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.

Having completed his five-year GRU training, which included languages, diplomacy, strategy and tactics, courses on the Red Army and its potential adversaries, as well as courses on how to pick a dead drop and how not to look like James Bond, Suvorov was posted to Vienna, to that self-contained section of the Soviet Embassy called the Residency, which is headed by a GRU major-general invariably called ‘the Navigator’. He, as we learn from Shevchenko, can occupy quite a humble place in the diplomatic hierarchy, but because he is responsible for the most important single diplomatic activity – that of stealing or illegally purchasing samples of advanced Western technology – he exercises an authority that is total. A state of intense competition is fostered both among the Navigator’s staff and between the various Residencies. There is a sharp class distinction between the Vikings, who are in charge of operations and are briefed by the Navigator in person, and the Borzois who provide the support operations and are more frequently caught with their hands in the till. Suvorov was a frustratingly long time in rising from the ranks of the Borzois because he just did not seem to be able to hit on a new scheme for recruiting agents and acquiring technology. But he made it in the end and we are asked to believe that that was the very moment when he began to turn against the system by whose rules he had lived and on whose terms he had at last secured full recognition.

For all the brilliance of his writing, the origins of his defection are one matter which he does not adequately explain. The amorality of his trade seems to appeal to him. He gives two leads as to why he decided to defect to the British, whom he seems to have particularly admired because of their no-nonsense way of chucking out Russian spies. The first, suggesting the ‘something crooked, something faulty’ which his first patron had discerned in him, had to do with the intoxication of success.

I was now ready for anything ... if only an American diplomat would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, let me recruit you!’ ... I would reply cheerfully: ‘Come on, recruit me, you damned capitalist. I’ll work for you without pay ... I simply want to risk my neck.’

The second possibility is that for all the bravado about his immunity from human feeling, Suvorov’s weakness was that he had become personally fond of his second-in-command and was extremely upset at the prospect of becoming the instrument of the man’s undoing. The First Deputy had been quite accidentally photographed by Suvorov with a mistress: if this was reported he would be ‘evacuated’ to Moscow and ruin. Suvorov, like Milovan Djilas, did what was required of him as a good, disciplined Communist and then turned his back on the system. He reported on the First Deputy and then went around looking so distraught and disoriented that he rightly concluded that he would be the next for the chop. Anxious to avoid this fate, he contacted the staff of the British Embassy.

By comparison with what Suvorov has to tell, Shevchenko’s book is rather a disappointment. Here is a man who is rightly described as the most high-ranking defector to the West that there has so far been, an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and at the same time (and quite contrary to UN regulations) an ambassador of the Soviet Union, before that a member of Gromyko’s private office, a disarmament expert who had been present at conferences in Geneva and in New York, and as a member of his close entourage, had even accompanied Khrushchev on his famous sea voyage to New York in 1960: yet what he has to say that is new makes slim pickings. The dull, slow bureaucracy, the obsession with security, the self-indulgence of the members of the nomenklatura – all of these familiar features of the Soviet system are, it is true, usefully illustrated. The author admits he has had great difficulty in coming to terms with the style of American writing (the book was published in America some seven years after his defection) and many passages read as if they are his rather cautious answers to Western interrogation. It may of course be that the CIA, having extracted information of the highest value in the course of his debriefing, insisted on virtually none of it being made public.

Certainly Shevchenko was made to earn the American protection which he had requested. An international civil servant, sworn to take the orders of no nation, who was required to abuse his high position to provide cover jobs for KGB and GRU spies who arrogantly neglected to devote the third of their time they were supposed even by Soviet standards to devote to their nominal duties, he was now required to be a CIA agent as well. Not being one of nature’s secret agents, he expected to find the tortuous life difficult. But he soon slid into its ways and even risked a last family holiday with a pampered rest cure in the Soviet Union before deciding, when he was back in New York, that an unexpected call to Moscow spelled danger. He bailed out without giving his wife advance warning. She was spirited back to Moscow and died in mysterious circumstances.

The impression which Shevchenko gives of Soviet foreign policy conforms fairly precisely with middle-of-the-road opinion in the West. He is emphatic that there is no master plan for the conquest of the world and indeed very little forward planning of any sort, but on the other hand there is an expectation that sooner or later the struggle will intensify and that in the end the Soviet Union will prevail everywhere. There is no thought that this will be brought about by nuclear war; détente is put forward as a means of gaining time and advanced technology from the West. Shevchenko respects Gromyko as a very able diplomat and a hard taskmaster: descriptions of his tantrums with his staff resemble those told of Anthony Eden, just as loose talk around the Kremlin about assassinating Sadat shortly after his succession to Nasser is reminiscent of Downing Street talk about Nasser in 1956.

The author is perhaps most interesting about Russian attitudes to the Chinese. He confirms that after the small-scale border clashes on Damansky Island in 1969 there was intense fear in the Politburo that the Chinese might undertake a large-scale invasion of Soviet territory. Damansky, Shevchenko says, ‘had the effect of an electric shock in Moscow. A nightmare vision of invasion by millions of Chinese made the Soviet leaders almost frantic.’ Marshal Grechko, the Minister of Defence, is said to have proposed unrestricted use of nuclear bombs against China ‘to get rid of the Chinese threat once and for all’. A surgical operation aimed at taking out China’s nuclear facilities was also considered, but the whole issue remained stalemated in the Politburo for several months. Both plans were based on a confident assumption of American indifference to what happened to the Chinese, but the Soviet Embassy in Washington was instructed to test out the assumption on the middle level of the American bureaucracy. Ambassador Dobrynin was forced to report back that the United States would not be a passive spectator if such a blow were directed against China. Brezhnev’s compromise proposal to display Soviet strength by stationing powerful forces armed with nuclear weapons along the entire length of the border eventually prevailed.

Some Soviet officials nevertheless remained incapable of containing themselves on the subject of the Chinese. Among them was the Soviet Permanent Representative at the UN, Yacov Malik. In 1972 during his annual trip to New York, Gromyko made it clear that they were ‘not to bark like mad dogs at every word the Chinese said’. As soon as Gromyko’s back was turned Malik buried the Chinese Ambassador under heaps of invective, and on receiving a blunt telegram of rebuke from Moscow, observed to Shevchenko that Gromyko was ‘a fool, a marshmallow, he has no idea of how to handle the Chinese: you have to be tough with those yellow bastards.’ Shevchenko’s main problem may have been that he took the UN seriously and became disaffected as he began to realise that no one else did.

The exclusive privileges and luxuries of the élite were not enough to hold Suvorov and Shevchenko to their Soviet allegiance. The very existence of the ‘new class’ eventually alienated Milovan Djilas from the Yugoslav system. Rise and Fall is Djilas’s 14th book and the fourth instalment of his autobiography. It takes him from the triumphs of war’s end and the possession of power to his release from Tito’s prison on the last day of 1966. There is much of interest in the book, as anyone familiar with Djilas’s writing would expect: but it is not by any means equal to his best work. Part of the difficulty is that he is too conscious of having covered part of the ground before, in Conversations with Stalin, in Tito: The Story from the Inside and in The Unperfect Society. Another handicap derives from the total ban on his writings in his own country, which means that obscure controversies arising from his earlier autobiographical writings have to be pursued in the context of Rise and Fall when they might more suitably be aired in the correspondence columns of a Belgrade Review of Books. It would be difficult, with this book alone, to keep a firm grip on the evolution of his career. For this Clissold’s excellent Djilas: The Progress of a Revolutionary must be kept to hand.

The Yugoslav Communist Party, once it gained power, lacked a regular functioning organisation on the Soviet model: no regular meetings of politburo, central committee or cabinet. In practice, the Politburo consisted only of the top four men – Tito, Kardelj, Rankovic and Djilas. They were always grouped together as the core of the Party and the Government, but whereas the first three had executive functions, Djilas did not.

Sometimes Djilas gives the impression that although one of the top four, he was only on the fringe of the ugly methods which Tito used to consolidate his absolute hold over the country. At other times he writes as one of the decision-makers and his words give out a grim chill when he comments on the fate of his political opponents. There was, for example, the case of Dragoljub Jovanovic, the leader of the left-wing Agrarians who provided one of the few remaining vestiges of a democratic opposition in the first post-war Assembly. ‘Our press,’ says the former director of Agitprop, ‘had begun a fierce, high-handed attack on him.’ Nora Beloff, in Tito’s Flawed Legacy, quotes Djilas as writing in Borba: ‘The masses are moving forwards, creating a new life, subduing all obstacles; the masses are like a big river, like a flood throwing out mud on their banks, and so they will throw out Jovanovic and his friends.’ Three weeks later, on Tito’s orders, Jovanovic and his friends were arrested. The only trouble was that Tito and the others had got nothing against them, except that they were opposed to some of the Government’s policies. ‘Up to that time,’ says Djilas, ‘we had indeed exaggerated guilt, but the guilt itself – at least by our own ideological, revolutionary criteria – had always existed. Now it had to be created.’ Djilas does not seem to have found that threshold particularly difficult to cross. Dragoljub Jovanovic got nine years. ‘As for me,’ Djilas reflects, ‘I did not have second thoughts about the Jovanovic trial until I myself fell from power.’

When Stalin excommunicated Tito, Djilas grasped that his time had come, and with intense energy spelled out the increasing distance that was now seen to separate the Yugoslav Revolution from the Soviet Union. The bitter polemical exchanges were accompanied by the creation on the small island of Goli Otok of a Yugoslav gulag for ‘Cominformists’, who ranged from irreconcilable Stalinists to people who found the switch from adulation of everything Russian to expressions of moral revulsion from Soviet behaviour a bit too swift to swallow at one gulp. Djilas says that he was ‘stunned’ to be told that the Cominformists were to be shipped off ‘to a camp’. This form of punishment, he thought, was odious but it wasn’t long before he had talked himself round to the belief that ‘harsh, radical measures had to be taken against exponents of a pro-Soviet line.’ Now he claims that he was never told what was going on and that Tito gave no opportunity even for the four-man Politburo to discuss the matter.

Milovan Djilas was subsequently to emerge as the most formidable dissident in any Communist state. The problem to be resolved is how this sharp-edged ideologist and rationaliser of revolutionary standards changed into a fearless advocate of ‘more democracy, more free discussion, more free elections, more strict adherence to the law’. His efforts to explain tend towards the romantic. First, there is his artistic soul, which leads him to think of quitting politics for literature as early as 1947. Secondly, he is inclined to interpret this break in his career in terms of two women: his first, ‘Marxist-Leninist’ wife, Mitra, with whom he had been through all the early struggles of his revolutionary career, and his younger second wife, Stefica, whose company came to symbolise his abandonment of intellectual blinkers. Some writers have seen his friendship with Aneurin Bevan as being central to his evolution and this factor was mentioned at his trial. Djilas himself speaks of ‘a curious affinity’ between them, each a socialist, each with strong artistic instincts, each from a small mountain country, but, he says, the charge that Bevan influenced him is untrue.

The end of Djilas’s political career was a strange comment on the two sides of his nature. He used his authority as propaganda lord and recently-created Vice-President to publish a long series of articles in Borba, a paper whose pronouncements readers were accustomed to treat as gospel. Without any warrant from Tito and the others, Djilas suggested that the country was going to take a major lurch towards democratic methods and ideas: ‘The Leninist form of the party and the state has become obsolete,’ he announced, ‘and must always and everywhere become obsolete as soon as revolutionary conditions no longer exist and democracy begins to live.’ As the series advanced, Djilas now tells us, he became aware that it would bring disaster on him (he even calculated the likely length of his prison sentence), but he plunged on. When Tito, who was on holiday, got round to noticing the impact of the articles, he summoned a party plenum which, in effect, put Djilas on trial. The account he gives of the trial in Rise and Fall is not very satisfactory. The effect is lost of the contrast between the first day’s proceedings, in which Djilas made a modest but dignified and reasoned defence, and his total collapse into self-criticism and retraction on the second day. He was then still a free man and the only coercion he’d experienced was the shock of hearing himself repudiated by his closest colleagues. However, he had spent all his life as a disciplined Communist (though not, as he had remarked in his first day’s speech, one of the most disciplined) and with his recantation he now for the last time paid his dues.

Once he had discharged this obligation to his party there was another one to discharge to himself: ‘for years to come the realisation of error and weakness would drive me to prove myself and to correct my views, to look into myself and into Communism.’ The man who had headed Agitprop turned his powers of social analysis onto the ‘new class’, in a book which is a powerful critique of contemporary Communism written in terms a Marxist would understand. With it, however, he freed himself of Marxist assumptions altogether.