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Odd Man Out

Breaking with Moscow

by Arkady N. Shevchenko
Knopf, 378 pp., $18.95

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.

So much for M. Jean-François Revel’s theory (in How Democracies Perish) of the superiority of consistent, long-term, planned Soviet foreign policy over against Western failure to plan.

Top Decision Making. The core of the book, politically, is Shevchenko’s picture of Politburo decision making. He was not a member of the Politburo, of course, but he was a political adviser to Gromyko on matters—for example, disarmament policy—that Gromyko had to discuss with the Politburo. And he was in close touch with other officials of his own moderately high rank, whose masters were Politburo members. So he knows more about the Politburo than anyone who has yet been willing to discuss such matters, before a Western public, during the post-Stalin era.

To begin with, Shevchenko makes clear that the Politburo is a stratified body:

Within the Politburo there is a core that can be called the “Politburo” of the Politburo. Fundamentally, this group consists of Moscow-based members. Those from the various republics and districts of the Soviet Union play a less important role and often are not privy to precisely how certain decisions on domestic or foreign policy are arrived at.

The Politburo has no established rules of procedure, and no verbatim record of its meetings is kept. The Politburo meets every Thursday and has nonscheduled meetings as well, apparently attended by the Moscow members only. The agenda of the regular meetings is extremely heavy, consisting of some thirty or forty items, some major, some apparently very minor:

The pettiness of some of the questions dealt with at this highest level is hard to believe. Among the matters that regularly occupy Politburo time are lists of Soviet citizens and institutions proposed for various awards and decorations, from small distinctions to the prestigious Lenin Prizes. As another example, the construction of an apartment building for Soviets in New York was the subject of several Politburo discussions.

I suspect that some of the items the bureaucrat Shevchenko treats as minor are in fact major in the eyes of the politicians of the Politburo. Those lists of persons proposed for “awards and decorations” have to do with patronage, bureaucratic clout, position in the party hierarchy. Minor indeed! However, Shevchenko’s own explanation of the overloading of the agenda no doubt covers a large part of the phenomenon:

The overburdening of the Politburo’s agenda also flows from a traditional rule of the decision-making system known as perestrakhovka, meaning something like “playing safe” and “mutual protection” or, in a purely political sense, “collective responsibility.” It connotes the opposite of individual authority. The primary rule for safe behavior in any bureaucratic setting, it has become as well the Party’s and the bureaucracy’s guiding management precept on every level of the Soviet Union.

Uppermost in the minds of minor and major officials alike is the need for a shield against blame. Blame is the means by which powerful men have been swept from their posts; thus it is the thing most feared by the prominent. Approval or disapproval by the Politburo absolves all, for the Politburo is considered mistake-proof.

The present Soviet leadership is still grappling with the ghosts of Stalin and Khrushchev. To preserve power, the leaders feel they must share it; to protect their authority as a group, they dilute that of each member.

Shevchenko discusses the bearing of the composition of the Politburo on foreign-policy making:

Traditionally, candidates for Politburo membership come mainly from among secretaries of the Party committees of the territories and regions of the U.S.S.R. They are usually middle-aged, fairly knowledgeable about economic and agricultural matters, competent organizers by Soviet standards, and deft manipulators of propaganda and ideological indoctrination. What they lack, as a rule, is an objective understanding of international problems, world history, and foreign policy. Here they are in fact prisoners of Soviet propaganda and do not know much more than what is published in Pravda or in the magazine Kommunist. Those who do become Politburo members, therefore, invariably start out with a great deal to learn about foreign policy.

Whatever Politburo members do learn about foreign policy, they must learn either from the Foreign Office, or from those Party organs that have responsibilities for dealing with foreign Communist parties. Dealing with the Eastern European “socialist countries” is “more a Party function than a diplomatic one,” and is controlled by the Central Committee Department for Liaison with Communist and Workers Parties of Socialist Countries, headed for many years by Konstantin V. Rusakov.

The Department for Liaison, etc., is in reality a kind of Colonial Office, and so not really in competition with the Foreign Office. But the International Department of the Party Central Committee, headed by Boris Ponomarev, is in direct competition with the Foreign Office. Not surprisingly, Gromyko, according to Shevchenko, “dislikes Ponomarev intensely.” Gromyko, up to now, has had the inside track, since he is a member of the Politburo, and has managed to keep Ponomarev out of it. The International Department, according to Shevchenko, is the “justifier of Soviet expansionism…the inspirer of much of the disorder which threatens Western stability and Western interests in the Third World.” As against all that, Gromyko’s Foreign Office is represented as playing a cautious, moderating role.

Defector though he may be, Shevchenko remains a staunch Foreign Office man, institutionally speaking (it may well have been the same with Burgess and Maclean in Moscow). Shevchenko looks down, professionally, on the International Department’s amateurs:

One of the International Department’s main weaknesses was the limited extent of its independent information-gathering system abroad, although some from the department were sent to work in several embassies.

Although” is marvelous, in the light of what Shevchenko has already told us about the Foreign Office’s own information-gathering system. Perhaps some of those International Department tyros were sent to learn their trade at the feet of Ambassador Tolstikov in Peking. If so, they will most certainly have learned nothing whatever that they did not already know very well indeed, through common knowledge of the Soviet system’s own domestic workings, as affecting its foreign workings.

And for the same reason, the average member of the Politburo is unlikely to learn much about foreign affairs from his competing mentors of the Foreign Office and the International Department.

The most frightening impression I got from Breaking with Moscow was not one of people about to dominate the world, but one of an absurd and ramshackle structure, which might in some way fall in upon itself at any time—crushing a great many people, inside and outside the Soviet empire. But the structure may hold together, much as now, for a fairly long time. The Ottoman Empire did, after all.

One interesting subject of speculation consists of the possible repercussions of the book, Breaking with Moscow, within the system it describes. Both the defection and the book must surely weaken Gromyko’s Foreign Office, and correspondingly strengthen Ponomarev’s International Department. Gromyko is so encrusted with authority, after all those years near the top, that he personally is likely to be secure, but his protégés, and therefore his influence for the future, seem likely to be seriously weakened. One can hear the murmured dialogue over a candidate:

One of Gromyko’s young men, you know.”

So was Shevchenko.”

If that is a correct inference, a main effect of Breaking with Moscow will be to strengthen the reckless foreign-policy advisers in Moscow, as against the cautious ones. And presumably this is the opposite of what the author intended.

Those who are favorably depicted in Breaking with Moscow—principally Gromyko and Dobrynin—are likely to be at least a little worried. Those whom Shevchenko is catty about, on the other hand, will be delighted.

Take the case of Georgy Arbatov, head of the Soviet Institute for the United States and Canada. Shevchenko seems to be a little jealous of Arbatov’s high reputation in academic and other circles in the West. Arbatov is really a bit of an outsider, hardly a real Foreign Office type, according to Shevchenko.

Here again the Foreign Ministry’s importance should be stressed and Western misperceptions clarified concerning the role of other institutions or individuals in the frame-work of Soviet-American relations. Georgy Arbatov’s name is often mentioned in this connection. In the West, he was considered one of Brezhnev’s most important assistants for American affairs. But I never saw him in Gromyko’s office.

There follows a pen picture:

Pleasant and easygoing with superiors and friends, and more so with Americans and foreigners generally, Arbatov was arrogant and often rude with his subordinates. I have rarely known a more vigorous drummer for the Soviet system. He is a man I would not trust. Intelligent, ambitious, and unencumbered by principle or scruple, Arbatov was ready as well to serve anyone without the slightest hesitation if it served his own interests.

If I were Georgy Arbatov I would have a sign made, and put it on my desk, reading simply:

He is a man I would not trust.”

—Arkady N. Shevchenko

In any case, Breaking with Moscow is well worth reading and better written than one might expect in the circumstances, as you can see from at least some of the excerpts. (The Arbatov bits are mostly below par, but even on Arbatov’s role he produces one good shaft. “Whenever it is expedient…his byline is used to give an unofficial status to opinions which are in fact officially approved.”)

This is a political review of what is mainly a political book. But Breaking with Moscow is also a document of great and ambiguous human interest, deserving a completely different kind of close attention. I would not be surprised if Graham Greene, the great connoisseur of betrayal situations, reads this book intently and if its story of double defection—political and family—would encourage him to shape a new novel. If Greene is indeed thinking along those lines, let me recommend to him also a related book: Defector’s Mistress: The Judy Chavez Story by Judy Chavez with Jack Vitek (Dell, 1979).

After Shevchenko’s defection and after his wife’s death, Shevchenko tells us, he was depressed and nearly desperate, in his lonely hiding place, under CIA and FBI tutelage. He asked his guardians for female company, and the FBI found Judy Chavez. She was an intelligent young prostitute, with a distaste for men, and a taste for publicity. She soon found out who the defector was, and made for the big time, by arranging for a TV crew to film herself with Shevchenko and his CIA and FBI “secretaries” at the Irongate Restaurant in Washington. Because the money, of which there was a lot, came from the CIA, there was a fairly big scandal. Following up, Judy Chavez wrote her book. It is a brutal, cold, and coarse account of a relationship, but the picture it gives of Shevchenko is basically not hostile. He appears as a kind, lonely, haunted man, desperately in need of affection.

It was on reading Defector’s Mistress that I knew that I had seen Shevchenko in the flesh, not once but many times. I knew we had overlapped at the UN—when I was an Irish delegate to the General Assembly and he was a member of the Soviet permanent mission—but I was not sure I knew him by sight. I thought I did, from the picture that came to me with the review copy of his book, but I wasn’t sure. That picture is a composed, rather cheerful one. Then I read Judy’s description of him under pressure—how his dead-pale face sags and crumples into his collar—and that face of his came vividly to my mind. I had passed him almost daily for months, without ever speaking to him, in the north delegates’ lounge. I had thought vaguely, “that delegate has a lot on his mind.” But so had a good many other delegates.

Shevchenko, who says he is now happily married, refers to the Chavez episode in his book with rueful humor. He didn’t like recruiting a girlfriend through the CIA or FBI, but what could he do?

I could,” he writes, “hardly put an ad in The New York Review of Books: ‘Soviet defector, 47, seeks female help in making new life.’ ”

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