into a way-station for ambassadors or other senior diplomats awaiting new assignments and a haven for diplomats approaching retirement who still had good connections but who were no longer considered fit to perform well in the operational departments. People in the ministry began calling it the garbage can.