What do you know about Chekhov?

Keith Kyle

  • Aquarium by Viktor Suvorov, translated by David Floyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 249 pp, £10.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 241 11545 0
  • Breaking with Moscow by Arkady Shevchenko
    Cape, 278 pp, £9.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 224 02804 9
  • Rethinking the Soviet Experience: Politics and History since 1917 by Stephen Cohen
    Oxford, 222 pp, £15.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 19 503468 6
  • Rise and Fall by Milovan Djilas
    Macmillan, 424 pp, £14.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 333 39791 6
  • Tito’s Flawed Legacy: Yugoslavia and the West 1939-1984 by Nora Beloff
    Gollancz, 287 pp, £12.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 575 03668 0

‘If my assessment of what is going on is correct, then you will have to go through very serious examinations. If you wish to pass them you must always be yourself. There is something crooked, something faulty about you. Don’t try to conceal it.’

‘I am not going to conceal it.’

‘And be good and kind. Always be good. All your life. Promise me?’

‘I promise.’

‘If you have to kill a man, be kind! Smile at him before you kill him.’

This, according to the pseudonymous author of Aquarium, is how a newly-promoted Soviet general, with his own clientage to create, recruits a young protégé to Soviet military intelligence. GRU, the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Soviet General Staff, is an entirely different matter from the KGB, the secret police whose presence in the Soviet Union is ubiquitous and which would-be recruits can apply to join. The GRU, Viktor Suvorov’ points out, chooses you. That is not to say that the two organisations do not frequently come in contact with each other. For example, both are heavily represented on the staff of the Soviet embassies abroad; Arkady Shevchenko, a former head of the political section of Russia’s permanent mission at the UN, remarks with some bitterness that between them they took up 21 of the 28 jobs in his section; later, when he was UN Under-Secretary-General, he was required to hire nine Soviet and four more East European spies for the UN staff. GRU recruits still in training find themselves pitted in uncomfortably realistic exercises against the resources of the KGB. They are told that the level of betrayal in the GRU is much lower than in the KGB and are then shown a film of a live GRU traitor being fed feet first into a crematorium which is to be found in the complex of buildings called the Aquarium that form the GRU’s headquarters. The recruit is then given a minute for reflection (Suvorov said he didn’t need a minute but was told that the book said he must have one). This follows a week’s torture by intelligence test – 50 questions an hour, 17 hours a day for six days. Suvorov gives a few samples of these exchanges. ‘What do you know about Chekhov?’ ‘He was a well-known sniper in the 138th rifle division of the 62nd Army.’ ‘Do you know Dostoevsky?’ ‘Nikolai Gerasimovich Dostoevsky is a major-general chief of staff of the 3rd Shock Army.’ After surviving all this he is received into the nomenklatura of the Central Committee. ‘From today,’ he is told, ‘you are no longer subject to control by the KGB. From today the KGB has no right to put questions to you ... or to undertake any action against you.’

The nomenklatura is the privileged caste created by Communist societies. ‘Suvorov’, Shevchenko and Djilas all belonged to it – indeed its existence was first exposed to the world by the publication of Djilas’s New Class in 1956. The fullest account of the phenomenon in the Soviet Union is contained in Michael Voslensky’s Nomenklatura (1984). This shows how the privileged – by rank and, increasingly, by birth – are sealed off from the many intractable problems of everyday Soviet life, which, Stephen Cohen maintains in his interesting volume of essays, put one in mind of a Third World state rather than a modern super-power. ‘My father lives in the skies,’ Gromyko’s daughter once told Shevchenko. ‘For twenty-five years he has not set foot on the streets of Moscow. All he sees is the view from his car window.’ Suvorov, now a young GRU officer, is told he won’t desert because, however richly the West were to reward him, he would be no different in the West from everyone else; on the other hand, as a member of the Soviet nomenklatura, he can be the envy of everyone in the Communist world. Shevchenko was rather more realistically warned by his CIA contact that if he did defect he would miss most of his privileges. Djilas, more remarkably, left a top leadership position because his Marxist method of analysis turned him against the ‘new class’ produced by a Marxist state.

Suvorov defected to the British in Austria, where he was nominally on the Embassy staff. His career as a young upwardly-mobile Soviet officer gave him access to various types of information which he knew the West would very much like to have. As well as having been picked out for service in the GRU, he had participated as a member of a tank unit in the ‘liberation’ of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and had gone on training exercises with units of Spetsnaz, the Red Army’s SAS, which in the event of war would aim pre-emptive blows at key targets behind enemy lines just before hostilities were due to start. He is a vivid, pacy writer, switching scenes and heightening encounters in the best manner of spy novels; and is very well served by his translator, the veteran David Floyd. This is the fourth volume he has distilled from his experience and he is about to produce a fifth, on the Spetsnaz – against whom Britain’s expensive ‘Brave Defender’ exercise was directed earlier this year.

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