Red Files: Secrets from the Russian Archivesby George Feifer, Peter Pringle
For eighty years, Western audiences were fed cookie-cutter images and disinformation about Russia via the all-controlling KGB and Communist Party. Now, as we approach the millennium, we can finally experience the truth about Russia's past century. PBS producer Abamedia, in conjunction with experienced Russian expert George Feifer, has concluded a deal for exclusive… See more details below
For eighty years, Western audiences were fed cookie-cutter images and disinformation about Russia via the all-controlling KGB and Communist Party. Now, as we approach the millennium, we can finally experience the truth about Russia's past century. PBS producer Abamedia, in conjunction with experienced Russian expert George Feifer, has concluded a deal for exclusive access to the Russian State Film and Photo Archive, the Soviet Union's single archive for imagery since 1917. The author provides extraordinary revelations and never-before-seen images from deep within Russia's document vaults, uncovering a treasure-trove of provocative and previously unexplored Russian history. The book's four chapters discuss never-before-seen material from the Cold War period, the space race, secrets of the KGB, and Soviet sports.
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Read an Excerpt
The Cold War is a manifestation of the epochal clash between Communism and capitalism, two utterly opposed social foundations that are totally different at their core, therefore in everything essential about their practice. Scientific Marxism-Leninism explains why there can be no reconciliation between the two, and why socialism will triumph.
The incessantly repeated Party line
Eager Soviet political instructor: "What's the difference between capitalism and Communism?"
Bored student: "That's easy, Comrade. Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man."
"Very good, Son, go on!"
"Yes, and socialism is ... just the opposite."
Classic gag of the Soviet 1960s and 1970s
Until recently, not only foreigners but also Russians lacked a clear idea of what had really been happening in crucial facets of Soviet life. The "Red Files" documentary series expanded our knowledge of four of its darker aspects. In the end those areas, like so many others in the socialist Motherland, were about battles: the East-West battles in space, propaganda, sports, and espionage-intelligence. Although Russians knew more about the propaganda they heard and the sports they watched than about their spy and space programs, secrets abounded everywhere in national life. Their uncovering, although so far less than total, was among the goals of the documentaries.
What all Russians did know was that life wasdifficult for them throughout the period examined by the four programsbut not uniformly so. They endured their grueling, hugely taxing Cold War in two distinct periods. The first began within days of Germany's defeat in 1945, its declaration coming the following year when Winston Churchill coined "iron curtain" for the repugnant barrier that had fallen between East and West. Behind it, he warned, central and eastern Europe were subject "not only to Soviet influence but to a very high ... measure of control from Moscow."
The free world knew little about life behind the curtain during that first stretch of the forty-five-year struggle, but what it did know kept it throbbing with anxiety. While the Western allies rushed to demobilize after World War II, the Soviet Union maintained a swollen army. Several years later, in 1949, it exploded its first atomic bomb. (Espionage by American volunteers, about which the following chapter will reveal unsettling new information, speeded its design and manufacture.) A successful hydrogen bomb followed four years later, just after the first period's end. Westerners in general and Americans in particular were unashamedly frightened.
Few suspected the other side's fear was much greater. Russians knew far more about battle horrors than did blessedly protected, never-invaded Americans. Immeasurable Nazi savagery had just given them a monstrous lesson, as if they needed another one, about war's slaughter and devastationmore of which now appeared imminent. For they couldn't forget, even if their media hadn't reminded them daily, that the United States had a stockpile of atomic weapons and had actually used two, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. President Harry Truman's grim warning about the new Soviet A-bomb made no mention of the danger the Soviet people saw in the American arsenal. ("I want to talk to you today about what our country is up against," the president addressed the people in September, 1949. "All the things we believe in are in great danger. This danger has been created by the rulers of the Soviet Union.") That was beyond our interest, or perhaps comprehension, yet it was the Russian fear of the American weapon, and of the West in general, that stiffened Stalin's determination to maintain his very powerful conventional military forces after the war. Generally speaking, Americans forgot their own military prowess while waxing anxious at the Soviet armored divisions.
In the late 1940s, the Pentagon began encircling the Soviet Union with air bases for possiblemany Russians thought probablelaunching of catastrophic bombing strikes against its cities. Each American speech urging that course, every call to nuke the nefarious Communist enemy, made Russian blood run cold, even without the Soviet media's presentation of those battle whoops as evidence of capitalist leaders' ultimate intent. What clearer proof could there be of the ruthless hostility of America's establishment, the warmongering clique of financial-industrial oligarchs who really ran things? The "let's-get-the-Red-bastards" noises continued well after the two superpowers had reached a kind of unspoken agreement about preventing their hostility from erupting into real war. Rehearsing for a television program in 1984, President Reagan quipped that he was pleased to tell his fellow Americans he'd "just signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."
The explanation that such appeals for obliterating the enemy were mere jests hardly assuaged the Russian fear. People who kidded about death to a country that had recently suffered some twenty million fatalities (long the conventional figure, although Mikhail Gorbachev claimed the real toll reached twenty-seven million) in the war against Hitler represented a frightening danger not only to Soviet life but also to all humanity.
Dismayed by that attitude and further tensed and muddled by their nation's relentless propaganda, the weary, wary Soviet people perceived the rich and mighty West as determined to snuff out their attempts to build a better life for themselves. They saw imperialist America, the West's belligerent leader, as capable of anything to destroy the social and economic system that was destined, they believed, to replace its own.
In their sealed world into which only "useful" information was admitted, Russians would have been deranged not to feel fear, all the more because it lay so deep in the national consciousness. The dangers were not only external. They'd known for centuries that their country was difficult to govern, partly because a stubborn strain of anarchy lay in their bones. The frailty of their instinct for social and political order inclined them to see the huge Soviet territorial expanse as a weakness, not the threat Westerners perceived. All those vast, empty spaces to defend---and with too few means. That heightened the anxiety brewing beneath the surface of their stern state controls: a sense that anything disastrous could happen in their notoriously isolated sixth of the earth's surface. That was all the more true because disastrous things indeed kept happening.
Maybe the inherent Russian resistance to voluntary organization derived from those geographical impedimentsthe far-flung, "roadless" landmassto building a modern society. Anyway, too much remained beyond the state's power to copeeven in the late 1940s, under Joseph Stalin, when outsiders saw that power as absolute. That was why the Politburo masters slept badly during both Cold War periods, despite their huge totalitarian apparatus, zealously maintained by the outwardly all-powerful secret services, Mighty but insecure rulers who feared for their position despite command of vast police and military forces were almost the Russian norm. The nation's history had repeatedly confirmed that breakdown was always possible in the sprawling, often "ungovernable" country that lacked the glue of innate social cohesiveness for sustaining order, not to mention the necessary self-discipline and sense of civic responsibility. Russians accepted that structure sometimes had to be imposed on them because they were so little given to creating it themselves.
But harsh rule from above tended to introduce its own anxietiesas under the ferocious Stalin. After World War II, the country's every man, woman, and child felt immense pride in having defeated the Third Reich. (That was another feature common to both Cold War periods. The Soviet people took it on faith that their sacrifices had done the impossible on the battlefields and, as we'll see in the chapter entitled "The Soviet Propaganda Machine," they were largely correct.) Although there was also much enthusiasm for rebuilding the war-ravaged country and for building Socialism, another part of the psyche, compartmentalized in a way by no means unique to Russians, felt dread. To one or another degree, Stalin's murderous brutality gripped everyone, even though few knew more than scant details about it.
Their inner trepidation clutched at them despite the seeming paradox that other peopleor the same panicky ones at other momentsrevered their Supreme Leader and Teacher, Hope of Mankind. Although difficult for outsiders to imagine, many Russians sustained their veneration for the Great Dictator even while the secret police were targeting their neighbors and colleagues, even though they themselves went to sleep every evening dreading a midnight knock on their door. Still, idealism and loyalty surpassed almost everyone's fear.
Whether Stalin was clinically deranged or "merely" barbarously cunning and cruel, he brought huge upheaval. In fact, some scholars call his reign a revolution from above or a war against the country and the original Bolshevik Party. State personnel were shot in droves, never mind that many had only recently been awarded their positions. Their places were taken by eager new cadres, chiefly hastily educated workers and peasants. While opening up opportunities, that policy also expanded the fear. Its scope was illustrated by the fate of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the country's ablest, most esteemed military leader.
Tukhachevsky was among the country's five field marshals. Stalin's purges physically eliminated three in a snap of his blunt fingers. Fourteen of sixteen army generalsall devoted patriots, but quickly condemned and executed on preposterous chargesswelled the ranks of the victims. All full admirals and most members of the Supreme War Council were also shot, and political leaders fared no better. Some 70 percent of the Communist Party's Central Committee members and candidates in 1934 were ousted or killed, even though Stalin himself had chosen many of them. Of the 1,827 delegates to the seventeenth Party Congress that year, a skeleton cadre of 35 would attend the eighteenth, five years later.
Those numbersa little hint of a murderous rampage that still taxes the imaginationare easily documented. Less so are the mood and habits they generated.
Soviet military academies proudly displayed portraits of the acutely foresighted Tukhachevsky, who was reequipping the Soviet armed forces with modern machinery and strategies. (Among other things, the innovative chief of staff supported early research in Soviet rocketry, which is discussed in Chapter IV, "The Secret Soviet Moon Mission.") But when he was arrested in May 1937the worst of the purge years, when he happened to be in his strategic and organizational primeall traces of his presence were instantly expunged, beginning with the portraits that had proudly hung on foyer walls. Rectangles of less faded paint in their places announced the terrifying news. Instructors and students trembled, but did not mention their missing hero: not a whisper, even to friends. Anxious as they were to learn why their inspiring commander had fallen, they averted their eyes from the specter of his sudden elimination, like characters in a surrealist play. Such did the terror applied at the top mangle even the state's most accomplished and loyal servants.
Some of its facets were relaxed during World War II, when the morale of the country seemingly doomed to defeat was fed a supplement of traditional Mother Russia patriotism. But terror returned at the war's end, and although it never became as appalling as in the 1930s, it lasted until Joseph Stalin died in 1953. After that, the grisly scenes in the military academies and other Soviet institutions were not repeated. Marked changes in Soviet society made the second, much longer Cold War period qualitatively different.
With that incessantly dominant struggle of intimidation and nerves still sundering the planet and channeling minds, most of the West feared the Soviet Union as before, still seeing it as relentlessly dismal and profoundly threatening. Actually, however, the dictatorship reformed itself after Stalin's departure. Political, legal, and temperamental changes made life significantly better and freer, although still within rigid limits set from above.
Denunciations for "counterrevolutionary activity," that easy means of ingratiating oneself and/or eliminating enemies, lost their deadly power. Dread of the dead-of-night arrests and executions for no reasonor perhaps that was Stalin's reason, since it swelled his terrorsubsided and expired as those methods were renounced. Even the KGB, which had shot so many innocents in cold blood and still appeared omnipotent to most Westerners, usually played by the rules. Repugnant to begin with, those rules were broken for loathsome imprisonment and torture, but in rare cases only. The outright killing of an opponent of Soviet rule was even rarerespecially in contrast to the mass liquidations in certain of our Central and South American "partners" during the same late Cold War time. (If the Soviet Union of the mid-1950s through the 1980s had murdered even a small fraction of the innocent men and women eliminated by "friendly" governments in Argentina, Honduras, Guatemala, and other countries, our national scream would have rent the universe.) General Pinochet's Chile, for example, was of course no threat to us, but the point here is that our view was distorted by focusing on the far fewer Soviet violations of human rights while four thousand Chileans disappeared and ten times that number were tortured.
In the second Cold War period, the lethal Stalinist suspicions were gone. Stifling as the networks of controls remainedthe censorship, propaganda, prohibitions, and countless restraints, from soul-choking to pathetically stupidthey were the products of recognizably normal behavior, as opposed to homicidal paranoia's thrashings. The rulers no long "made war on their own people," as some analysts characterize the 1930s; they only tried to control them, avoiding violence if they could. In an old story that echoed throughout the gulag's vast landmass, a veteran prisoner asks a recent arrival for what he was sentenced to his twenty-five years. "For nothing," comes the fatalistic reply. "Bullshit, pal. For nothing, you get ten years." That people were no longer killed or imprisoned for nothing sums up the post-Stalinist period's cardinal political and emotional reforms.
Of course, dissidents were persecuted, sometimes odiously. But they were a few handfuls of the Soviet millions, even if the American media focused on them as if moving their curiosity elsewhere would have required impossible energy. Besides, those heroes, martyrs, and oddballs had done something not merely prohibited but also conspicuously daring and dangerous. By definition, dissidents openly dissented, criticizing the regime's methods and, in some cases, challenging its legitimacy. But the 99-plus percent who did no such thing, even those who were becoming inwardly contemptuous of Soviet rule, rarely tiptoed around in fear of police repression.
By the 1970s, you still had to give rankling lip service to socialist dogma, but if you weren't willing to sacrifice your conscience to your ambition, you didn't have to join the scoundrels who, for example, got juicy perks for broadcasting propaganda. You could keep your mouth shut, as all good people did. The rule was that if you did that, you could believe what you wanted and feel quite secure. Now you could also read some of the prohibited material you wanted toif you took the considerable pains to obtain the precious manuscripts produced by underground typewriters of samizdat ("self-publishing") or the books smuggled in from abroad, and then kept the illicit or criminal pages under your pillow. During breaks in jamming foreign short-wave radio stations, you could hear more of what you wanted. You could certainly think what you wanted and even occasionally voice it, if you chose your listeners carefully. Generally speaking, possession of contraband "anti-Soviet" literature would be used against you only if you were already in trouble for a public display of resistance to the established order. It was something like not wearing a seat belt: you got nailedin the Soviet case, nailed shockingly hardonly if you were stopped for an overt violation.
This is not to suggest that there was a shortage of exceptions or that the colossal Soviet bureaucracy made no mistakes or offered no opportunities for sadists. It's also not to imply that all fear disappeared. Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi Theater's leading ballerina in the 1970s, gave me a lesson about that during the course of my interviews with her for an article. She was not very cleverly watched, sometimes by "friends" who "just happened" to pop into her dressing room and relatively grand apartment when I was there. (What it had taken on both our parts to permit her to invite me to dinner at home!) Nevertheless, Plisetskaya took advantage of a visit to the bathroom by one such watcher to denounce the government, whose latest abomination was including her in a group of prominent Soviet Jews who publicly protested Israeli behavior. The "sons of bitches" had done that without consulting or even informing her.
Plisetskaya had seen her name signed to the typical statement of supposed moral outrage in that very morning's Pravda. Her actual feelings were roughly opposite, and she became furious as she described what she considered, quite rightly, the real outrage. While she shrieked, I tried to understand how she could have been so callously used in light of what Graham Greene had called "the untorturable" caste of Soviet citizens, meaning those whose worldwide reputations protected them against the usual humiliations. "But Maya Mikhailovna," I ventured. "I thought you were a member of a small group who had nothing to fear."
"Simpleton! I'm sick to death of foreigners' naïveté!" Then she modulated her snarl because our KGB sentinel was returning from the bathroom. "There's no such `caste' in this country. Brezhnev fears Podgorny and Podgorny fears Brezhnev; and they both fear Kosygin." Those were the current Politburo chiefs.
Our dinner resumed. The rare luxury of fresh vegetables in winter further testified to the world's premier ballerina's place among the country's super rich and famous. But it was clearer than ever that she had fewer rights than infants born that day in London, where I was living.
I knew few people as angry as the impulsive Plisetskaya at being a serf. For most, other aspects of Soviet life served to help acceptance of life's seemingly fated boundaries. For one thing, the majority still believed that as a whole, life was better in the Soviet Union than in other countries. (Everything that follows about hardships would seem to contradict such beliefs, but they held them nevertheless, for reasons that will emerge in later pages.) For another, the majority were enriched by the "human dimension," specifically the closeness, tenderness, and sense of sharing that often accompany struggle.
Those feelings were not always limited to friends and family members. During the course of my Russian stays, I once spent an evening with the editor of Literary Gazette, a particularly objectionable newspaper because its considerably greater subtlety than most gave many of its intellectual and high-intelligentsia readers the illusion that now, at last, they were getting the whole truth. In purely personal terms, however, the cleverly manipulative editor was a warm, gracious, charming spinner of connections between us. When we left our restaurant at a late hour and strolled down a nearly empty street, he put his arm in mine as if we were old friends, two small fry whose souls understood each other and had to band together in a difficult world. Russian hardshipsstarting not with the KGB but with the continental emptiness and coldmay have been what prompted most people to reach for each other when they walked in pairs or threes. The comfort of physical contact was almost always sought, and spiritual varieties often went with it.
Contrast that with the editors of the London publications for which I wrote when I returned from my Moscow trips. Those incomparably more broadly educated and honest English gentlemen wouldn't dream of taking my arm, let alone talking "deep" with me about private matters. Whenever I was living in Russia, their newspapers and magazines, on the rare occasions when I was lucky or crafty enough to obtain a copy, seemed to beam down from some higher civilization on another planet. Amid the crude warping of Soviet publications, British periodicals were a beacon of toleration for opposing views and respect for readers who would make up their own minds about difficult issues. They seemed the very voice of reason, testimony to one of the most precious human achievementsand yet, as I said, the editors themselves tended to be distant in comparison to their Russian counterparts. Maybe it was only the Russian darkness that heightened the glow of personal closeness; but there it was, making the days more endurable and, sometimes, more satisfying.
Not that my days or nights were full of only good feelings. One often felt the opposite kind of glow, a kind of black despair. Russians, with their hard lives and stunted political development, sometimes seemed ready to tear out each other's throats over minor matters. Besides, personal warmth had been shown to be no guarantee against atrocities, as in the case of Nazi killers who lavishly loved their children and pets. Still, a certain intimate toleration of weakness and eccentricity warmed the cold Soviet air, as if we were in all thisthe human conditiontogether. What weight this should be given in political and social analysis is unclear, but it did make some of daily life more attractive than in the equivalent circles in the West, despite a consciousness of the KGB presence.
A network of informants made it necessary to watch your words with people whom you couldn't utterly trust. (I learned not to introduce one Russian friend to another, since both would inevitably assume the other one must be a snitch; otherwise, why would he risk consorting with a foreigner?) The KGB watched the vast majority of the people largely in collective ways, partly through the personnel departments of factories and offices, partly by stationing officers in civilian dress on downtown streets of the major cities. It took a far keener individual interest in people with heightened profiles, including most foreigners. Special attention went to those who exhibited traitsincluding attachment to Russiathat might open them to exploitation. A middle-aged woman on a tour from England in the mid-1970s was placed in that category after she, surprisingly, set up an easel in Red Square and began painting St. Basil's cathedral. While the happy tourist wielded her affectionate brush, a charming Russian man with excellent English approached. One thing led to another (that often happened very quickly in Russia, even when not on orders), and the two soon found themselves in the woman's nearby hotel room. Soon after that, she was confronted with glossies of herself coupling with the Russian, while a less attractive colleague oozed fraudulent sympathy. He assured his weeping mark that her husband never need see the photographs if only she'd help the Russia she loved defend itself against its evil enemies. "We'd never ask you to do anything active. Just to let us know when warlike measures are being taken against us."
I suppose it was inevitable that the KGB would try to enlist me, too. I had a relatively wide circle of Russian friends and obviously liked them more openly than most visitors did; I even liked some aspects of their life, despite everything. Of course, that was also reason to mistrust me: the security cadres had a horror of Americans presuming they could move around more or less freely. Anyway, I provided the opening for the KGB's hardest recruitment effort when I foolishly called on the editor of a major magazine that had published an article about my supposed sinister anti-Soviet activities during previous visits, an article that really amounted to resentment over my knowing too many Russians and tending to talk too openly with them. Astounded at first that I had actually appeared in his office to complain about the phony "exposé," the editor regained his composure and asked for time to investigate, promising to get back to me. I was surprised when he diduntil I understood why. His call was an invitation to a lavish lunch in a good (by Soviet standards) restaurant, where he proposed we talk things out. Once at the proverbial groaning table, however, he began toasting Mir i Druzhba ("Peace and Friendship"). It wasn't long before the interest of one of my fellow diners, all of whom I'd assumed were from the magazine, became clear. Over the following years, the KGB toad kept inviting and inviting me to dinners in private rooms equipped with recording equipment that even he acknowledged during one of our last disgusting meetings. While I tried to fake my composure by choking down some food, he kept enlightening me about my moral duty to fight evil by helping expose the tricks of Mir i Druzhba's imperialist enemies.
Why didn't I tell the ugly bastard to go screw himself? Because he had something on me: my wish not to be expelled from the country and barred from returning. That predicament gave me a particle of on-the-skin insight into the behavior of many Soviet citizens when they had business with the KGBsuch as the watchdog at Maya Plisetskaya's apartment. That essentially pleasant journalist would have much preferred to have refused his assignment if he could have avoided penalties. But he had a good job, with legitimate access to foreigners, and through them a chance to acquire the English suits he fancied (which were enough to make him a personality amid the Soviet rumple). That was probably what the KGB had on him. It had something on everyone when it needed it.
How much you cooperated, how far you bent, depended on your temperament and circumstances. But no one apart from the sublimely virtuous and/or marvelously brave escaped without making some compromise. The American commentators who denounced the Soviet citizenry for bowing to that pressure had a lot in common with, or were actually the same people as, those who, with no personal knowledge of war's suffering, urged the United States to take on the Soviet Union. Distance makes knowledge of how to behave in onerous situations much easier to acquire. From the inside, no one who dealt with the Soviet dictatorship in one way or another emerged with clean hands.
Still, the kind of pressure felt by the brilliant Plisetskaya and even by targeted foreign visitors was an exception to the rule that Soviet people who represented little opportunity for intelligence gains weren't molested. It wasn't that such exceptions were rare. It can't be repeated too often that the KGB could cast its nets anywhere, choosing and plucking whom it wanted. Still, that didn't preoccupy the majority during the course of their daily lives. A sense of oppressionof the burdens of hard times and the emergency measures needed to alleviate themalways lurked in the mind; but hard times were nothing new to Russia, and they seemed to come more from the severe climate and the legacy of living on a geographical and intellectual periphery than from the KGB. A nasty beast lay out there in the ominous background, and the Committee of State Security bragged that it never slept, but you were okay if you didn't disturb it.
What did preoccupy the vast majority of Soviet peopleeven in the countryside, where they had so little to buy, sell, or swapwas finding a splash of something colorful, virtually anything, to relieve the boundless surface gloom. That yearning, on top of the shortages, shoddiness, and privations, created a huge black marketwhich generated another kind of fear, distinctly less acute but also much more pervasive.
The "second economy," as the immense aggregation of unauthorized and forbidden transactions came to be called, grew and grew in scope and importance. It necessarily prompted a huge departure from the codes of proper socialist behavior, with accompanying ridicule of the Soviet consumer economy and cynicism about the future. It also caused outright lawlessness, since most of the items for illegal sale or trade had been filched from the legitimate economy's factories, farms, warehouses, offices, trucks, and official cars (from the latter two, chiefly in the form of siphoned gasoline). By the 1960s, few people considered swiping from the state to be real stealing. After all, everyone did · itand didn't the plants, depots, railroad cars, and storage facilities belong to The People anyway?
The wheeling and dealing became so widespread that it remained underground only to the extent that it had to be kept quiet. Powerful pressure built up to violate goody-goody Communism's stultifying laws and lessons. Unless you wanted to dine on inferior macaroni or runty potatoes, a great deal of what you didwhat you had to do to escape the depressing diet and garb of the incessantly praised but eternally deprived masseswas immoral by Communist standards, if not actually criminal to one degree or another. If you fancied a more or less good chicken for Sunday dinner, you often had to resort to some form of illicit barter or bribery, or of unlawful machinations to obtain extra cash for the luxury. The daily nitty-gritty of consumer satisfaction made you tremble more than you wanted to, even if you were blessed to have an American passport in your pocket.
Still, you and your Russian friends were safe from grave retribution unless you involved yourself in something like distributing copies of dissidents' works or otherwise supporting them, most hazardously by providing "anti-Soviet slander" (read: accurate and damning information) to foreign journalists. The sprinkling of Russian idealists and misfits who fought the regime in those ways, single-handedly or in secret alliances, risked everything. Everyone else had only to be very prudent not to step over the critical line of making public any opposition to the precepts or practices decreed by the Communist rulers. And, of course, to keep careful tabs on their pets.
When the very clever parrot of a Moscow intellectual escapes through an open window one terrible day, its frenzied owner scours the city in vain, then dashes to KGB headquarters.
"But why are you reporting this?" asks a busy officer.
"Because in case the little devil shows up, I want you to know I don't share his political opinions."
The death of Moscow Zoo's beloved elephant propels its keepers to a famous biology institute. How long, they ask, will a replacement take to produce? "Two years? But that's too long, we need a new main attraction in a hurry!" Another institute's genetic engineers promise to cut the wait to two months, but that's also too long, so the keepers turn to the KGB. "Come back next week," headquarters reassures. Seven days later, the keepers are indeed there, and are led to a basement, where a whimpering rabbit is surrounded by two guards. "Just don't hit me again. Yes, I am an elephant!"
The far looser controlstill repulsive to Westerners, but no longer mad or murderousgreatly enriched the treasury of such jokes. A few brave souls had told them even under Stalin. In one, the Great Dictator commands the printing of yet another postage stamp to honor himselfand turns furious when he hears the stamps aren't sticking, despite his orders to use the best materials. An immediate investigation is ordered. A quivering commissar soon reports to his terrible boss: "Comrade Stalin, Sir, the stamps are excellent and so is the glue. It's the damn people; they're spitting on the wrong side."
But if whispered jokes were acts of reckless courage before 1953, they later sprouted much more abundantly than, say, collectivized agriculture's forever feeble crops. Hardly an hour of dinner parties in the citiesusually informal gatherings for gorging and schmoozing, often in the cramped kitchen passed without the telling of a dozen gags.
Together with the mass of anekdoti, as they're called, the disappearance of terror enabled great diversity to bloom. Naturally, the Soviet people had always been diverse, even in the grip of Stalinism. However, large numbers were too frightened to stick out in any way or to say anything faintly controversial, even to their children. If the old saying "Wise men stifle their wisecracks" ever fully applied, it was then. But with that fear largely gone, all sorts of characters emerged. Perhaps because most Russians are less conformist and inhibited than Westerners in their personal lives, as opposed to their political ones, many of those "types" seemed quintessential: more quixotically idealistic, hopelessly nerdy, old-world gracious, or crudely Rambo, as the case may be, than their counterparts elsewhere.
That aspect of the Soviet scene startled me during my first visit in 1959. My "discovery" continued during a year of graduate study at Moscow State University, which followed in the early 1960s. Why was I, a supposedly budding Soviet specialist, surprised to find such a variety of personalities in the tumble of daily life? To hear such a tangle of thoughts, dreams, passions, and complaints that had nothing whatever to do with Communism? And the steady stream of those deprecating jokes?
A local Party official questions a grizzled old-timer. "Say, brother, what will you do when Communism finally comes and you can have anything you want?"
"I'm going to get myself an airplane," comes the unhesitating reply.
"A what? What would a geezer like you do with an airplane?"
"Fly to America for some potatoes."
That kind of levity surprised me, too. My academic training, long on the ins and outs of the Communist system and much too short on the human dimension, had done little to dispel the pervading American image of Russians as robotlike drudges dedicated to achieving higher output at their lathes in order to fulfill the Five-Year Plan for the Motherland. Among the Russians I knew, the truth gradually struck me as being nearly the opposite.
By the 1970s, the majority came closer to goof-offs than heroes of socialist labor. Getting the job done for its own sake, as opposed to fulfilling some personal call if and when it came, was relatively rare. When you came to think of it, why would Russians need so many rules and restrictions if they had a normal (in Westerners' measurement) store of self-discipline? Without an internal drive to achieve, as opposed to half-heartedly meeting targets set by the state, most Russians did what they could to goldbrick and duck away to their private interests. An eye-opening number were willing to drop everything for a day of feasting, fishing, or picking mushrooms. In short, the attitude toward the job was usually cavalier, if not derisive. And nothing could have been more wrong than puritan America's conviction that the Soviet Union was much more puritan because all those robots weren't interested in anything except further beefing up their state's poweror, if they were interested, were too regimented to do much about it, à la George Orwell's 1984.
Vanya's not working in the fields but lolling in the hay loft while Manya, the buxom milkmaid, is sneaking milk from their collective farm's best cow.
"Hey, Manya, come on up here."
"No I won't. I know what you want."
"But why not? We'll have a good time, you and me."
"Fresh, I said no."
"But Manichka, we'll ..."
"Stop," she sighs, now climbing the ladder. "You talked me into it, you bastard."
Russians liked that story for reflecting the truth about the general ease and quickness of sexual relations that lay beneath the propaganda and required chastity in public. But aren't I exaggerating the looseness of personal conduct? Wasn't I mistaken about the variety of types? What about the seas of glum faces that washed the proletarian cities? What about the awful Soviet artificiality at diplomatic and other official meetings? Yes, Russians were often stiffer than plywood, and miserably tedious too, in formal situations. Nearly all donned their public facades of rigid political correctness together with their Sunday best. Besides, they could indeed appear forbiddingly colorless and conformist in crowds, especially when they plodded through the slush in their setting of such urban monotony that one craved some decadent neon. But when you got to know a member of those "faceless masses," he or she was likely to seem larger than life, and more spontaneous in personal behavior than their Western counterparts.
The bleached-blonde hussy in the Moscow restaurant seemed the very picture of her type. So did the studious young physicist, the go-getting young Communist, and the rabid soccer fan. Some K.G.B. underlings, like the bastard assigned to me, leered and barked like thugsand turned even more menacing when they tried to pass themselves off as your good friends, concerned only to advance your best interests. Other officers were highly intelligent and relatively well informed about the world through their access to otherwise banned information. Some, like their predecessors in the tsarist secret police, wanted to diminish dissent by easing restrictions.
If you had too little time to meet such types and appreciate their dissimilitude, an hour in a People's Court would have given you an idea of the variety of characters, in both senses. Communism claimed to eliminate all basic conflicts, but one courtroom is hearing a dispute between two former friends accusing each other of plagiarism. Across the corridor, a gynecologist is being tried for allegedly taking lewd advantage of his female patients; farther down, couples are being divorced, most with hardly a frown. (The real trauma will come during separate procedures for dividing their shriveled allotments of living space, often by dropping a curtain between them in the sorry rooms where they must remain.) In another courtroom, an obviously needy worker in a wheelchair is claiming compensation from his factory, represented by three of Soviet society's fat cats: relatively well suited managers and lawyers. And on the second floor, siblings are angrily suing each other about their inheritance from a recently deceased public figurea Communist Party elder, no less. (Inheritance taxes were very low.) The conflicts in claims, outlooks, stories, schemes, and temperaments represent almost the full span of human personalities and interests.
During those later Cold War decades, Soviet military prowess was greater than before, even without the mighty exaggerations by the CIA and other interested parties including, of course, the Kremlin itself. Partly because of that, partly because the overwhelming portrayal of Russians was woefully one-dimensional, America's fear hardly declined. At each return from a visit to Moscow, even those during which I'd run up against some of the ugliest aspects of Soviet rule, I wondered whether a touch of paranoia wasn't also affecting us good guys. (I didn't know then that we stored no less than twelve thousand nuclear weapons in twenty-three foreign countries and five American territories, a fact just revealed in declassified Pentagon documents.) My point, at the risk of laboring it, is that Russia after 1953 was a very different country internally than it had been under Stalin: far more diversified, often messy and chaotic.
That was true even though, or perhaps just because, it had become highly conservative politically. The Motherland of Socialism was now as revolutionary as a papal state. It tolerated nothing remotely radical except for its propaganda slogans, of which most people became so weary that they didn't hear the ceaseless noise pumped into their ears or see the ocean of ritualized huzzahs for the Communist Party waved before their eyes. Especially after 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev revealed some of Stalin's crimes, Natasha and Ivan wanted no more upheavals. What they did want was a piece of the action by such all-but-universal means as pilfering from their factories, cheating on their sick days, doing some (illegal) trading on the side. Yes, and to conceive any excuse at all for an extravagant celebration"extravagant" in terms of their depressed incomethat would dispel the daily dreariness. And, when the vodka had begun to do its work, to fantasize. If you were a member of the Moscow intelligentsia, your dream might be of somehow spending a day in Paris before you died.
Our own myths about the Soviet Union, especially our sloganeering reaction to what we saw as the "global Communist threat," was also touched with fantasy, if not the dreamy kind. Now that the myths have lost their monopoly on our thoughts, it's time to look back with fresh eyes at the former "Motherland of Mess," as the nation was also quietly called. For it's now possible to reassess the Soviet Union in a less stereotyped, more personal/biographical way that recognizes the country's complexity. If not for most Americans' protracted failure to recognize that Russians were individuals even as Soviet citizens, I'd apologize for the commonplace that not to think of them as such to lump them together as enemiesinevitably distorts.
Just after I'd written the above, George Kennan made a more cogent call for understanding how the actors in any historical drama perceived the facts. For that, argued the dean of American Russian specialists, the writer himself must enter the picture
because he has to ask himself ... how these historical personages were motivated. What was their own vision of what they were doing and why they were doing it?
To explain people of other societies and ages, history's how as well as its what, historians must reveal something about themselves as well as their subjects. It is more than just an account of what happened in the past; it's an account of how, transposed into a different age with all the different environmental circumstances, we ourselves might have reacted.
The Cold War left little time or inclination for that. Looking back, distortion can be seen as among its richest achievements. Both Americans and Russians, deeply religious by nature despite all secularization, were powerfully inclined to regard the other side as evil. We were that to Russians because they saw the United States as the citadel of the cruel, exploiting capitalism that stood in the way of history's advance toward a better, fairer life for everyone. Russians were that to us because we, in our conviction of our God-given goodness, considered (and still consider) our adversaries evil almost by definition, all the more so after just having fought World War II's genuinely diabolical enemies of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan. Thus our thinking about the foe, or lack of thinking, turned our sound policy of containing Communism into a crusade for abolishing it. It didn't always make somber Russians all evil, but generally made them unworthy of much attention as people.
Of course, truly evil Soviet officials weren't hard to find, especially because power-loving nastiness gravitated toward the commanding positions in the Party and the state apparats, most of all the agencies that executed the repression. But how total was their totalitarianism during the final decades? Might it have been reformed? If so, might that have been better than wanting the whole creepy structure torn down? What of the vast majority of nonapparat peoplethose devoted first of all to their professions rather than state interestswho conceived (in both senses), nourished, strove, toiled, fiddled, loved, persevered, and sometimes succeeded? Trying to make sense of any given aspect of Cold War Russia, partly by contemplating the motives and abilities of the participant-protagonists; one remembers the old saw "There's no history, only biography." Other people in the same endeavors, even outward doubles in their education, ideology, and goals, would have reached distinctly different results. The four subjects to be examined on the following pages show strong evidence of that, most clearly in the remarkable Soviet space program, surveyed in Chapter IV, "The Secret Soviet Moon Mission."
It was true that the Communist Party played the "guiding role" in space and every other public activity. (So stipulated the Soviet Constitution, but the actual practice was closer to "control.") Not even a hiking club could be formed without its approval and supervision. But Party membership, even at top levels, did not end diversity of views, desires, and intentions. The Party that most of the West viewed as a monolithic abstraction could speak and act only through its members in every sphere of endeavor; and every member differedsome drastically, as we'll see. Powerful men, all supremely resolved to reap power and glory for the Soviet Union, clashed mightily about the means, and when and how to employ them. Even former labor camp prisoners quarreled although their ordeal would have seemed to make them think alike. That, really, is the message here. If there's a key to re-creating Russia's "feel" during its final Soviet decades, it lies in illuminating the contrasts and conflicts of a much more complex society than was generally understood. The onerous state controls probably narrowed those contrasts and conflicts from what they'd have been in a nondictatorship. On the other hand, they also widened the variety of the tangle and disarray, since vast amounts of time and energy went to devising ingenious dodges from the restrictions. The wags liked to say that if there were no damn systemthe kind you had to circumvent in order to accomplish virtually anythingRussians would have had to invent one.
In any case, the duped, duping, groaning, gopaking, fatalistic-but-believing Soviet people of the second Cold War period bore only outward resemblance to the way they were perceived in America. The popular image of supinely obedient, utterly dedicated captives of totalitarianism was 100 percent correctbut only, to make a seat-of-the-pants estimate, 6 or 7 percent of the time.
To return to Churchill, his famous description of Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" also smacked of myth, despite its nice turn of phrase. Prolonged residence in Soviet Russia showed the country was mysterious chiefly because so little was known about it. When that was remedied slightly, the puzzles seemed to derive less from riddles and enigmas than simply from being different from the West.
The differences were large enough to invalidate some American reporting about the Soviet Union. (Correspondents who were getting around a bit more during the 1960s in search of stories that would click with their readers reasoned that Russian youths really wanted capitalism at heart because they loved jeans and jazz.) They were large enough so that no interpretations by a foreigner should be taken as received wisdommy own included, especially since I was so restricted to the major cities and spent so much time among my counterparts in the intelligentsia.
This is the place for a cautionary reminder of that. In the 1960s, most Russians believed the Soviet economy would indeed "catch up to and surpass" America's, just as the Kremlin cockily promised. Many American economists were also grimly convinced of the same, citing central planning as the critical Soviet advantage. The prioritizing and control enabled state targets to be set and met, particularly the steadfast channeling of relatively huge investment to heavy industry and other powerful engines of economic growth rather than to "frivolously" nonproductive consumer goods. That would soon enable the crucial Soviet steel industry, for example, to exceed the output of our own, making the general overtaking appear even more inevitable.
But the Soviet economy began stagnating in the 1970s. Then the birth of the computer and of the global market demolished the predictions of its forthcoming triumph. When the new technologies wafted us to the postindustrial "knowledge" age, the very same central planning and control proved to be the Soviet economy's undoing, for the measure of strength shifted from tons of steel and cement poured to the usable, salable items fashioned from those primary materialsand, above all, to quick, innovative thinking. Now the greatest economic assets were flexibility, unfettered creativity, and rapid response to market turnseverything a command economy was designed to squelch. While most of the West and much of Asia raced toward the future on spaceships of individual ingenuity, the Soviet economy became a dinosaur mired in an earlier era's premises and meaningless production targets.
Our old, erroneous prediction of ultimate Soviet domination demonstrate the sometime feebleness of foreigners' interpretations. On the other hand, we now know much more than we did about the real "Soviet reality," as opposed to the fictions about it served up by Party propagandists and their free-world antagonists. It's worth repeating that the secrets are being exposed, partly by the PBS television series from which this book developed. (The series itself the result of Abamedia's Archive Media Project, established for exploring the Russian Republic's vast collection of films and photographs, one of the world richest treasuries.) Recent revelations from Soviet archives are providing better answers to many long-debated questions.
Another reason for looking back is the perspective provided by Russia's experience after Communism. Our far smaller emotional involvement with the new state makes it easier to contemplate the old one with less slant. So does the absence of fear (except fear that Russia's deteriorating nuclear weapon will fall into radical or criminal hands). Now is a better time to judge, for example, whether the Soviet victories examined in this book, which the anxious West saw as its own defeats, weren't really the opposite in the long run.
It's also a better time to ask whether the boundless suffering under Communism, symbolized by grisly interrogations of innocent prisoners, was all in vainand not only the suffering but also the visions of a higher social good that drove the huge striving to build a finer society for the benefit of all humanity Was it all really for nothing? The torture, shootings, hideous prison nights gruesome decades in labor camps? The "free" majority's daily sacrificesand as we'll see, heroic laborsfor reaching a better new world? To conclude that gigantic effort achieved nothing positive at all would go against the grain of American optimism; but despite many similarities to us in other respects, Russians differ in that one. Fundamentally pessimistic, they believe at bottom that life is essentially hard and tragic, thus the poetic references to fate being downward. That's why a Russian's "Oh God, why was I born?" doesn't necessarily suggest a personal tragedy, since that's often the perception of life in general, when lots of Slavic woe is inhaled with the oxygen. It helps explain the frantic toil to build the utopia. The poet Boris Pasternak, best known to Westerners for his persecution after his book Doctor Zhivago was published abroad in 1957, once asked the West why it so hated the Soviet Union. The Russians, said the victim of Politburo revenge, are only trying to put into practice the precepts of Western Christianity, such as justice and fairness for all.
Such notions may mystify outsiders, who were convinced they were fighting Soviet aggression, not Christian ideals. Still, to omit them would be to make reflections about Russia during the given period much too shallow. As for what to cut from our own heat-of-the-struggle view, the list is probably topped by attribution to Communism of almost all Russia's political, social, and economic failings under Soviet rulea concept that the country's post-Communist troubles, some of which are even worse, should be laying to rest.
So although no interpretation will ever be final, new ones are needed based on amendments of our previous knowledge by the most recent revelations. Maybe they will provide durable insight on the following excursions into the four important aspects of Cold War Russia, even knowing how many exceptions there were to everything among its large population. The system's failings are fairly well known. Less so are the attitudes of exceptional and "ordinary" Russians, the latter represented by Ivan Ivanovich: John Doe.
Question by Ivan Ivanovich: Can Communism be built in America too? Radio Armenia [an imaginary entity about which a little more is revealed in Chapter V, "Soviet Propaganda"]: Without doubt it can. But what did Americans ever do to you personally?"
Such gripes notwithstanding, however, the Ivans had a reservoir of faith in the idea that Communism put them on the right side of history and justice. Therefore, it would seem more useful at this calmer point to seek the sources of their conviction in the Russian national character, especially its view of the outside world, than in the ubiquitous Soviet propaganda that didn't always work. During each of my visits over the course of twenty-nine yearsfrom 1959 to 1988, after which my son's perceptive reports of his visits kept me informednative behavior struck me as ever more Russian and less Soviet, or to say that more precisely, the explanations for that behavior more and more seemed to lie in national attitudes and habits acquired before 1917. The disappearance of everything outwardly Soviet from the face of the earth is another reason for taking a fresh look at how accurate or mistaken earlier impressions were. The victors who write the history have a special obligation to think carefully.
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