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Andrei Amalrik and "1984"


Russian Review,

Vol. 30, No.4. (Oct., 1971), pp. 335-345.

John Keep

To the Western public the thirty-three-year-old historian Andrei Alexeievich Amalrik is today one of the best known figures in Russia's "Democratic Movement," which in recent years has succeeded in uniting a number of Soviet citizens in defense of intellectual freedom and basic human rights against neo-Stalinist pressures. Although his works have yet to be published in full, it is worth attempting here a provisional assessment of his career to date and his contribution to contemporary Russian political literature. 1

An American journalist in Moscow, who became well acquainted with Amalrik and his wife during the late 1960s, describes his friend as "slight and frail, hollow under the cheekbones and ribs, nearsighted . . . [with] the coolest political mind I encountered in Russia."2 He also suffers from a weak heart. This disability lends a particular poignancy to his present plight, for one cannot but wonder whether his physical constitution, already strained by two years of exile, can withstand the severe sentence of three years' hard labor imposed upon him in November 1970.

Andrei Amalrik has not yet been allowed to pursue his career as an academic historian, one for which he is all too well fitted by intellect, experience and background. His family, he tells us, is partly of French origin. There may be a streak of proverbial Provincial obstinacy in the dogged resistance he has put up over the years to official harassment and persecution. A great-great-grandfather came to Russia in the mid-nineteenth century to start up in business.3 Many of his descendants seem to have been men of unusually strong character. When the revolution broke, Andrei's father, then a young man, volunteered for the Red army and subsequently went into the film industry. World War II found him back in uniform, serving in the Northern Fleet. An incautious word about Stalin's qualities as a military leader led to his arrest and imprisonment; he feared for his life, but shortly afterwards was released to rejoin the army. In 1944 he was wounded and invalided out of the service. He developed a serious heart condition which required constant nursing. This care was provided first by his wife, and on her death from cancer in 1959 by his son Andrei-until the latter's arrest prevented him from ministering to his father's needs. Partly as a result of this deprivation, he died.

Family tragedies of this sort are far from unusual in Soviet Russia; if one mentions these facts here, it is because they help to explain Andrei Amalrik's deep revulsion at the inhumanity of Stalinism and at the present efforts to revive it. They also explain his decision to become a historian. For his father, after climbing the educational ladder by his own dogged efforts, was after the war refused permission to study at the Academy of Sciences' Institute of History on account of his "compromised" political past. Andrei has gone one better by not only writing history but by securing a place in it.

In his master's thesis, on the origins of the Russian state, he aroused the authorities' ire by taking a position which they regarded as too "pro-Normanist." By the curious logic of Soviet historiography this question is still considered a political one, even though the events concerned took place more than a thousand years ago. Amalrik refused to modify his views and was expelled from the university. He earned his living by undertaking various semi-skilled jobs, while continuing to care for his ailing father. He also wrote five plays. These have yet to be published, but their titles (among them "Is My Uncle Jack a Conformist?") suggest that they may one day provide theatergoers with some amusing fare.

It was these plays, together with an interest in modern non-representational art, that led to Amalrik's first arrest in May 1965. A charge of spreading pornography failed to stick because the "expert witnesses" called by the prosecution refused to give the testimony required of them. (The new post-Khrushchev regime was at this time still getting its feet on the ground.) However, the guardians of ideological orthodoxy soon discovered another means to achieve their purpose. Amalrik was accused of "parasitism," and on the flimsiest of evidence was sentenced by an administrative tribunal to banishment in western Siberia for a two-and-a-half-year term.

In his book, Involuntary Journey to Siberia, he gives a fascinating insight into the quasi-judicial methods employed against dissidents in the USSR. These were relatively mild by today's standards and sometimes allowed defendants to exploit rivalries between different institutions and the half-hearted desire of some Soviet authorities to maintain the fictions of "socialist legality." After a conversation with Amalrik, Judge Chigrinov told a police officer "that the accused was a tricky fellow who wrote all kinds of appeals, and so they had better do everything according to the rules." However, this did not prevent him trying to deny the defendant the right to call a witness in his defence, or from conferring by telephone with a KGB official before passing sentence. One well-disposed police captain admitted privately that "it was all a farce, since the verdict had been decided beforehand." Amalrik comments mildly, but truthfully, that such contempt for due legal process cannot but lead to miscarriage of justice, and adds that it does not even have the desired "educational" effect, since the people feel intimidated and distrust the courts:

As long as we live in a State that violates its own laws, nobody, from the rulers of the country down to unregistered attic-dwellers, will have any sense of responsibility for their actions or feel assured of their personal safety.4
This insistence on the need to ensure observance of legal rights is proof of the political maturity and high civic sense shown by members of the "Democratic Movement."
Involuntary Journey is also memorable for the fresh and convincing picture it gives of life today in the depths of rural Siberia. Recent agricultural reforms may have raised peasant incomes slightly since the mid-1960s, but one doubts whether they will have had any substantial effect upon the general moral climate in the countryside. Lack of incentive to make improvements, coupled with traditional inertia, make for appalling inefficiency, even on the farmers' own plots.

They [the peasants] haven't the slightest idea of how much an egg, a quart of milk, or a pound of pork costs them to produce. Since they don't pay money for them, they have the illusion of getting them for nothing. They put the value of their own work just as low as does the kolkhoz or the State."

Like the slaves of antiquity, the peasants are discontented with their hard life but unable to visualize any alternative. Collectivization has made them lose their sense of self-respect and fortified their egalitarian instincts. At Krivosheino (near Tomsk) even the village teacher was unpopular, "not because he was a bad teacher or a bad man, but because he was outside the system of compulsion within which they themselves were confined."6 Outsiders are viewed with suspicion; crime and immorality are rampant; only a few have any regard for common human decencies.

Amalrik relates his grim experiences without rancor or self-pity, and shows an astonishing capacity to sympathize with everyone-even the local policeman or farm chairman-for he sees them, too, as victims of the system, only marginally better off than those they govern. In this sick society, poisoned by fear and envy, the weak can survive only by deceiving the strong; both deserve our pity and goodwill. Like the classical practitioners of social realism, Amalrik spices his depressing subject matter with a rich vein of humor. There is an echo of Gogol or Saltykov-Shchedrin in his gentle satire of self-important petty Soviet officialdom.

When Amalrik tried to get his marriage formally registered, he encountered one obstacle after another. His account of his adventures ends as follows:

All we needed now was witnesses. The local schoolmistress, who just happened to come into the village soviet at that moment, agreed to sign as witness for my wife, and the chairman of the soviet, a talkative old man of about sixty, agreed to sign for me. After this he went out into the next room, changed the expression on his face, and returned in his capacity as a representative of Authority. Congratulating us in pompous language, he handed me the marriage certificate. This was the last official act in which he was to take part; a few days later he was fired for embezzlement.

That evening we returned home to be greeted by the squalling of our famished cat. With the fifty kopecks left over from our advance, we had bought same sugar in Novokrisheino and for the first time in many days drank our tea sweet. This was how we celebrated our wedding.7

Thanks to the tireless efforts of his lawyer, Amalrik was released from exile before expiry of his term. He managed to return to Moscow, but was prevented from obtaining a job worthy of his talents and kept under police surveillance. Despite the precariousness of his position he continued to stand up boldly for his rights. From time to time he would meet his friends, among them some foreigners, to chat about cultural topics. Such activity, as he pointed out, was quite permissible under Soviet law, and those who forgot this put themselves in the wrong. He grew critical of certain Westerners who, out of a misplaced desire to safeguard their status as accredited correspondents, tried to appease the authorities by limiting their contacts with Russians, and so compromised their professional integrity.

After the invasion of Czechoslovakia the pressure on Russia's intellectuals was stepped up. Amalrik's apartment was twice searched, in May 1969 and February 1970, and it became clear that the police were preparing a new "case" against him. It was presumably this situation that led him to air his views by the samizdat method, which he had not previously needed to d,o-a characteristic instance of the regime provoking, by its obtuseness, an act of defiance which it could otherwise have averted.

Amalrik remained at liberty for some months after certain other prominent dissidents had been taken into custody. This fact, together with some mild criticism on his part of Anatoly Kuznetsov for defecting instead of staying to defend his views at home, led to an unfortunate misunderstanding. Some sensation-hungry Western commentators suggested that he had entered into a bargain with the KGB.8 There is no evidence whatsoever to support such an allegation, which has since been tragically disproved by Amalrik's arrest (on May 21, 1970) and subsequent trial. The authorities chose to stage the proceedings in Sverdlovsk, ostensibly on the grounds that persons in this area had been discovered reading Amalrik's works (as though this ipso facto inculpated the author in spreading defamatory material). The real purpose was doubtless to limit the opportunity for the defense to call witnesses, and to avoid possible public demonstrations of support. This plan did not entirely succeed. Sixty-four French historians signed a petition to Academician Keldysh requesting him to intervene on behalf of their professional colleague. Several Soviet intellectuals asked the United Nations to take the matter up with the Soviet government and to secure Amalrik's liberation since, as they said, he was clearly being victimized for the views expressed in his essay, "Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984?", which in the meantime had been published in the West.

This now-famous essay was written in spasms of activity between April and June 1969, at a time when the author must have been living under extreme psychological tension. This explains the rather clumsy style and the large number of footnotes containing what seem to be afterthoughts. As another dissident, Peter Yakir, has noted, this piece belongs to the genre of "loose musings" (svohodnye razmyshleniia). It should not be judged as a finished product, or in isolation from Amalrik's other writings. To the Western academic the reasoning may sometimes seem naive. But the work's value lies precisely in the fact that its author is unfamiliar with the discipline of sovietology, and has arrived at his views independently, on the basis of his knowledge of Russia's history and his experience of its present reality. As he puts it neatly, "it offers the same interest as a fish would for ichthyologists if it all of a sudden began to talk."9

In the first section of his essay Amalrik discusses the "Democratic Movement" and assesses its chances of success. He is perhaps a little too ready to attach labels to various schools among the intellectual dissenters, whose views, as he admits, are "distinctly amorphous" and confused. The diagram he draws to illustrate the wide range of "ideologies" (reformist, true Leninist, Christian, neo-Slavophil, etc.) which currently coexist among them may strike some observers as overambitious. There is more to be said for an attempt to classify people according to their social affiliation; but in this case former camp inmates or their relatives might deserve to rate as a separate category, along with writers and engineers.

Amalrik's pessimistic conclusion that the movement is "internally too beset by contradictions . . . ever to be able to engage in a real face-to-face struggle with the regime"10 is open to the objection that the variety of opinions expressed by Soviet dissenters is a source of strength rather than weakness: after all, in present circumstances it is not a question of forming some disciplined clandestine organization, and the fragmentation among the regime's opponents is a natural antidote to "monolithic unity" at the top. Indeed, one of the most impressive features of the samizdat periodical Chronicle of Current Events is its comprehensiveness: it includes information about persons of every shade of belief, Marxist and non-Marxist, Russian and non-Russian, political and non-political. There is no trace of the self-righteousness and partisan bickering that disfigured the Russian opposition movement before 1917; on the contrary, we find a mature awareness that the time has passed when simple solutions could be propounded for complex problems, and that there is value in each individual's effort to find an answer to the predicaments of our civilization.

Amalrik is doubtlessly justified, however, in noting the limited social basis of the opposition, which is almost wholly an intelligentsia phenomenon. The broad masses of the Soviet population can only rise to "passive discontent . . . directed not against the regime as a whole . . . but against particular features" of it. They have no appreciation of freedom in the Western sense: "[they] feel respect for force, authority, or even, ultimately, for intelligence or education, but that human personality of itself should represent any kind of value-this is a preposterous idea in the popular mind."l1 Their desire for social justice is stronger, but it means little more than destructive levelling. Here Amalrik is clearly thinking of the villagers in Krivosheino. A harsh judgment, to be sure, but not an unfair one.

Also acceptable is his low estimate of the political potential of those whom he calls the "middle class" or the "specialists" -men with some degree of education, employed in administrative or managerial positions. He argues that whereas in normal conditions such persons might provide a social basis for democracy, in the Soviet Union they tend to adapt themselves to the behavior pattern and mode of thinking typical of the bureaucratic elite.

In our country, since all of us work for the State, we all have the psychology of officials-writers who are members of the Writers' Union, academics employed in government establishments, workers or collective farmers-just as much as KGB or MVD officials. . . . Many members of [the middle] class also are simply functionaries of the Party and government machine and they look upon the regime as a lesser evil by comparison with the painful process of changing it.14

Amalrik's principal purpose is to expose the complacency of those, in Russia or abroad, who, perhaps under the influence of a vulgarized Marxism, expect the managerial elite to bring about a radical change in the country's political structure, as a simple consequence of its numerical growth, the spread of higher education, the demands of technological efficiency, and the like. He would probably agree with the view that where a society is molded by its political institutions, these acquire tremendous staying power and may even succeed in perpetuating themselves out of sheer inertia until such time as they are subjected to severe external shock; only if that happens can suppressed social and political forces assert themselves and move the system toward greater pluralism.

As a general thesis, this seems entirely reasonable. One could, however, refine it a little by making three fairly elementary points. First, it is worthwhile distinguishing between short and long-term threats to internal stability, the former being more easily parried than the latter. The analyst must then ask himself "How long is long-term?", "Does the year 1984 lie on this or that side of the point in time when elite groups may be expected to question seriously the rationality of the regime's mass-mobilization policies?" Second, within this elite one may distinguish between major interest groups or "constituencies" (military, scientific, managerial, etc.), each with its own perspective on affairs, which in the event of a serious crisis might lead them to adopt policies at variance with those of the supreme political leadership. Third, it is possible that internal fissions within the Party, if they should acquire the character of continuous factionalism, might playa decisive role in triggering off such a crisis. Though Soviet dissidents for understandable reasons take little interest in questions of "dynasties," it would be rash to underestimate their importance.

In the third section of his essay Amalrik turns to the international scene. This is the least convincing part of his disquisition, as his friendly critic Yakir has noted.13 One may add that it is too precise in a sphere where predictions are notoriously fallible. It is hard enough to hypothesize meaningfully about the evolution of a single country, where the number of variables is relatively limited; to do so for several Powers-and for more than a decade ahead-is to trespass upon very shaky ground.

Are we then to dismiss as worthless Amalrik's exercise in international futurology, with its apocalyptic and almost exultant vision of an armed clash between the USSR and communist China? He sees this as providing the external stimulus necessary to unleash domestic change, just as the Russo-Japanese war cracked the autocracy in 19056. His words should not be read as prophecy (indeed, he is careful to say that such an outcome is only one of several possibilities). Rather it is a desperate appeal for understanding in the West, above all in the United States, for the plight of the opposition in the Soviet Union. He would have the democracies base their policy toward that country not simply upon a short-term view of their own political and strategic interests, but on a deep concern for the security and well-being of the Soviet peoples, whose aspirations are at such variance with those of their government. The Western world should at least do nothing to improve the standing of the Soviet dictatorship in the eyes of its subjects; it should rather try to promote such conditions as would best facilitate internal changes.

Amalrik has no particular love for the Western powers: he has on occasion suffered from ill-considered actions by their diplomatic and journalistic representatives. In his essay he extends his criticism to the governments behind them, rebuking the United States for «encouraging communism in places where the people did not want it [i.e., in Europe] and combating it in countries where the people wanted it [i.e.,in Asia]."14 Washington is urged to mend its fences with Peking, for the Chinese allegedly represent a lesser threat to American interests than the Soviets, and to ensure that the former direct their expansionist pressure against their northern neighbor instead of towards the south.

It is easy to foresee the practical arguments that might be made against such geopolitical scheming by sober-minded Western politicians, conscious of the weighty considerations that inevitably underlie policy-making in a democratic country, and there is no reason to assume that Amalrik's gratuitous advice will be taken seriously in such quarters. Nevertheless he has raised an important issue which merits more discussion than it usually receives: What can and should be done by Western agencies, official and unofficial, to promote domestic change in the USSR, without upsetting the delicate international balance on which world peace depends? Obviously, direct diplomatic intervention on behalf of Soviet dissidents would be unwelcome to them and counter-productive. At the other extreme, if the Western powers remain indifferent to gross Soviet breaches of the Human Rights Charter (e.g., forcing dissidents to undergo sophisticated mental torture by secret policemen disguised as psychiatrists), while simultaneously protesting against crimes of lesser magnitude by other governments more amenable to international pressure, they will lay themselves open to the charge of observing dual standards. There is a wide intermediate area between these alternatives. A valuable role can be played behind the scenes by international non-political agencies which enjoy good standing on both sides. At least one Soviet dissident has received assistance through such channels. Is it too fanciful to suggest that, in an age when it is thought quite respectable to exchange convicted spies, governments might exchange innocent dissidents? Failing that, could agreements be made to alleviate their conditions of detention, or for them to be held by a neutral third party?

The Orwellian date in the title of Amalrik's essay has no precise significance, as he has made clear. His aim is to warn us that nothing is permanent in the life of nations, that we should be prepared for any eventuality, and not rely on facile assumptions about a supposedly inevitable "liberalization from above" in the USSR. For all its faults and it is admittedly more of a political tract than an academic analysis -this essay contains the most perceptive dissection of contemporary Soviet society to have come from the pen of any indigenous writer. This is said without any disrespect for the scientists A. D. Sakharov and Zh. Medvedev, whose approach is more moderate and reformist, or for other members of the "Democratic Movement" whose works still lie hidden in their desks.

It is a melancholy thought that Andrei Amalrik should be penalized in so barbaric a manner for ventilating ideas which would not be construed as subversive by a court of law in any free country. Hopes for his safe release, and the future of civil rights in the USSR, will be fortified by the courageous words with which his colleague, Peter Yakir, ended his broadcast appeal to Western audiences last July:

We're all being arrested-those who've taken part in the Democratic Movement. But that's not the point. . . . There's no going back. If we're not here, there'll be others. . . . They beat us and they kill us, but all the same people will go on thinking differently.15
1 Amalrik's essay "Will the USSR Survive until 1984?" has been published in English in Survey (London), no. 73, (autumn 1969), pp. 47-79, and in book form with a commentary by Sidney Monas: Harper & Row, New York, 1970; references here are to the former f)dition. His book Involuntary Journey to Siberia, translated by Manya Harari and Max Hayward, with an introduction by Max Hayward, was published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich Inc., New York, 1970. Amalrik's other essays have been published in Posev (Frankfurt); for details, see spetsialnyi vypusk V, November 1970, pp. 4-5. For the text of his interview with Mr. William CoIf) of the Columbia Broadcasting System, broadcast (with interviews with Peter Yakir and Vladimir Bukovsky) on July 28, 1970, see Survey, no. 77, (autumn 1970), pp. 128-36.

2 Anatole Shub, The New Russian Tragedy, New York, 1969, p. 38.

3 For the following, see Involuntary Journey. . . , pp. 196ff. A. Shub (lac. cit.), with journalistic license, makes this ancestor a member of Napoleon's Grande Armee.

4 Involuntary Journey . . . , p. 99.

5 Ibid., p. 168.

6 Ibid., p. 172.

7 Ibid., pp. 236-7.

8 Del' Spiegel (Hamburg), no. 12, March 16, 1970, p. 151. Recently a Mr. D. A. N.
Jones has asserted that Amalrik's book is a 'hoax' concocted with the assistance of the KGB and has made serious charges against his integrity to which the author is in no position to reply; these have, however, been disposed of by Mr. T. Szamuely. See The Spectator (London, November 28, 1970), pp. 678-9, and correspondence on pp. 843, ( 1971) pp. 50, 93, 134.

9 "Will the USSR Survive until 1984?," p. 48.

10 Ibid., p. 61.

11 Ibid., p. 62.

12 Ibid., p. 55.

13 P. Yakir, "An Open Letter to Amalrik," Surveu, no. 74/5, (Winter-Spring 1970), pp. 110-11.

14 "Will the USSR Survive until 1984?," p. 73.

15 Survey, no. 77, (Autumn 1970), p. 139.
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