Punishment

Dan Jacobson

  • Final Judgment: My Life as a Soviet Defence Lawyer by Dina Kaminskaya, translated by Michael Glenny
    Harvill, 364 pp, £12.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 00 262811 2
  • Memoirs by Petro Grigorenko, translated by Thomas Whitney
    Harvill, 462 pp, £15.00, April 1983, ISBN 0 00 272276 3
  • Notes of a Revolutionary by Andrei Amalrik
    Weidenfeld, 343 pp, £12.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 297 77905 2

Three autobiographical books by three Soviet dissidents who are as unlike one another in character, background and way of life as it is possible to be. The first of the authors is a solemn, Jewish lady-lawyer; the second an irascible Red Army general; the third (until his death recently in a car crash) was a contumacious bohemian of vagrant habits and wide-ranging intellectual interests. One of the many things that make their books so depressing to read, however, is that the same incidents and people recur in all three of them: indeed, each of the authors appears in the others’ books, though not always by name. Thus, quite unintentionally and inadvertently, they reveal just how small was the society of dissidents, and how limited in number were the protests they managed to mount, even in the great days of the ‘Movement’, in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

There was the trial in January 1966 of the writers, Sinyavksy and Daniel; the demonstration on Pushkin Square, later in the same year, which Vladimir Bukovsky organised against the detention of another group of intellectuals; the demonstration in Red Square against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; the campaign for the rights of the Crimean Tartars in which General Grigorenko took part in 1969 ... Since then, as one implacable dodderer after another has wielded supreme authority over the Soviet state, there have been fewer and fewer protests. Though trials of people claiming their civil rights, of Jewish ‘refuseniks’, Baptists, members of minority-language groups, and others, are reported from time to time, the ‘Movement’ which the writers knew is more or less moribund: its members are living in the West, or have been exiled to Siberia, or are in jail, or are dead (some of them, like Yuri Galanskov having died in jail), or have simply fallen silent. And no wonder, when the price of dissent or protest is as high as it was for these writers and their colleagues.

Kaminskaya, the lawyer, never was a dissident, strictly speaking: she did not demonstrate in public, or put her name to petitions, or circulate samizdat publications, or smuggle manuscripts out to the West. Her offence was merely to represent in court people who had done such things, and who were therefore undergoing the routine of being tried and savagely sentenced for ‘anti-Soviet activities’ or for ‘slandering the Soviet Union’. There was no charge the Soviet authorities could pin on her, even within the terms of their own criminal code, with its grotesque provisions for the punishment of deeds which in more civilised countries are perfectly lawful: but they simply could not tolerate the persistence with which she fought the dissidents’ cases in court. So they began to keep her under constant surveillance; then they disbarred her; then they expelled her and her husband from the country.

The other two writers discussed here were bolder, more intemperate, more directly political in the way they went about things, and they suffered more in consequence. Andrei Amalrik was hardly back from his first period of banishment (described in his earlier book, Involuntary Journey to Siberia) when he resumed his wicked ways: demonstrating, meeting foreign correspondents, attending controversial trials, or at least making the attempt to attend them, selling paintings executed in modes disapproved of by the authorities, writing political articles. So, after the usual mind-breaking and spirit-breaking shuttle back and forth from one prison to another, he was sent to a labour-camp, in Siberia once again, for three years. No sooner had that sentence expired when new charges, which could have meant yet another three years of forced labour, were promptly brought against him. At that point Amalrik began negotiating with the authorities, instead of simply defying them. He did not recant or betray his associates, but he did produce some placatory statements, and he agreed to leave the Soviet Union if an exit permit were given to him – which it eventually was.

Grigorenko, the general, was the biggest fish of the three: it stands to reason (Soviet-style reason, that is) that he should have had the hardest time. The method of dealing with him chosen by the authorities was to have him declared insane by various collections of KGB ‘psychiatrists’. As a result he spent just under six years in confinement, during which time he was subjected to the treatment his jailors deemed to be appropriate to his supposed condition: drugs, straitjackets, endless questionings, solitary confinement. (Like all dissidents, he had been followed and his phone had been tapped in the period before his incarceration: his asseverations to that effect were then solemnly produced as evidence that he was suffering from paranoia!) Then he too, with his wife, was permitted to leave the country. Once he was out of it, his citizenship was stripped from him.

Everything is relative. All three writers are fully aware that in Stalin’s time they would have been done away with, in silence: either by a bullet in the back of the head, or by being starved, frozen and worked to death in the camps. (Not that the rigours of the conditions prevailing in these more lenient times should be underestimated. It says much for the bodily constitution of Grigorenko and Amalrik, and nothing for the Soviet penal system, that they managed to survive severe illnesses during their periods of captivity.) In large part, it was precisely the difference made by Stalin’s death, and Khrushchev’s revelations of the ‘excesses’ of his predecessor, which inspired people like these to begin to think, act, and speak for themselves. They were encouraged also by the well-founded conviction that the authorities had no stomach for a return to the period of ‘mass illegality’. What the writers’ respective testimonies reveal, however, is that Stalin’s ‘excesses’ were indeed excessive – in the sense that you do not really need to kill millions in order to keep millions more in a state of political and intellectual servitude. Imprisonment and banishment of the obdurate few, and the persecution and impoverishment of their dependents, are sufficient – provided these measures are accompanied by such rewards as the system is capable of producing for the docile many. The rest can be left to inertia, bureaucratic insolence and timidity, apathy, ignorance, cynicism, the sense of distance the citizens of the country feel from one another and the corresponding closeness to them of the state apparatus.

In her lawyer-like fashion Kaminskaya devotes many pages to discussing whether or not there was any point to her appearing before courts whose charges, convictions and sentences were essentially fixed a priori, above the heads of the court officials themselves. By way of contrast, she recounts at length an interesting criminal case in which her arguments did have an effect, though here, too, there was strong pressure from above for a conviction. The defendants were charged with rape and murder: acts which would be regarded as criminal within any conceivable kind of established civil order. Ironically enough, it is for that very reason that the two boys involved were given what eventually turned out to be, after strenuous efforts by Kaminskaya, a fair trial. For those accused of non-crimes, on the other hand, her legal pleadings were bound to be unavailing: by definition, one might say. That does not mean that she was wasting her time. Far from it. First of all, she acquired many painful lessons in the nature of Soviet society; more important still, she was able to offer human and moral support to people upon whom the full weight of the state’s determination to silence them and to destroy them was about to descend.

It must be said that neither Grigorenko nor Kaminskaya have any natural flair as writers. Grigorenko’s memoirs are positively chaotic (not psychotic – anything but); Kaminskaya’s are orderly enough, but only at the price of being rather ploddingly and humourlessly presented. Neither the lawyer nor the general has the capacity to render people or places vividly, or to produce lively and convincing dialogue. These skills seem to have come readily to the scapegrace Amalrik, whose book is the one that the non-specialist reader is therefore likely to find the most rewarding. It succeeds in striking a note that the reader familiar with certain other Siberian memoirs will recognise: a kind of wonder at the terribleness of the conditions which the writer has managed to survive, and a sardonic relish of the often demented and murderous types who are among the chief sharers of the experience. This note sounds clearly in books as different from one another as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Marchenko’s My Testimony, Sinyavsky’s A Voice from the Crowd, and – an improbable-seeming name, perhaps, in this context – Menachem Begin’s White Nights. The self-excited, voyeuristic fervour of Norman Mailer’s reveries about crime and the nature of the criminal belong to another world entirely.

Two final points. First: how foolish and dangerous it is, in thinking about the nature of the Soviet system, to minimise the difference between our experience and theirs, our opportunities and theirs, our ways and theirs, of managing the relations between the state and the citizen. Secondly: how foolish it would be to imagine that the desires and fears which help to sustain their system, in all its reaches, are not perfectly recognisable everywhere about us and within us.