Leonid Brezhnev and Alexey Kosygin
Leonid Brezhnev and Alexey Kosygin; drawing by David Levine

It is Lenin year. This month, it is one hundred years since there was born in Simbirsk on the Volga that impatient, redheaded person who changed the world more fundamentally than any other man since Mohammed. In Moscow, the Caliphate has already stupefied its subjects with Leninolatry: thousands of little dead-white busts, a billion chocolate cakes and puff pastries bearing in relief the face of the man from Simbirsk, countless speeches and articles maintaining that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as presented by Messrs. Brezhnev and Kosygin is precisely that socialist fatherland which Vladimir Ilyich would have wanted to see. In China, the Moslem Brotherhood of Peking dismisses the Moscow celebrations as an obscene smear and claims Lenin for its own. In the pagan West, the game of quotations is played to suggest that Lenin, were he to awaken in his mausoleum, would repudiate everything he found about him.

That is unbalanced. Lenin would likely be satisfied enough to find the state he founded militarily secure, technically advanced, and adequately fed. His criticisms would be secondary, but acid nonetheless: the tendency toward chauvinism and bureaucracy against which he fought so desperately in the last months of his life has not been overcome, but instead has produced both the absurd quarrel with China and the internal reluctance to undertake economic experiment or change.

Above all, the “cultural revolution” which he considered so necessary has not been carried through beyond limited social groups. This, from a very different standpoint, is the theme of Andrei Amalrik’s Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, an essay unusual among Russian dissident writings in that it is aimed primarily at Western public opinion.

To call Amalrik’s book pessimistic would be a pale reflection of this prophecy of doom. Amalrik, a young historian, suggests that there is little chance of fundamental reform from any foreseeable Russian leadership. The division between the “middle class” of specialists and functionaries, weakly agitating for a more genuine rule of law, and the “uncultured” masses below will widen. War will break out with China between 1975 and 1980, a prolonged wasting war which will drain the Soviet Union of its strength. Eastern Europe and a reunited Germany will press greedily upon a weakened Russia from the other flank. Eventually the system will collapse. The middle-class “democratic” reformers will be swamped, however, by the masses’ terrible frenzy for destruction.

“I have no doubt,” Amalrik pronounces, “that this great Eastern Slav empire created by Germans, Byzantines and Mongols has entered the last decades of its existence.” This sort of language is instantly evocative of the Kulturpessimismus of the old German generation of conservatives. Amalrik lacks their morbid nationalism; he is detached. But the cultural pessimism is unmistakable, and with it—as so frequently—the very nineteenth-century valuation of race as a political factor. It is no coincidence that Amalrik first got into trouble by reaffirming that the Kievan state was of Viking, rather than of Slav, origin. The Russians, he is saying, are not a Kulturvolk capable of creating a civilization, and their state was built by “Scandinavians, Byzantines, Tatars, Germans and Jews.” Among the masses, the Christian ethic has been destoyed but not replaced by a Marxist one. They understand only force and a leveling sort of equality, but have no comprehension of individual freedom which they equate with disorder and sin.

To this deeply conservative analysis (which also contains traces of a cyclical interpretation of history in its suggestions that the breakdown of the Tsardom in 1905 and 1917 is repeating itself) Amalrik adds an account of Russian intellectual dissidence which is invaluable and brilliant. He divides what he calls the “Democratic Movement” into “genuine Marxist-Leninists” (what the Caliphate would call revisionists), liberals, Christians, and, not really within the movement, “neo-Slavophiles.” The first three categories seek the return of the rule of law based on respect for the rights of man. They are a “middle-class” group, requiring intellectual freedom for their work and law to protect their property. But Amalrik, in his usual detached way, considers this group too effectively policed, too defensive, and too much involved with the state as its employer to succeed or to spread its protest to the masses.

Amalrik was a friend of Anatole Shub, the Washington Post correspondent in Moscow until his expulsion last year, and there are traces of Amalrikism in Shub’s own The New Russian Tragedy. As the title suggests, he also suspects that the present regime is virtually incapable of “reappraising fundamentals,” and that a “prerevolutionary situation” is slowly building up as the present leadership re-creates the errors of the late Romanovs. He describes the “sense of suffocation…among the educated matched by the sullenness and permanent irritability of the masses….” In a long, fascinating, and often savagely worded account of the development of the post-Khrushchev leadership, Shub also argues that the struggle of “conservatives” against “reactionaries” has produced a sort of paralysis. Further de-Stalinization seems too alarming a prospect; yet the leaders fear the results of actually repudiating “the men and measures of 1954-64.” Shub considers that this fear of what will happen to the leaders themselves if the “terror machine” is again put in motion is a fair guarantee that there will be no return to full Stalinism.


But Shub is more optimistic about the “Democratic Movement” than Amalrik. He is impressed with the rapid spread of the movement and its underground literature as a response to the qualified “re-Stalinization” which is taking place, and believes that tacit support for the “Movement” is very much wider than is generally supposed, spreading even into KGB circles whose members are playing a double game with their masters.

Pavel Litvinov’s documentation of one of the skirmishes of the Movement, The Demonstration in Pushkin Square, does not add much evidence about the scale of the protests, but makes clear the very odd atmosphere—at once heroic and bizarre—in which they take place. They are a chain phenomenon, protest following trial following protest, initiated with the Sinyavsky-Daniel affair. In the courtroom reports which Litvinov brings us there is exactly the variety of belief which Amalrik describes: the young Christians (usually converts); the liberals who tell the court that English parliamentary democracy should be introduced; the wooden Komsomol witnesses describing how their moral feelings were outraged by seeing “anti-Soviet” placards; the defense lawyers performing contortions to suggest that their clients were misled innocents; the “open” trials whose galleries are somehow always full; the brutal sentences for petty offenses.

Litvinov himself is now serving a five-year sentence for demonstrating against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Yet the trials are trials of a sort; there is legal argument and political argument in court, also of a sort. Moreover, men and women do not simply vanish these days, and have some confidence that such things will not happen again.

This curious twilight atmosphere is the theme of one of the best books about the Soviet Union to be written for many years: the anonymous Message From Moscow. An “Anglo-American” student living in Moscow presents the reflections and experiences of a fairly long sojourn spent living, apparently without particular hindrance, among young Russians. “Observer,” as he calls himself, has high sensitivity, intelligence, humor; he has the talents of a good novelist. Living in Russia drives many Westerners to the edge of paranoid collapse, but “Observer,” fortunately, went native and contrived to relax. He acquired what he considers a quality of the place, “an enervating mixture of foreboding and serenity,” and shared these emotions as well as much vodka with Russian friends.

His sketches are superb, especially his long night conversation with Nadezhda Nikolaevna, the taxi-driver, whose combination of fierce pride in the Revolution (Stalin recalled with nostalgia), resigned disgust at “them” (technocrats and authority in general), and candid acceptance of a state of affairs in which everybody is up to some petty racket, should set her in any portrait gallery of the proletariat. With Nadezhda Nikolaevna in mind, Amalrik’s picture of the destructive, amoral mass looks pretty schematic.

Message From Moscow has annoyed a good many Sovietologists in the West by its lack of enthusiasm for the “demonstrators”; the Movement, it is objected, is far more widespread and influential than “Observer” allows. I am inclined to share “Observer’s” doubts, however, which are very much in tune with what Amalrik is saying. He remarks that the position of the intellectuals has in fact improved steadily in some ways even since the “Khrushchev thaw,” and continues to improve: they are better informed than ever about the outside world and about events within Russia, and this is a state of affairs which the authorities tacitly permit (“They let you know things…” a girl commented, “if you keep your mouth shut about what you know”). At the same time, the sense of alienation from the masses and the helpless pessimism about the future which this induces is steadily deepening. The backwardness and brutality of the masses are often exaggerated. A frame of mind is created in which the tiny handful of protestors, though honored because they show that the intellectuals are no longer “snivelling, submissive lackeys,” appear to their admirers as valiant spitters into the wind.

Traditional attitudes reappear among the intellectuals: sometimes a retreat into the cozy little ghetto of Westmania, sometimes—a nineteenth-century echo—an enthusiasm for peasant folklore and the Orthodox Church, often a combination of both, with the ikon and a tape of Bob Dylan on the same shelf. “Observer” is not censorious; he finds the society of such Russian friends to be intimate and intense and morally free in a way which makes the Bohemias of the West seem jaded and constrained. But he does not overlook the hidden feeling of humiliation. A man encountered at a party told him: “I drink to the heroes of this country, the people in the camps. But that’s all I do about it: drink.”


Anatoly Marchenko is one of those in the camps. The face on the bookjacket is hard, worn, and ageless. At thirty-two, he is serving his third stretch in a life which has contained little but trouble and endurance. Born of illiterate parents, Marchenko was first sentenced in 1960 after a fight on a drilling site. He escaped from a camp near Karaganda and tried to cross the Persian border. He was caught and given six years as a “traitor” in the empty hall of the Supreme Court of Turkmenia. He served the term in the labor camps of Mordovia and, after an escape attempt, in the prison at Vladimir. On his release, he wrote down this horrifying account of his experiences. In July 1968, he wrote an open letter attacking the government’s policy toward Czechoslovakia. He was returned to captivity for allegedly violating his assignment of residence outside Moscow, and this sentence has been prolonged for various other “offenses” to this day.

Marchenko is irreducible. Eight of his last ten years have been spent as a convict, and his first six left him deaf and physically wrecked by meningitis and undernourishment. He decided, nonetheless, to take the risk of writing My Testimony. He wishes that “humanists abroad,” but above all his own countrymen, should know about “the evil and lawlessness that is rampant in my country,” and he believes that when his countrymen know, they will wish to change these things.

The camps and prisons he describes are not the vast penal universe created by Stalin and commemorated by Solzhenitsyn and Evgenia Ginzburg. The camps of the East and North where millions labored and died have been run down. But there remains, for political prisoners, a main cluster of camps around Potma between Moscow and the Urals, in the Mordvin region. Marchenko says tersely: “…a few things are better, a few things are worse.” Prisoners are sentenced individually and by trials, rather than deported by categories “en masse.” The fear of liquidation has passed and the climate of the Terror has lifted; Vorkuta was little more than an ominous name to the outside world, but information and even news from Potma and Vladimir emerge in surprising quantity.

This illustrates one of the most awkward contradictions of post-Stalinist regimes. The fact that people and victims now dare to talk and protest is of course evidence of an immense relaxation of control. But the information which thus becomes public is still bad enough to generate horror and scandal, and to constitute a serious political embarrassment.

The conditions which Marchenko records are certainly disgusting. Camp convicts do heavy outdoor labor or high-norm trade work on inadequate rations and without proper medical care. The camp staff, often commanded by veterans of the Stalinist period, is callous, dishonest, and tends to ignore regulations, like the right to parcels, which are in the prisoner’s interest: those who infringe are often beaten up.

These, it can fairly be argued, are the vices of the most old established systems writ large. Conditions in Potma VII and a prison farm in the southern United States are probably not so different. The Vladimir jail, however, is another matter. Here men are crowded into unheated cells for years at a time and deliberately semi-starved. Marchenko witnessed suicide attempts, the swallowing of anything from spoons to dominoes, revolting self-mutilations. Here as elsewhere during his first six years in prison, he met the gruesome practice of protest by tattoo, men who mixed rubber ash with urine to engrave slogans like “Slave of Khrushchev” or “Communist butcher” across their foreheads and cheeks. The official response was simply to strip off the inscribed skin.

From their different angles, Marchenko, Amalrik, “Observer,” and Shub are describing the same uneasy political animal. The Soviet Union after Stalin, under the first collective leadership the country has experienced since the triumvirate after Lenin’s death, has jammed itself temporarily in the narrow passage between the past and the future. To go back seems almost as intimidating as to heave forward into a period of reform which might be uncontrollable; yet to stay put in this condition of semi-tyranny becomes more acutely uncomfortable from year to year. But Russia’s ability to postpone change should not be underestimated, and as Anatole Shub remarks, “…we are frequently driven to conclude ‘It cannot go on this way’—but it can and often does.” Change may come soon or in a decade or a generation, gradually or with violence and drama, and any closer prediction can only be guesswork.

Alexander Werth’s last book, completed just before he died, embodies this bewilderment. His brilliant short books about France written in the Thirties established Werth as a firstclass journalist of the left, and the central experience of reporting the defense of Russia against the Nazis (Russia at War, The Year of Stalingrad) reinforced deep emotional loyalty to the Russian people and their society.

Werth was born in Petrograd, his parents emigrating early, but it was only after the Second World War that he tried, bravely but often clumsily, to defend the Soviet Union against the calumnies of the Cold War. But this was the era of the second Stalinist Terror, and if Werth was sincere, he was also credulous. This final book, Russia: Hopes and Fears contains naïveté of the hopeful kind: the “ghastly example” of traffic in New York and London is suggested as the motive for making car purchase difficult in the USSR; the tendency to exclude Jews from the diplomatic service “is substantially true of Britain, France and many other countries” (matched by “if there were any Zionists in Russia before June 1967, there can scarcely be any now…”).

But this is not an apologia. The Warsaw Pact armies violated Czechoslovak sovereignty just before the book went to press, and Werth was able to add to the proofs his expression of outrage and sorrow. Although Werth never wavered in his love for Russia, Hopes and Fears is a record of his growing consternation at the leadership’s failure to drive ahead with the emancipation begun with the Twentieth Congress. His contacts, especially with the older generation of intellectuals who had made careers under Stalin, were remarkable, but in his long account of the travails of the writers, he does not spare the feelings of wartime friends who had become literary bureaucrats. He grieves for “broken and crippled lives,” and for a Russian literature which cannot be written.

It is a haphazard book, put together apparently in some haste after a long visit in the jubilee year of 1967. Some chapters are lively and interesting: his return to Leningrad and search for his friends and relations make good reporting. Others are distracted and sketchy. But Hopes and Fears at least uses all Werth’s long personal experience and the tales and reflections of those he met to convey the rich peculiarity of Soviet life. To the end, Werth remained an advocate of “going and seeing,” and a pugnacious enemy of the distant Kremlinologist.

There is nothing complex about the title War Between Russia and China. It sounds like a pressing invitation to the fallout shelter. Fortunately, Mr. Salisbury has somewhat oversold himself. In this much-serialized little book, he has drawn from all his journeys and researches into the Sino-Soviet border regions, into Mongolia and the outskirts of China, a good popular guide to the origins of the great dispute. He is not really saying that the war is coming, only that “…if events are permitted to continue on the present pattern war will become inevitable.” Mr. Salisbury has seen the Soviet military build-up in Mongolia and visited the empty Amur region in the Maritime Province. He has studied the history of Soviet-Chinese Communist relations, which is for the most part the tale of inexcusable arrogance and tactlessness on the Soviet side, and he has looked up statistics on China to produce some pretty schematic theories to the effect that population growth and lack of arable land equal expansionist claims on Soviet territory.

This is not very convincing, nor is his lurid presentation of Russian racialism toward Asiatics. “Russia still struggles against the legacy of backwardness, deceit, cruelty, oppression and lies imposed by the terrible Mongols.” The historian Andrei Amalrik, who has undertaken serious study of the Russian past, would surely be among the first to call that remark absurd. Certainly, the Russians have “yellow peril” prejudices with powerful roots in history, and in conversation about the Sino-Soviet dispute they often assume that Westerners share those prejudices. But this is not rational. The Mongols in fact contributed many ideas of government to the primitive Slav state they encountered.

Mr. Salisbury thinks that the United States can help to prevent a Sino-Soviet war by improving its relationship with China. The outstanding political differences could be reduced (Mr. Salisbury, optimistically, believes that Peking could accept the “indefinite continuance of the Taiwan regime” if American support were withdrawn and the island recognized as “indivisible” in some way from the mainland). America and Canada could undertake to feed China and Asia, thus reducing the demographic pressures for war which the author considers so dangerous. In return for a promise to limit her population and use foreign expertise to increase agricultural production, China would have the right to draw on this “world food pool.”

This is the sort of popular American idea that doesn’t work. Would Winston Churchill in 1942 have “drawn freely” on the pools of American dried egg if Roosevelt had made feeding Britain conditional on birth control or ploughing up the Royal Parks? If we allow Churchill his pride, why not Mao?

From Czechoslovakia, now receding into a dusty corner of the world’s attention, there emerge two books which, in their different ways, were made possible by the eight months of 1968 when truth could be published and real questions asked. They are asked no longer: on December 17 last year, Prague Radio carried the report of the Prosecutor’s office on “the sudden death of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Jan Masaryk,” which stated that “after a thorough investigation not the slightest suspicion of a criminal offense was established, and the case has been closed.”

Jan Masaryk fell to his death from a second-floor window of the Cernin Palace in the night on March 9-10, 1948. The son of Thomas Masaryk, the founder of the Republic, he had dismayed many of his admirers by staying on as Foreign Minister after the Communists took power in February. The Prosecutor’s report concluded that he might have fallen accidentally or, “as a consequence of a sudden decision,” jumped. Miss Sterling is not so sure. Profiting from the climate of 1968, she went to Prague and set about her own investigation. Her explorations among the official investigators appointed earlier that year, among Masaryk’s secretaries and relations, among the surviving staff of the Cernin Palace, old secret policemen, and émigrés with long memories, break open a dark and enigmatic labyrinth of possibilities. There is a certain amount of padding—digressions on the Good Soldier Schweik and other matters—but The Masaryk Case is the sort of detective mystery which is better not read late at night.

Miss Sterling thinks Jan Masaryk was pushed, by Soviet or Soviet-inspired agents. After reading The Masaryk Case I am not sure. Masaryk fell backward from his window; in the bedroom and bathroom of his flat was found a chaos of smashed medicine bottles, scattered razor blades and pillows (there was a pillow in the bath). He had plaster under his nails, and had lost control of his bowels. Miss Sterling does show that some of the evidence pointing to suicide is shaky or false. She uses effectively the grim series of deaths by violence which overtook those who might have been expected to know too much. Two Western pathologists have assured her that suicides never soil themselves out of fear (never?); and she guesses that this squalid symptom was caused by Masaryk’s being partly suffocated by the pillow found in the bath before he was pushed through the window. She does not conclusively disprove suicide, but her evidence is ominous enough to make the Prosecutor’s report look inadequate.

Three years later, Rudolf Slánský, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, was arrested, tried on false charges, and executed. The real reasons for destroying Slánský remain unclear. Perhaps he was too independent; more likely his Jewish origin made him a convenient victim for ritual murder as a “Titoist.” The huge, ramifying cancer of “the Slánský trials” spread throughout Czechoslovakia and humiliates the nation to this day; it seemed in 1968 that only if the whole monster could be brought to light in retrospect, could the present and future be purified. Time ran out on this war with the past. But Josefa Slánská, the dead First Secretary’s widow, was able to publish Report on My Husband, the most agonizing of the many memoirs of the great crime. They were both good Communists; they were calculatingly betrayed. The police seized them after they had been entertained by the Prime Minister, in the smiling presence of the Soviet Ambassador.

Those who struck at the Slánskýs were their oldest friends in the Party; they took away Josefa’s children, left her to rot and be bullied in jail, then turned her into an “unperson” in a provincial factory. Only in 1968, when “the sun rose again” as she puts it, did she return to normal life. Last year, according to a reliable report, the secret police returned to rifle through her papers and warn her that “rehabilitation” could always be reversed.

This Issue

April 23, 1970