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The Buried Past

Memoirs 1989)

by Andrei Gromyko
Publishing Company for Political Literature (Moscow), 2 vols, 894 pp., 3.80 rubles

Before me, as I write these words, lie the two handsome volumes of the official Russian-language version of the memoirs of Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, as published in 1988 in Moscow by the Publishing Company for Political Literature. In their entirety these memoirs run to nearly nine hundred pages, including some 180 illustrations, mostly snapshots of Andrei Andreyevich together with one or another of the many prominent world personalities with whom he was brought into contact in his long years as Soviet foreign minister.

Most of this material relates to the international scene of the post-Stalin period: its historical significance cannot be doubted; and this writer has no intention of disparaging it. To define that significance will have to be the task of someone more closely involved with the diplomacy of that period, either as a participant or as a historian, than myself. But there are certain aspects of Gromyko’s view of Russia in the Stalin period that strike the eye of anyone who, although himself neither a Communist nor a fellow traveler, lived and worked, either in Russia or in close contact with Russian affairs, during those particular years. And these aspects, for reasons that have still not lost all their relevance, might merit a word or two of comment.

Most of us who had the experience just mentioned tended to marvel over the two planes of consciousness on which the situations and events of that time could be—and were—perceived in Moscow. There was what I myself then liked to think of as the plane of reality, as revealed to any reasonably disinterested observer. But there was also the image of itself and its doings created by the Soviet regime and expostulated daily in a thousand ways by the Soviet press and the other outlets of the Party’s propaganda machine. So far removed from each other were these two versions of reality—or, if you will, of perceived reality—that the images derived from them appeared to be those of two wholly different countries. A considerable portion of the population, perceiving both of these images, learned, for good reason, to think in terms of the first of them but to speak in terms of the other. We foreigners, too, tried to hold both in mind and to identify the occasional veiled connections between them. But upon all of us, Russians and foreigners alike, this effort inflicted a species of double vision, in the light of which life had, somehow, to proceed.

In the years following Stalin’s death the sharpness of this disparity between what was pretended and what was real declined, to the extent at least that much of the officially cultivated image, its preposterousness now being evident to almost everyone, was no longer emphasized even where it could not be officially disowned; and now, in the days of Mr. Gorbachev’s glasnost, it is rapidly disappearing altogether.

This being the case, it is a startling experience to be suddenly thrust back into the atmosphere of the 1930s and 1940s and confronted again with the view of itself taken at that time by the Stalin regime in all its bland and brazen effrontery, as though nothing had ever occurred to disprove it—and this, from the memoirs of a man who, even in the age of Mr. Gorbachev’s perestroika, remains one of the two or three highest figures of the Soviet Union. For here, in the confrontation with this book, the two planes of consciousness with which one learned to live in the time of Stalin are evoked again in all their weird and painful irreconcilability.

My own view of the Russia of that day (and that of other foreigners, I am sure) was evoked partly by memory: by what I knew of the earlier history of the Soviet Union—of the Revolution, the civil war, and the events of the early 1920s. But imposed on these understandings there were then the dramatic impressions of the first years of the 1930s: the famine of 1932–1933; the deeply ravaged countryside, terribly—almost fatally—damaged by the disaster of collectivization; the wasteful and costly experiments of the first Five-Year Plan; the murder of Kirov and the sinister beginnings, in 1935, of the purges; and then all the horrors that followed: the mass arrests, the great public purge trials, the decimation of the Party hierarchy and the military command, the disappearance into the limbo of death or penal servitude of millions of essentially innocent Party members and ordinary citizens.

Superimposed very shortly upon all this, there were, then, the shattering events of the war and its aftermath: the cynicism of the attempt to buy off Hitler by sharing with him the booty of Eastern Europe; the overrunning of the Baltic countries and eastern Poland; the cruel deportations of hundreds of thousands of innocent people from Poland in particular (but not only from Poland) into the interior of Siberia and Central Asia; then, as the war took its course, the unpitying reprisals against people who had perforce remained behind in the German-controlled areas or who had fallen into German hands as prisoners of war; then, as the war moved to a close, the behavior of the Soviet police authorities in the areas “liberated” from the Germans; and finally, in the immediate post-hostilities period, the fastening upon the Polish people, and in a more gradual and subtle form upon the other Eastern European peoples, of regimes that were mockeries of the principles of self-determination and self-rule.

This list could be continued; but it will suffice to support my statement that the Russia Mr. Gromyko saw around him in those years was a different Russia from the one that passed before my eyes.

At a later point (chapter six) of his memoirs one will find, to be sure, tacked on to the account of a single instance in which the author thought he was right and Stalin was wrong (having to do with the failure of the Soviet Union to use its veto in the Security Council in connection with the Korean War), a page of balanced judgment about Stalin as a statesman—a passage in which, together with a summary of Stalin’s impressive achievements, there is a recognition that he was

a cruel person, taking no account of the number of those sacrificed for the achievement of his purposes, practicing a nightmarish arbitrariness of rule that led to the deaths of masses of Soviet people.

The country and the people, Gromyko wrote, “would never be able to forgive him these acts of illegality—the mass destruction of communists and non-party people, guilty of nothing at all—patriots, devoted to the cause of socialism.”

Well enough. Let us assume—and hope—that this was Mr. Gromyko’s ripe judgment of later years and not just something tacked on, at the insistence of those around Gorbachev, to what was actually a rather irrelevant passage. One is left, nevertheless, with the fact that in Mr. Gromyko’s account of his youth, of his experiences during the 1930s, and of his official activity down through the remainder of the Stalin era nothing that he specifically records would substantiate, or even explain, this harsh judgment.

He was, he relates, as a young Communist sent out on a number of occasions in the 1920s and 1930s on kommandirovki into the hard-pressed countryside—first, to extract from the peasants their last hoardings of grain; then, in the 1930s, to argue them into the acceptance of collectivization and sometimes even to help with what we know today to have been the brutal enforcement of it. In all of this he saw no evil—heard no evil.

In his life in Moscow from 1934 to 1939 as a Party propagandist and a doctoral candidate at a senior research institution, he could not have been oblivious of what was happening in the senior echelons of the Party to which he belonged. He could not have failed to note the ominous disappearance from the scene, one by one, of his Party superiors and academic associates. He could not have neglected to read in the papers the accounts of the great purge trials of 1936–1937, with all their weird absurdities. And it cannot have failed to occur to him that if the accusations were false (as of course they were) then monstrous injustices were being perpetrated upon the accused, and equally monstrous abuses upon the credulity and good faith of the Soviet public; whereas if they were true, then the immediate entourage of the revered Lenin consisted largely of a nest of traitors, and Lenin himself was the most naive and most easily imposed upon of men.

Gromyko must also have seen on all sides of him, even if he was lucky enough to avoid participation in it himself, the wave of denunciations encouraged by the Party, participation in which became for many people the only way they could see of saving their own skins. And when, in 1939, he was suddenly and unexpectedly lifted out of his normal scholarly entourage, assigned to the Foreign Ministry, and placed (albeit wholly without diplomatic experience) in charge of the American desk there, he could scarcely have been ignorant of, or indifferent to, the fate of his predecessors in that position, or indeed of much of the remainder of Maxim Litvinov’s staff at the ministry. And so on—and so on. But none of this is mentioned, nor is any of what was soon to follow. He, rapidly becoming a prominent and influential diplomat, knew nothing, we are asked to conclude, of the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact, of the Winter War in Finland, of the intimidation and seizure of the Baltic countries, of the deportations from eastern Poland, of the Katyn massacres, etc.; or, if he did know of these things, they made insufficient impression upon him to warrant mention in his memoirs.

I raise these unpleasant memories not to revive the tensions and asperities of a terrible time. They have passed into history. There is no reason to doubt that many of them are as deeply regretted in the entourage of Mikhail Gorbachev as they were by some of us who were the witnesses to them. Let us, by all means, permit the past to bury its dead. But I cannot concede the validity of a view of Russia and of her place in the life of the twentieth century that takes no account of any of these developments, or finds them unworthy of specific note in the memoirs of a great and honored Russian political figure.

I have often been struck, in discussions with some of the more sanguine cold war enthusiasts in our own country, by the fact that not only did they see most senior Soviet political figures as men of great personal iniquity but they assumed that these figures knew themselves to be just that, and that their only reaction to such charges from our side were ones of annoyance and chagrin at having been found out. I could assure them that even if this was the way some Americans viewed the Soviet leaders, it was not at all the way the latter viewed themselves. Many foreigners would be amazed, I suspect, to learn with what self-satisfaction and complacency—an almost bourgeois complacency, in fact—a great many senior Soviet statesmen have come to look back upon their own part in the dramatic, and so often terrible, events of their own time.

Of no one, I am sure, could this have been more true than of Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko. He was, according to his lights (and not without justification for the view), a man of rock-bound fidelity to ideological principle, and of unlimited and unquestionable loyalty to the interests of the Party in which his life proceeded and to which it was devoted. It was in the mid-1920s that the Party first took him to its demanding but otherwise protecting breast. He was then scarcely more than a boy: a ragged country youth, the child of hard-working and struggling peasant parents, a youth longing for education, dreaming of escape from the dreariness of village life and of entry into a more interesting and promising one. All these things the Party gave him—gave him (let us recognize it) as no one else, at that time, could have done. And by so doing, the Party became, in the emotional sense, his mother, his father, his teacher, his conscience, and his master. He was never to question its ideals, its authority, its moral purity. He was, as he himself writes at the end of his memoirs, “a communist to the marrow of his bones.”

Taken in this context he was, I have no doubt, in many ways what we would call “an exceptionally fine person”: devoted, hard-working, loyal to the movement to which he had dedicated his life, a good comrade (within limits of course, for you never knew when someone would fall from virtue) to those who shared his dedication, a great professional diplomat and teacher of diplomats, and—as one will see from the photograph of him seated at the center of a large and fine-looking family circle in his later years—a good husband, a good father, even a good grandfather and great-grandfather. Surely, few Soviet officials of his day could have looked back with a greater feeling of satisfaction, in the closing phases of a distinguished career, on a long record of tasks loyally assumed and successfully completed.

But for this comfortable contentment (and how eloquently the memoirs reveal it!) something more was essential than just the normal working of memory. We all know (and we scarcely needed Sigmund Freud to point it out to us) the great role that the repression of memory (Verdrängung) plays in the effort of the individual to come to terms with himself and his conscience. We know that this repression, like Shakespeare’s sleep, “knits up the ravell’d sleave of care.” We know that it reconciles the errant, bewildered soul to the painful record of its own mistakes, stupidities, and cruelties, the active awareness of which, if allowed to accompany the subject as a companion through life, would paralyze the will and destroy the enthusiasm for life itself.

What is not so often understood is that this capacity for repression of memory can be easily transferred from the individual’s sense of responsibility for his own conduct to the behavior of a political collectivity into whose hands he has committed his confidence and his loyalty. When this transference occurs, it is—in the personal psychic sense—enormously health-giving, even more so than when it is one’s own conscience that is at stake; for here the moral responsibility is shifted entirely to someone else. The person in whom this change has occurred might reproach himself, on occasion, for behavior on his own part that did not contribute to the interests of the collectivity. That could undermine his confidence. That could keep him awake at night. That could cause him to run to the collectivity to confess, to be punished, to be corrected. But with that confession and retribution, the brand of shame would be removed.

For anything undertaken beyond that, and particularly for anything undertaken in response to the will of the collectivity (in this instance the Party), no matter how distasteful, no matter how unattractive from the standpoint of individual morality, there could be no guilt, no questioning, no remorse. And if it turned out that what the Party required to be done, whether by oneself or others, involved apparent injustice or cruelty—well, one might regret that it was found necessary; one might wish that it could have been otherwise. But it was not one’s own responsibility; and one was justified in later years—was one not?—in pushing the memory of it back into those dim precincts of forgetfulness that already veiled so many other evidences of man’s savagery and nastiness; so many other evidences of the triumph (momentary and unavoidable, of course) of the beast over his tragic cousin, the saint.

It is this that shines out, for this writer, at least, from the account by Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko of his life and activities in the Stalin era. Perhaps he deserves our forgiveness and understanding. The Russian Revolution involved many mass bewilderments. Perhaps there was really no other way to go. He was and is, within his lights, an eminently loyal person; and it can be argued, after all, that loyalty is perhaps the only absolute virtue, in the sense that to be loyal to even the worst causes is better than being incapable of loyalty to any at all.

But it may reasonably be asked whether the national society can hope to cope successfully with the challenges of the present, any more than can the individual, unless it can come to terms with its own past. It is this, surely, that Mr. Gorbachev, and others around him, have perceived. Only this could explain the courage and resolution with which they are opening the pages on which the realities of the 1930s and 1940s are recorded, as distinct from the pretenses by which a great political movement endeavored, over the decades, to live. That this is hard to accept for such a man as Gromyko, who gave so much, so long, so faithfully, and so effectively, to the movement in question, everyone can understand. But the necessity of accepting it, from the standpoint of Russia’s future as well as its present, few could now deny.

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