Diary

Mary-Kay Wilmers

A distant relative of mine was a general in the KGB. ‘As long as I live,’ Stalin said of him, ‘not a hair of his head shall be touched.’ Stalin didn’t keep his word – which can’t have been wholly surprising even then. Unlike many of his colleagues, however, my relative wasn’t shot: he was beaten and tortured and kept in prison for 12 years. He died in 1981 with – I’ve been told – a portrait of Stalin by his bed.

I am intrigued by his story and by his connection with the rest of my family, the last of whom left Russia in the first years of the Revolution. (My mother and her sisters were in Moscow in 1917: when I asked them what they did during that time they said they played cards: children in one room, grown-ups in the other.) None of those who are alive now – about the previous generation, who can say? – had ever heard of this KGB relative until an article in Life Magazine revealed the identity of Trotsky’s assassin, a Spanish Communist called Ramon Mercader, and that of his mentor, my relative, Leonid Eitingon.

For the fact of his being a relative the evidence, despite my efforts, is only circumstantial. I have sent my agents to the archives in Minsk, but there is nothing in writing to prove that the various sets of Eitingons living in a cluster of small towns on the banks of the Dnepr in the late 1890s belonged to the same family – though I would be amazed if they didn’t. A Soviet intelligence officer could be shot merely for having family in the West and when, in 1991, I went to Moscow for the first time to visit my putative relatives, Leonid’s children and grandchildren, they were willing enough to see me but reluctant to accept that I was anything other than an Englishwoman with a bee in her bonnet.

The first indication that we might belong to the same family and that some of his relatives might have known some of mine came last year from a cousin of Leonid’s, an old lady called Revekka who remembers meeting one of my great-uncles in Moscow in the late Twenties. My great-uncle was by then an American and very rich. Revekka’s mother, who was very poor, hoped that if the rich American saw her young daughter, he would give her some money – which he did. He called Revekka a little flower and gave her 100 dollars. But Revekka wasn’t pleased. Not only did she feel that her mother had tricked her, she didn’t like the compliment either. By the time she got home, the money had gone, been lost or mislaid. A month or so later, when she and her mother moved flats, it turned up. She doesn’t remember how it was spent, except that she got something she’d always wanted: a raspberry-coloured beret like the one Tatiana has in Eugene Onegin.

I was in Moscow again ten days ago, for reasons I’ll come to. It was looking very beautiful, though it’s not a place that I generally like. In fact, I quite often hate it. The city is too big (you are forever travelling, as it were, from Norwood to Highgate), the roads are too wide (wherever you go an eight-lane highway to cross), the drivers unbelievably heedless. Most people, you feel, would just as soon you weren’t there. Not because they see you as the enemy or even the former enemy: they simply have no interest in you at all. No one in the street ever smiles. If you buy something they bark, if you ask the way they don’t answer or answer over their shoulder, walking away. At first ‘our victory’ was an embarrassment. Now it’s more straightforwardly a nightmare, or cauchemar, as the Russians say – odd that they don’t have their own word for it. It may seem in order to Milton Friedman that Russian citizens trade in dollars as much as in roubles, that the road from the airport into town is marked by a procession of billboards advertising ventures with fly-by-night names like Inkombank and Discountbank, that most of the ads on the Metro – ads on the Metro! – invite you to get rich as fast as you can, but not even Friedman would say this is capitalism with a human face.

In the cause of getting rich quick 63 foreigners have been murdered in Moscow this year. (Moscow is the only place I’ve ever heard shots being fired – quite a few.) Under the ancien regime it was the rough-handedness of the state that you had to watch out for: now it’s scary wherever you look. (My distant relative, I should explain, worked abroad: it wasn’t he who sent men at night to knock on your door.) In summer the sky is still a luminous blue at one or two o’clock in the morning, but the streets are scarcely lit; the Metro is thought not to be safe, taxis even less so. A few days ago our contributor, R.W. Johnson, a big man but in Moscow an obvious foreigner, was set upon by a gang of ten-year-olds on Gorky Street at midday. His clothes were ripped; he was lucky, he said, to have escaped with his life.

In the block of flats where I was staying there were two families sharing a two-room flat. Nothing unusual about that. (When my distant relative first lived in Moscow he had a large room in the centre of town. His mother came to live with him there and when he was sent abroad in the Twenties, the old lady, her two daughters, their husbands and eventually their children all lived in that room and went on doing so for the next thirty years.) In the present case, however, one room was bigger than the other and in the larger of the two an old man lived on his own while a young couple with a child had to make do with the smaller one. The young man asked the old man if he would swop: in fact, he asked so often that in April the old man shot him. Now the old man is still living in the big room and the woman and her child are on their own in the smaller one.

Komunalkas, as such flats are called, won’t disappear immediately thanks to capitalism, but more is in hand than one might have expected. Cranes no longer stand still on building sites; in one neighbourhood all the pipes were being replaced, in another the telephone cables. There is more food than there was, and however extreme the rate of inflation, pensions too have increased. So when you look out of your window in the early morning you don’t see what used to be the first familiar sight of the day: large women in padded clothes shuffling towards the neighbourhood bread queue. And if you’re a visitor about your business in the middle of Moscow, and you’d like to sit down, you no longer have to take a trip on the Metro: there are places to sit, even cafés, in the centre of town. There is, for example, in addition to the flagship of capitalism in Pushkin Square, a new kind of McDonald’s, a pseudo-modish café on the modish Arbat (the street where in pre-Revolutionary times my great-aunt Bertha had her dental practice). Prospective travellers to Moscow might like to think of arranging their visit before there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts next to the new McDonald’s and every neighbourhood has its own Body Shop.

It’s all part of the Eurofication of the Soviet Union. (What happened to the cafés that must have existed in Tsarist times: was it policy to close them down?) Trams rattle late into the night along the street I stay on: a reminder of the end of Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, the literary editor in The Master and Margarita who thought he knew it all. The trams used to be white and red and a little dishevelled: now some are a spanking bright blue and have Panasonic written on the front in large letters. Like much else in Moscow, they’re being taken over, Eurofied. It struck me this time that the rebarbative Stalinist skyscrapers had retreated into the background, as if in the new capitalist Russia they had given way to the pre-Revolutionary buildings they themselves replaced. From my room, I see a group of dusty buildings, dressed in a rough compound with trees and a square of parched grass at the centre, framing a couple of rusty swings. In the next street along, a main road, there are large ramshackle apartment houses, reminiscent of Rome in their weight and their colour, irregular, dilapidated, stagey. In the event of a thunderstorm the heavy stone balconies are liable to break away from their moorings and tumble into the street. At one point my distant relative lived not far from here, in a handsome, pre-Revolutionary block. In other parts of the city, the neo-classical centre especially, restored thanks to JVs (joint ventures) with the Germans, the Finns or the Italians, there’s a distinct whiff of Covent Garden – the Euro-heritage that one day will stretch from the Atlantic to the Urals.

Sometimes as I walk past some newly manicured bit of Moscow I wonder what my distant relative Leonid would make of these changes. But I only know – or think I know – what he would have said, because it’s what most former party members say when you ask them: ‘times change and one has to change with them.’ (You can always recognise a party member by his reluctance to say anything of interest.) A couple of years ago I went, as I then thought very bravely, to interview Leonid’s former KGB boss, Pavel Sudoplatov, a very old and once a very powerful man; in the words of the New York Times, ‘the last of Stalin’s wolves’. As Stalin’s wolf, he fell from favour when Stalin died, spent 15 years in prison and emerged in 1968, unrepentant and disgraced. He’d been ‘a spy’, he said, ‘a professional since 1921’, when he was ‘still a teenager’. As a professional he told me nothing. Now he has published his memoirs in English, French and German. (‘I don’t like to see my name in print,’ he said when I first met him.) The book, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness, was written with his son Anatoli and – I would have thought uniquely in the annals of war and its aftermath – two Americans, Jerrold and Leona Schecter, who not only translated the material but effectively made of it a book Americans would want to read.[*]

Americans may or may not he reading it: they have certainly been reading about it. In the mid-Forties General Sudoplatov was in charge of atomic espionage – of the flow of information from Los Alamos to Moscow. In 1992 when I asked him about this part of his working life (my distant relative was at this point his deputy) he was outraged: ‘The American bomb,’ he screeched, ‘was made by foreigners, by immigrants ... We did it all by ourselves, with our own scientists, our atomshiki.’ Since then he has evidently changed his mind about what to say, because in Special Tasks he makes what has come to be seen as the electrifying claim that the parents of the American bomb, Oppenheimer, Fermi, Bohr and Szilard, were not only keen that their knowledge be shared with the Soviets, but one way or another made sure that it was. In America the response has been unanimous: as far as I know, there is no one who has written on the subject who hasn’t been outraged. Many people in Russia, too, are outraged, the scientists especially, who don’t want to hear what General Sudoplatov pretended not to want to hear when I talked to him: that Kurchatov and Co were merely following a recipe. One of the peculiarities of the new Russia is that in a newspaper still named in honour of the Komsomol movement it’s possible to treat the whole business with evenhanded irony:

American and Soviet physicists have been disturbed by the memoirs of Pavel Sudoplatov ... The American people are disturbed and saddened. Sudoplatov’s book came out them and they discovered damaging facts about their heroes. The Russian people are quiet ... We have more pressing reasons to be sad. But our physicists are very upset. If we are to believe Sudo platov we stole the atom bomb. The American physicists blurted the secret out to Soviet spies, the Soviet spies transmined the information to Beria, Beria gave it to Kurchatov and Kurchatov made the bomb. No one wants to believe Sudoplatov. It could be that the American physicists were traitors and ours ... mmm. Shaming.

Moskovsky Komsomalets, 29 June

General Sudoplatov’s book was the reason for my visit to Moscow. The Russians have only read extracts from it, and may not be allowed to read more, though a translation is due at the end of the year. At present the two Sudoplatovs are under interrogation – the General, because he is old and unwell, at home, his son at the offices of the military procurator. Neither is being tortured, no one is pulling out their teeth as they did Leonid’s, but there is a chance that they will have to stand trial for betraying state secrets. Or they may be stripped of their honours: the son, who teaches at Moscow University, would no longer have the title of Academician, the father would be un-rehabilitated and with that lose his pension.

Many people besides the physicists wouldn’t be shocked if that happened: the children of the General’s former colleagues and employees, for example, who don’t like the way he has spoken about their fathers – truthfully or untruthfully, I can’t always judge, but more informatively than they are used to and more self-servingly than he should have. There are those, too, who say that it is inappropriate to receive a pension from the KGB and then spill its beans and those who believe that in speaking of the past one should respect the traditions of the past; that one should not disclose people’s names or say in the manner of today, ‘I was responsible for X’s assassination,’ but instead: ‘I fulfilled a very important party task.’

I was with Nikolai Khokhlov, one of the General’s former intelligence officers, who now lives in the West, when he bought a copy of the book. He looked his own name up in the index and discovered something he’d never known: that in 1952 he’d been on the point of murdering Kerensky. Khokhlov’s account of the incident is not quite the same as the Sudoplatovs’, however. In his own book, In the Name of Conscience (1959), he describes himself as having had enough of killing and refusing to go to Paris to liquidate the unnamed enemy; he even praises Sudoplatov for letting him get away with it when it would have been more normal to have him shot. As the General now tells it, Khokhlov had simply shown himself to be an incompetent agent and, in any case, the operation was called off. Who knows the real reason – if there was a real reason – why Kerensky wasn’t shot? But it’s unlikely that Khokhlov was incompetent if, of all their agents, the KGB had chosen him for the job. There was certainly a look of triumph on his face after he’d read the book: he may not have wanted to be an agent but pride, too, was at stake. A few days later he said: ‘You know, I saved Kerensky’s life,”

[*] Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness – A Soviet Spymaster by Pavel Sudoplatov and Anatoli Sudoplatov, with Jerrold and Leona Schecter. Little Brown, 509 pp., £18.99, 19 April, 0 316 91217 4.