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My experiences in Russia

These are stories about what I saw, heard, and did in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s and then in post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s. These experiences had some personal meaning for me. Many of them helped me in my effort to understand and relate to the Soviet system—a system that no longer exists but whose historical significance still needs to be assessed. 

In this book I say nothing about the substance of the research I conducted in or about Russia and the Soviet Union in various fields (statistical systems and methods, foreign policy, military affairs, economics, and politics). That requires a different style of writing and a different sort of book. I also wanted to write a book that would be accessible to people without specialized knowledge of these subjects.

It will help the reader grasp the context of these stories if I summarize here the autobiographical facts relevant to my involvement in Soviet and Russian matters.

I was born and grew up in England but have family roots in the Russian empire (Chapter 1). I first visited the Soviet Union in the 1970s to meet relatives (Chapters 2 and 3) and also as an Esperantist (Chapter 4). I entered the field of Soviet Studies in 1979 when I became a graduate student at the Center for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) of the University of Birmingham (Chapter 5. In the first half of the 1980s I was active in the peace movement, especially in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and European Nuclear Disarmament (END), and this influenced the goals I pursued in Soviet Studies.

In 1989 I moved with my family to the United States to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where I was based at the Watson Institute for International Studies. (Initially I was at the Center for Foreign Policy Development, which was then loosely attached to the Watson Institute. Later the CFPD was abolished and its members absorbed by the Watson Institute.) Since 2000 I have been a freelance translator and researcher.

I should also note the limitations of my experience of Soviet/Russian life. Although I have visited the country many times for periods of up to a month, I have not lived there continuously for longer periods. Moreover, for various work and family-related reasons I did not visit the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, so I “missed” the height of Gorbachev’s perestroika: I was able to observe only its earliest phase and its aftermath.  

In the 1990s my work at Brown University gave me the opportunity to visit several other post-Soviet countries (Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Georgia). I have a few interesting stories to tell about these countries too, but I have decided not to include them in this book.


1. How come I have relatives in Russia?

2. A Chekist in the family

3. My cousin Solya

4. At the Leningrad Esperanto Club


6. Attitudes to the Soviet system

7. Fyodor Burlatsky

8. I attend a consultation

9. Yulia and Garik

10. A scuffle at customs

11. A literary exchange

12. A new cultural attaché

13. The journal Détente

14. Viktor Girshfeld (“Colonel X”)

15. Russia in the early 1990s

16. What people were reading

17. With American colleagues

18. Old friends

19. A talk with military officers

20. At a meeting of the Grazhdanin Association

21. At a red-brown rally

22. A very little mafia

23. Anti-Semitism

24. In memoriam

25. Concluding reflections


1. How come I have relatives in Russia?

I first visited Russia with my parents in the mid-1970s. At that time I was working as a statistician for the British government, had a mere smattering of Russian, and had not yet thought of going into Soviet Studies. We went to Moscow to meet relatives of whose existence we had been unaware before the death of my paternal grandmother Manya (Mariam Sliozberg). Among her papers we found letters in Russian from her cousin Berta. We also found a sheaf of ancient postcards covered in tiny Yiddish handwriting that she had received from relatives remaining in the Soviet Union during the first few years after she left for England with her young son—my father—and nephew in 1925.

My father and I did our best to decipher the letters, improving our Russian a little in the process. My father was already six when Manya brought him to England but he soon forgot whatever Russian he knew and most of the Yiddish too. He resolved to forget both these languages when his mother sent him to the corner store to buy some provisions and he discovered that they were useless for his purpose. After that he stubbornly refused to speak any language but English. So Manya also learned English and later obtained a position as interpreter at the Soviet trade office. Much later in life my father had tried hard to learn Russian anew, but it remained a foreign language to him and he spoke it with a marked English accent. My Russian pronunciation, by contrast, is fairly good—thanks to hours as a young child listening to my grandmother recite Pushkin. 

From Berta’s letters we learned that she had two sons, Kalman and Solomon (Solya), and a husband by the name of Yakov Isayevich (a recent acquisition and not the father of her sons). Somehow we wrote Berta a letter in marginally comprehensible Russian, telling her of Manya’s death and introducing ourselves. That soon led to our visit.

I’ll say more about these relatives of ours in the next chapter. But first let me explain how it came about that I was born in England and yet had relatives in Russia.

*   *   *

Manya was born in 1895 in a village that was then situated in the District of Vilna of the tsarist empire (i.e., the area around the present-day Lithuanian capital Vilnius). Later it came under the rule of Poland, then the Soviet Union, and finally post-Soviet Belarus. In the old Europe a person could live in several different countries in the course of her life without once leaving her native place.

My grandmother always talked of growing up in a village, complete with its village green and a village idiot sitting on it. (The expression grates on the contemporary ear, but in those days the village idiot was an accepted part of country life and was not treated unkindly.) When I asked her the name of the village she said Smorgon. Recently I researched the matter and found that Smorgon was not a village but a medium-sized industrial town. Perhaps the village was on the outskirts of Smorgon and its inhabitants thought of themselves as Smorgon people. Or perhaps Manya was just simplifying things a little for me.

Manya’s father played little part in her life. He was a Talmudic scholar who wandered from one rabbinical court to another, returning home once a year to sire another child but otherwise leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. A fend for themselves they did. My grandmother’s attitude toward him was one of easy-going contempt. She herself had a thoroughly secular outlook and was able to obtain a good Russian education at a government school (hence the Pushkin!). In this she was typical of Jewish girls in Russia at that period, who were not expected to engage in religious study and could therefore become much better educated in the modern sense than their brothers.  

Smorgon was in the heartland of the Jewish Socialist Bund. The Bund fought to increase wages and to shorten the working day to twelve hours and when that had been achieved to ten hours. No one was more militant than the young girls, as epitomized by the sixteen-year-old seamstress, on trial for a political offense, who had the temerity to demand in a loud voice that her judge show respect for the working class by standing for the singing of the Internationale.

Like many other youngsters, Manya enjoyed the excitement of going to meetings of the Bund held at night deep in the forest. However, I have no grounds to claim that she was particularly active. Later, as part of an attempt to construct a revolutionary family tradition in which I could take pride, I persuaded myself that “my grandmother was an activist in the Bund.” It is just as well that this was an exaggeration, because according to the Memorial Book for Smorgon1 almost all the town’s Bund activists were shot or committed suicide. Had it been true I doubt that I would be here writing these lines today.

*   *   *

In 1914 war broke out in Europe. In the autumn of 1915 Smorgon was engulfed in the battle zone. Cossacks took up positions in the town on August 7. On September 2 the German army captured Smorgon, only to withdraw a few days later. The returning Cossacks unleashed a reign of terror against Jews, who were accused of aiding the Germans. 

The soldiers broke into Jews’ houses, ... murdered and raped. A group of about forty Jewish soldiers organized to protect the Jewish population. In the front yard of the synagogue they fought against Cossacks who were raping Jewish women who had sought refuge there. When the Jewish soldiers broke into the synagogue, [they saw] Cossacks tearing Torah scrolls. On the floor lay the corpses of raped and tortured women. Near the corpse of one young girl lay that of her father.2

On September 11 there arrived an official order to exile the Jews of Smorgon. Throughout the length of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, to which Jews had previously been confined, Jews were now being driven into the interior. 

Jewish homes and businesses in Smorgon were set on fire. Some residents perished in the flames while others tried to escape but were robbed, beaten, injured, or killed as they fled. 

Men and women, toddlers and babies in their arms, bunches of underwear and pillows on their shoulders, marched or ran in the cold and rain.3

My grandmother and her sister were in that column of refugees as they trudged through the forest in the direction of Minsk. After two or three days, so the Memorial Book tells us, they reached a place called Maladziechna where they boarded a train for Minsk.

Manya described this incident to me as follows. When they reached the railway line the Smorgon refugees found an empty train standing there and immediately climbed in and sat down. When officials arrived and demanded that they vacate the train they refused to budge. Their stubbornness paid off: eventually they got their free ride to Minsk.

The Smorgon exiles scattered all over the empire. My grandmother and her sister were among those who ended up in Kharkov. Leatherwork had been a major source of livelihood in Smorgon and exiled leatherworkers set up workshops in Kharkov and a number of other cities. 

Manya, however, earned her living by making and selling soap. At the period later called “war communism” all private enterprise was supposedly illegal and her workshop operated “underground.” But a manufacturing business can hardly be run in complete secrecy; my own guess is that the authorities knew about it and turned a blind eye. Moreover, the Bolsheviks were in power in Ukraine for only parts of the period from 1917 to 1921. She told me that the political situation changed so rapidly and unpredictably that people often did not know what regime they were living under. When they rose in the morning they would ask their neighbors: “Do you know who is in power today?”

In Kharkov Manya and her sister married refugees from Bessarabia (roughly corresponding to what is now Moldova). They were both pregnant when their husbands were shot down in the street by “bandits.” Who these “bandits” were and why they killed the men remains a mystery. Perhaps it was a dispute over some business dealings. However that may be, when my father and his cousin were born in 1919 their fathers were already dead.

On top of that Manya’s sister, like so many others at that time, was suffering from malnutrition and typhus. Her enfeebled body could not produce milk for her newborn baby. Manya promised her dying sister that she would care for the baby as though he were her own son—my father’s brother. 

And so in 1925 Manya set off with the two boys by train to Moscow and Leningrad and thence by sea to the London docks. She emigrated in search of a better life. She was an economic not a political migrant. Such migration was still quite common in the mid-1920s and no stigma was attached to it (only toward the end of the decade did Stalin seal the borders).

From the websites that Smorgon exiles and their descendants have set up to preserve the memory of their place of origin4 I learn that they are now scattered in several countries. One of those countries is Palestine/Israel, where some of them no doubt subjected other human beings to an ordeal similar to what their forebears suffered in 1915. 

Notes to Chapter 1

 1. The Memorial Book was published in Yiddish in Tel Aviv in 1965. Only a few chapters have appeared in English. See the chapter entitled “History of Smorgon and Surrounding Communities” at

 2. Israel Kloizner, Lithuanian Jewry: The History of the Jews in Lithuania, pp. 120-121.

 3. Memorial Book, chapter by Mendel Sudersky, pp. 1549—50.

 4. See, for example:,


2. A Chekist in the family

Having relatives in a country gives you an instant immersion in its reality that is quite inaccessible to the ordinary tourist. From each of our relatives I learned a little about some aspect of Soviet society, but it was Yakov Isayevich, Berta's current husband, who made the most striking impression.

Yakov Isayevich was a sprightly and genial old fellow. He was also a retired Chekist (secret police official). Before long he brought out his treasured mementos to show us. A group photo of his graduating class from the secret police academy. A certificate of commendation for "merciless service." I looked at that word "merciless" and slowly digested the fact that it signified high praise while Yakov Isayevich boasted of his access to the special medical clinic for Old Bolsheviks.

“Ever been to Magadan, Yakov Isayevich?” I asked. Magadan is a grim city on Siberia’s Pacific coast that was built wholly by prisoners and served as the administrative center of the Far Eastern Gulag.

It was not he but Berta who replied with a chuckle:

"Magadan? No! He only sent other people there!"

A secret police interrogator under Stalin. A torturer.

Yakov Isayevich must have sensed my discomfort because he added by way of explanation: "We were fighting the counterrevolution." Then he stood up, took my arm, and walked me over to the window. He wanted to point something out to me.

I looked at the scene beyond the window. Suddenly I had the thought of walking out. Then I reflected that I had no idea whatsoever of where I was in this large and strange city and the thought faded.

What was it that Yakov Isayevich was trying to draw to my attention? I looked down in the direction he was pointing and saw a group of school buildings across the road from the apartment block. Children were playing in the schoolyard. I thought to myself that it looked very much like the school I was used to seeing from the window of my other grandmother's apartment in London, in the working class area near Finsbury Park.

In my limited Russian, I tried to make my point. That in order to build schools and hospitals it isn't absolutely necessary to torment and murder millions of innocent people.

Afterward I felt guilty that I hadn't been rude to Yakov Isayevich, that I had even shaken his hand on parting. But, after all, I was his guest. What purpose would have been served to make a scene and embarrass my parents? That too would have made me feel guilty, albeit on a less world-historical scale.

But I did draw one conclusion. Never again, if I wanted to avoid the rankest hypocrisy, could I refuse to shake anyone's hand, whatever atrocities he may have committed.


3. My cousin Solya

"Solya" is a diminutive form of "Solomon." That Solya should have been burdened with such a name must be considered either a nasty joke on the part of the Almighty or a profound commentary on the nature of true wisdom, because he was a very simple man. Short and stocky, he spoke slowly and rather repetitively in a booming voice. I never minded that: at least he put no strain on my Russian.

And yet Solya's artistic talent was phenomenal. That at least is my unprofessional opinion, based on hours gazing at the portraits and other canvases that crammed his living quarters.

His brother once told me that Solya had been married once but his wife was “a bad woman." I never raised the subject with Solya.

I tried to see Solya whenever I was in Moscow. Sometimes he came to my hotel. His appearance there was very convenient for me because it showed that I really did have relatives in Moscow. Then the Intourist guide (assuming I was there on a tourist visa, as was often the case) could write in her daily report to the KGB that I was spending most of my time with relatives and had no need to extract further information from me.

But usually I went to visit Solya. He lived alone in a tiny sub-apartment on the city outskirts.

What do I mean by "sub-apartment"? I mean that you step into the rickety elevator and – if it is working, which grew less likely as time went by – go right up to the top floor but one. Then you step out, taking care not to get caught in the wide gap between the elevator and the edge of the shaft. (One time while on my way I happened to read a newspaper article about the horrific accidents caused by those gaps, which were especially perilous for children.) Then you find the door with the right number on it and knock and ring until either the tenant of the main apartment lets you in or you give up. You then find yourself in a quite large hallway area with three chairs, a shared telephone, and three locked doors behind each of which lies what I call a sub-apartment – a cluttered living room with a tiny bathroom and kitchen attached.

It became harder and harder to get hold of Solya on that telephone, so I would just turn up in the hope of catching him in. He suggested I send him a telegram to tell him when I was coming, but I have to confess that I never did. My will wasn't strong enough to overcome the inertia of habit and it was not my habit to send telegrams.

How did Solya earn his living? Sometimes he would get a state commission to paint a mural in the entrance area of a public building. At other times he drew portraits for private clients. One place he frequented in search of clients was the synagogue. I remember him telling me how he met an American rabbi there. The money he received for drawing the rabbi’s portrait was enough to support him for several months.

Because Solya's needs were modest. He shopped at the local general food store (gastronom). He liked to walk there with me and buy some bread, sausage, candies, tinned fish or compot perhaps -- whatever happened to be available. It was a source of great satisfaction to him that he could afford to buy any of the products on offer. His satisfaction was not dented by the existence of other food stores in other places -- stores with a greater variety of products, many of which he could not have afforded. Those other stores were not part of his world.

Solya's brother had gone to America, but Solya never left Russia. Russia was his home. Each time I saw him he would ask:

"Brother! Brother! How are things with my brother?"

I would fill him in on his brother's latest misfortunes. His brother fancied himself a biznismen, but in fact his sole experience had been as a black market dealer (a "speculator"). He proved out of his depth in the real business world of the West. A "partner" had tricked him and left him penniless.

"Brother! Fool! My brother is a fool! I don't know why he left.

Why leave? We have what we need here."

At least Solya had what he needed. And you can't accuse him of being a "supporter of the Soviet system" because his mind was quite incapable of encompassing a notion as abstract as "system." You can say that the Soviet system maintained the environment in which he felt reasonably happy and at ease. When the Soviet system was abolished, at first he was not even aware that anything important had happened. Only as the 1990s wore on did he gradually come to sense that something was amiss. Elevators broke down and were not repaired, lights were smashed, trash was no longer collected regularly.

"I've noticed that things are starting to go wrong."

"Why, do you think?"

Solya shook his head sadly. "No, I don't understand why."

4. At the Leningrad Esperanto Club

Besides visits to my relatives, I also had some early encounters with Soviet reality as an Esperantist.

Esperanto, in case you don't know, is an international language invented in 1887 by the oculist Lazar Zamenhof of Bialystok (now in Poland). You'll get a feel for it by listening to the Esperanto anthem "La Espero" (The Hope). In my youth I was a keen Esperantist. When I began visiting Russia my interest in the language was already on the wane, but my discovery of the Esperanto clubs in Leningrad and Moscow revived it for a time.

Under Stalin Esperanto was banned and all the Esperantists sent off to the camps. In the post-Stalin period Esperanto occupied that gray zone which separated the compulsory from the forbidden. An Esperanto movement was allowed to exist but not encouraged or much publicized. While the formal activities of the Esperantists necessarily conformed to party dictates, their language gave them the chance to make their own informal international contacts.

The fact that so few people know Esperanto gave many of its Soviet adepts the heady feeling that by speaking Esperanto they could escape surveillance. I recall riding the Moscow metro late at night in the company of a bunch of Esperantists. They were cursing the Soviet leaders uninhibitedly at the top of their voices, secure in the belief that no one within earshot would understand what they were yelling or even recognize the language they were using.

The first meeting of a Soviet Esperanto club that I attended was in Leningrad about 1978. The first item on the agenda was a "lecture" that consisted of a long and intemperate ideological diatribe against the West European social democrats, who were accused of just about every sin imaginable. I was perhaps the only person in the hall who paid the least attention to the speaker; everyone else seemed to be engaged--quite openly and loudly!--in private conversations. Given such frank indifference on the part of his audience, you might have expected the lecturer to rush through his prepared text in a low monotone and get the boring chore done with the least possible expenditure of nervous energy. But no! His voice was full of passion, as though every word issued straight from the depths of his heart. For me it was this above all that lent the scene its surrealistic Kafkaesque quality.

Someone must have told the chairman that a foreign guest was visiting the club, because after the lecture I was invited cordially up onto the rostrum and introduced to the members. There followed a question-and-answer session that the audience clearly enjoyed, presumably because it gave them a rare opportunity for genuine participation. Some of the questions were about me, others about Britain. Not for the last time, I was struck by the antiquated image that all but the most sophisticated Russians had of "foggy Albion"--an image that evidently drew primarily on the novels of Dickens, Galsworthy, Conan Doyle, and other Victorian (or at best Edwardian) authors. I explained that the horrible "pea-soup" fogs that still plagued London in my early childhood had had disappeared completely, thanks to the Clean Air Act of 1960 which mandated the use of smokeless fuels.

The chairman was just starting to thank me and draw the session to a close when suddenly I remembered the lecture. On the spur of the moment, I interjected that I still had something to say. The lecturer (I continued) had said many unfair and tendentious things about West European social democrats. We—for I regarded myself as a social democrat and I was from Western Europe—were bound to be upset and offended by the harsh tone of his rhetoric. Was he not aware that Esperanto had been created to promote international sympathy and understanding? As I was speaking, I noticed that the chairman was staring at me with his mouth wide open. When I met his gaze, he quickly looked down and embarked upon a minute examination of his pencil.

After the formal proceedings were finished, a bulky bearded man approached me, touched my arm, and said: "You know, you took the lecture too seriously. This is just a price that we have to pay for being allowed to exist." He told me that his name was Alexander and that he was writing a book about Vasily Yeroshenko, an early twentieth-century Russian writer and Esperantist who despite being blind traveled widely and met many prominent writers in China, Japan, India, and other countries. Would I help him with one particular aspect of his research? As a boy Yeroshenko had spent some time in England and attended an English school for the blind. Could I find out more about this school? Were there still any records of Yeroshenko's time there? Did anyone still remember him?

On my return home I discovered that the school still existed. Its headmaster took an interest in the project and graciously sent me information about the history of the school and copies of material relating to Yeroshenko that he found in his archive. He asked me to let him know what Alexander wrote about the school.

In due course I received from Alexander an inscribed copy of his new book. The section on Yeroshenko's stay in England began by duly acknowledging the assistance of "the British Esperantist Stephen Shenfield." But the pages that followed were a travesty. Little of the information I had sent Alexander had been used. Instead there were a number of stories about Yeroshenko's time at the school that Alexander presumably made up himself; he certainly did not get them from me. The totally blind Yeroshenko, it seemed, had been in the habit of rising at dawn, mounting a horse, and galloping at breakneck pace around the perimeter of the extensive school grounds. Worst of all, a number of the stories were designed to show the unjust treatment supposedly meted out to the poor Russian boy by his English teachers and fellow students. Was all this poison a price paid to secure easy publication of the book?

I was too embarrassed to report back to the school principal. After several requests from him to tell me about the book, I lied and said that I had never received a copy.



After seven years as a statistician in British government service I resolved to reenter academic life with a view to broadening my intellectual horizons. I was then working at the Department of Education and Science in areas that I found stimulating and sometimes even rewarding—assessing educational research and providing statistical support for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools. And I was in line for promotion. But I dreaded the duties of the post that I was to occupy upon promotion, expecting them to be unbearably boring. So I decided to leave. A friend of mine in the service confided that he “envied” me: he would have liked to do the same, he said, but the salary was too attractive to give up.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do next. One idea was to study linguistics—a subject that had long fascinated me. Another idea was to go into Soviet Studies. I wrote to the Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) of the University of Birmingham and asked to come on an exploratory visit—just to introduce myself and find out more about them. I was in no hurry. But they were. They explained that they were much too busy to indulge in exploratory visits and urged me to apply for their graduate program. When I did they accepted me immediately. So there I was with “a bird in the hand”—worth, as the saying goes, “two in the bush”—before I even had the chance to look into the other possibilities I had in mind. I became a graduate student at CREES in the autumn of 1979. Although I felt that I had been rushed into Soviet Studies I was not to regret it.

I had a half-baked proposal for research that I wanted to do concerning the attempts at economic planning in the early years of Soviet rule—the so-called “war communism” of 1918—1921. However, the CREES people wanted me for their long-term program of comparative study of various areas of work in the Soviet Union and in the West. They were recruiting an engineer to make a comparative study of engineering, a computer expert to make a comparative study of computing—and a statistician to make a comparative study of statistical systems and statistical methods. That was me. Not what I had thought of doing but quite interesting nonetheless.

People who knew about my relatives in the Soviet Union assumed that my interest in the country was connected with my family background. They were not wholly wrong, but my main motive was to acquire a better understanding of the functioning of various existing and conceivable economic systems with a view to designing a form of socialism that would be humane, democratic, and practicable (a “feasible socialism” to use Alec Nove’s term). I was able to make some progress in this direction, mainly thanks to a course on “comparative economic systems” that I took during my first year at CREES. The course was taught by Philip Hanson—later my thesis supervisor, colleague, and friend—and covered five economic systems: unplanned capitalism, the French system of “indicative planning” in the postwar period, the Soviet command economy, the New Economic Mechanism introduced in Hungary in 1968, and Yugoslav self-management.

On the whole I found CREES very much to my liking. Despite the wide range of political views represented, from variants of old-style and reform communism through social democracy to pro-capitalist liberalism, the atmosphere was friendly and mutually supportive. We had a shared commitment to impartial inquiry, wherever it might lead.

There was also a tolerance of personal eccentricity. One yoga-oriented colleague was allowed to continue teaching for many years despite his insistence that students listen to his lectures lying on the floor. A new director finally got rid of him. He had the best interests of his students at heart but he was, I suppose, violating their customary right to adopt a sitting posture. He should have told them: “You will get the most benefit from my lectures if you lie on the floor, but if you prefer you can assume the lotus position, perch on the windowsill, hang from the ceiling, or even—if you really can’t think of anything more original—sit on a chair.”

At CREES we all took a genuine interest in the progress of one another’s research, offered one another suggestions, and drew one another’s attention to Russian-language sources we came across that seemed relevant to their research. By force of inertia I continued helping colleagues in this way when I went to Brown University in the US—until I realized that they had no intention of helping me (or one another). One of them did express amazed appreciation for my help at a meeting. It evidently did not enter his head, however, that I might expect reciprocity. 

I myself was amazed at some of the forms taken by competitive individualism in American academia. For several years after leaving Brown University in 2000 I produced a bulletin—the Research and Analytical Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List—consisting mainly of synopses of significant Russian-language sources that even specialists in the region might have overlooked. Among the fan mail generated by this bulletin was a message from a young researcher who confided that it was giving her a significant competitive advantage over her rivals and for that reason she was keeping its existence secret from them. Presumably that meant that she was citing my Russian-language sources without revealing that she had not consulted them directly but was only relying on my English-language synopses—a mild form of plagiarism.

On the topic of plagiarism, I have encountered two more serious instances while here in the US. One man wrote a book on “new thinking” in Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev that appeared to be based solely on interviews that he had conducted but in fact drew extensively and without attribution on my own work on the subject as well as on the work of my colleague, friend, and neighbor Douglas Blum. He also met me, bought me some drinks, and picked my brains, again without so much as mentioning my name in his book.

The other instance concerned a draft article that I was asked to assess for a scholarly journal. As a referee I was not given the name of the author but (and this must often be the case) I was able to identify him beyond reasonable doubt on the basis of the topic, the approach, and his distinctive style. I discovered that he had copied whole paragraphs word for word from an important book published the previous year by a French colleague known to us both. Nowhere did he even mention this colleague’s name and his bibliography, as usual packed full of minor sources, did not contain her book. The editor of the journal professed herself shocked when I explained this to her. She did not publish the article, but I expect that the plagiarist managed to get it into some other journal in a slightly different version.

6. Attitudes to the Soviet system

It will help the reader understand some of the following chapters if I insert here a discussion of attitudes to the Soviet system—not only my own attitudes but also the range of attitudes to be found within the two overlapping intellectual communities to which I belonged in the first half of the 1980s: Soviet Studies and the movement for peace and nuclear disarmament.

CREES was the center of a school of Soviet Studies that had no generally accepted name but whose distinctive approach was nonetheless widely recognized. This school was quite strong in Britain. It had much less influence in the United States, though there too it was represented for instance by the late Professor James R. Millar of George Washington University, in whose Soviet émigré interview project Phil Hanson and I participated in the mid-1980s.

Cold War Sovietologists suspected our school of having a pro-Soviet bias, but this was a misunderstanding. We simply considered it more fruitful to try to analyze the functioning of the Soviet system “from the inside”—in terms of its own logic—without indulging in condemnatory rhetoric. That did not mean that we were ignorant of the odious aspects of the Soviet system or that it evoked no feelings of hostility in us. Quite the contrary. And it was striking to observe how the Communist Party members drawn to CREES, afforded the opportunity to learn more about the Soviet system in an atmosphere free of ideological pressure, almost all grew disillusioned and abandoned their former loyalties.

While communists had their illusions shattered, people who had formed their image of the Soviet life under the influence of Cold War propaganda had a tendency initially to evolve in the opposite direction—provided that their first contacts were with ordinary Soviet people. They would see for themselves that their new friends did not live in constant fear and indeed talked about various problems of Soviet life in a surprisingly open way. As a result they would draw the overhasty conclusion that they had been deceived by lying “anti-Soviet” propaganda. Only later, with expanding experience, would they realize that the propaganda was not totally false after all, finally enabling them to form a more balanced and nuanced view.  

However, if someone’s first contacts in the Soviet Union were with dissidents then their prior assumptions would be confirmed and they would not go through this complex iterative process. Many Soviet Studies specialists came to depend—for information and theoretical ideas as well as companionship and psychological support—overwhelmingly on contacts of one specific kind; if you knew what kind of Soviet friends they had, then you could reliably infer their political and even theoretical view of the Soviet system. For instance, someone who conversed mainly with people working for reform within the system—I am thinking, for example, of Professor Archie Brown of Oxford University—would naturally come to share their “pluralistic” perception of the Soviet polity and cautiously optimistic view of the possibilities of reform. 

I myself was fortunate in acquiring more varied Soviet contacts than most. That gave me many insights but made it very difficult for me to reach and stick to any coherent overall view. I too depended a great deal on within-system reformers and in the mid-1980s adopted their perspective. But at the same time I was aware of the grimmer vision of the most deeply alienated Soviet citizens and knew that they too had good reasons for their views.

On one of my early visits to the Soviet Union I had an unscheduled encounter with one of these citizens. Just as I was preparing to go to bed I heard a quiet knock on the door of my hotel room. A short man in a worn suit was standing there. I invited him in. He was a worker from a local enterprise and had somehow smuggled himself into the hotel in order to talk to a Western visitor. I was not sure why he had chosen me; perhaps he had heard me speaking Russian. He was taking a considerable risk.

We talked for about two hours. Mainly it was he who talked. As I was tired and he spoke softly and fast I was able to grasp only parts of what he said. He wanted to tell me the truth about the Soviet system and how it deprived ordinary workers like himself of their rights. He returned repeatedly to the point that the Soviet system was not “socialism”—that is, it was not based on social equality. I was in full agreement with that. I was already aware of some of the things he told me, but other things were new to me.

*   *   *

Turning to the other intellectual community to which I belonged—the peace or nuclear disarmament movement—three main tendencies could be distinguished:

1) a pro-Soviet minority who worked with official peace committees in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe;

2) a minority, associated mainly with European Nuclear Disarmament (END), who worked with unofficial (dissident) peace groups in those countries; and

3) a “middle” tendency that formed the majority in broad umbrella organizations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

The “middle” tendency was concerned first and foremost with the need to halt the arms race and achieve nuclear disarmament. Unlike the pro-Soviet minority, the CND majority did not idealize the Soviet system or Soviet policy. However, they considered it necessary to live in peace with the Soviet Union and they thought it possible to do so, because however unpleasant it might be to live in the Soviet Union its leaders were not particularly aggressive externally (certainly not by comparison with Britain or the United States). Thus it was not essential to change internal arrangements in the communist countries. Many felt that the domestic problems of other countries had to be solved by people in those countries. They were not our business.  

END, by contrast, took the view that certain changes in the Soviet system were necessary in the interests of peace and disarmament. In particular, these goals could not be met without the growth of trust between people on opposite sides of the divide, and that required some measure of openness and democratization. This corresponded to the attitude of the unofficial peace groups—or, as they called themselves, “trust groups.”


7. Fyodor Burlatsky

As a teenager I first acquired an interest in Soviet politics reading the newspaper columns of the brilliant Sovietologist Victor Zorza.1 I found his complicated analyses of the conflicts between different power factions fascinating. But one thing annoyed me: he never let slip a clue about how he knew all this stuff. Not citing sources broke all the rules of proper scientific inquiry. How could you check up on him? You either believed him or you didn’t.

I soon discovered that this was a problem with all Sovietologists. They might offer evidence of a kind: who stood where on the May Day review stand, subtle distinctions between the phraseology used by different leaders – but the momentous conclusions they sometimes drew from such evidence seemed out of all proportion to its apparent weight. No wonder that Sovietology was so often a target of ridicule!

Only much later did I come to understand why Sovietology—and even Soviet Studies2 to some extent—was like this. Even after going into Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Russian and East European Studies in 1979, it took me quite a while to understand. There was one person above all who helped me understand: the Soviet journalist, political scientist, ideological innovator, and reformer Fyodor Burlatsky.

Burlatsky visited England for a fortnight in 1983 at the invitation of the British Foreign Office. He spent two or three days at Birmingham University. The director of CREES asked me whether I would like to act as his guide, interpreter, and assistant while he was at Birmingham. I jumped at the chance.

We at CREES wanted to put Burlatsky up at a small family guesthouse close to the university, but the Foreign Office insisted on booking him into a big hotel in the city center, believing that he would be safer there. The opposite was true. When I walked Burlatsky back to his hotel late at night we passed groups of drunken louts. Fortunately they were too busy yelling and fighting one another to take any notice of us, although I suppose we might have been hurt by flying beer bottles.

I had heard that a recent article of Burlatsky’s in Novy Mir (New World—the leading “liberal” Soviet literary-political “thick journal”) was creating a big stir, so I read it in preparation for his arrival. It was a long article entitled "Mezhdutsarstvie" (Interregnum) and was ostensibly all about the post-Mao transition in China.

The afternoon of his arrival, Burlatsky gave a seminar at CREES. We were all very impressed, especially by his openness and by the reasonableness of his tone. I for one was not just impressed. I was astonished and mesmerized. After the seminar I showed him round the campus. Raising the subject of his article in Novy Mir, I said that we had a shared interest in China, or something of the kind.

“You know, it isn’t about China.”

“Ah,” I replied cautiously. “I realized that it might not be only about China.”

“It isn’t about China at all.”

I recall Burlatsky showing me a paper he had written (it had been published in English by UNESCO) about “the absolute value of peace.” He explained that the ideas in the paper, though not presented as such, were part of a Soviet ideological dispute between the “class approach” and the “universal human (or pan-human) approach.”

These conversations with Burlatsky sensitized me to the importance of reading between the lines of Soviet sources and gave me confidence in my ability to decode their almost-concealed meanings. Now I could detect all sorts of differences between texts that to the uninitiated seemed to be repeating standardized propaganda clichés. An apparently minor variation or omission might be highly significant. I set out my conclusions in a series of articles on Soviet approaches to nuclear winter, the militarization of space, crisis management, and other issues, and in my book about the “new thinking”: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (RKP, 1987). This book owed quite a lot to my conversations with Burlatsky, but I knew not to mention them. Some reviewers, and no doubt many readers, reacted to the book as I had once reacted to Zorza: the conclusions I was drawing were more far-reaching than the evidence justified. I could not explain why I knew I was right.

Burlatsky was taking a big risk in being so open. In fact, he was in trouble when he returned from this visit to England because he had been reported as saying something that the party bosses found objectionable. He had intended to IMPLY what was reported, but had taken care not to say it so many words. The journalist should have reported the exact words Burlatsky used and then interpreted them on his own responsibility, so that if necessary Burlatsky could claim that he had been misinterpreted. The journalist did not understand the situation and/or did not care whether he compromised Burlatsky. 

Many people thought that Burlatsky was putting on airs when he boasted about his influence on Soviet leaders. When they gossiped about him they would often burst out laughing. Nevertheless, there is good reason to suppose that he did have an indirect influence on Khrushchev and a direct influence on Andropov. Through Otto Kuusinen3 he was involved in formulating proposals for important ideological changes that Khrushchev agreed to adopt—in particular, the redefinition of the Soviet state as a “state of the whole people” instead of the “proletarian dictatorship” of the Lenin and Stalin eras.4 Together with director of the USA Institute Georgii Arbatov and journalist Alexander Bovin, he was a member of the small personal “brains trust” that Andropov first convened when he was head of the Central Committee Department for Liaison with Socialist Countries (1957—1967). So when I met Burlatsky, during Andropov’s brief tenure as General Secretary, he may indeed have been a person of great influence.

When Burlatsky left Birmingham for London I met him again there at his request. The first time we took a walk together down Oxford Street and talked about the peace movement and its prospects.

At that time I was working with the prominent historian E.P. (Edward) Thompson in the organization European Nuclear Disarmament (END). Burlatsky wanted to interview E.P. and get the interview published in the “liberal” Soviet Literary Gazette [Literaturnaya gazeta]. That would push back the boundaries of the permissible, as E.P. was regarded in Moscow as an “anti-Soviet” figure. I was the middleman trying to arrange the interview. However, E.P. was reluctant, rightly fearing that he would not be allowed to say uncensored all that he thought needed to be said.

I was better able and more willing than E.P. to play the game of “pushing back boundaries,” so I suggested that Burlatsky interview me instead. He dismissed the idea out of hand and proceeded to explain why. An interview with a prominent figure like E.P., he said, would enhance his prestige back in Moscow. An interview with a complete unknown such as myself would be of no value in that respect. I was dismayed and offended. My respect for Burlatsky was shattered in an instant. I felt that considerations of prestige and status should have no place in a cause as vital as the struggle for peace. I realized what a yawning gap there was between people like him and people like me. Clearly the ideal of social equality was deeply alien to him.     

The second time I saw Burlatsky in London he seemed tense and preoccupied. He told me that he had a serious health problem and wanted to consult a Harley Street specialist. Could I arrange it? I replied that I would ask my father, who was a physician. And my father arranged a consultation for him. He and I just assumed that Burlatsky would have the money on hand to pay the specialist.

Then I received a call from an irate Foreign Office official. Burlatsky had told his official hosts that I had arranged a consultation for him and he expected them to pay the bill! The cash allowance he had for the trip was quite insufficient to cover the cost. The official was annoyed that I had arranged the consultation without consulting him and his colleagues. I felt that he was being unfair. No one from the Foreign Office had given me any advice. They should have given me a telephone number to call if I had any problem in dealing with Burlatsky. 

About twelve years later Burlatsky visited the Watson Institute to give a seminar. His demeanor bore no resemblance to the arrogant VIP I had known in England. In fact, he seemed a very agreeable fellow now that he was no longer corrupted by real or imagined power. When he saw me he looked at me for a few seconds and asked whether we had met before. I nodded but did not enlighten him further.

Notes to Chapter 7

 1. Zorza, who died in 1996, was not only a Sovietologist. In the early 1990s, he introduced (or perhaps reintroduced) into Russia the institution of hospices for the dying. His biography (Michael Wright, Victor Zorza: A Life Amid Loss) has been published by Observatory Publications. 

 2. The distinction is that Sovietology focuses on the power elite while Soviet Studies concerns itself with Soviet society more broadly.  

 3. Otto Kuusinen (1881—1964) was the high-level ideological official responsible for rethinking party doctrine under Khrushchev.

 4. Redefining the Soviet state helped Khrushchev lower the level of repression. “Proletarian dictatorship” implied the existence of an organized and dangerous internal “class enemy” and the need to wage a “merciless struggle” against that enemy (see Chapter 2). The idea of a “state of the whole people” contains no such implication, although individuals could still be accused of “anti-social” or “anti-Soviet” activity. For Burlatsky’s own account of his relations with Khrushchev see his book: Khrushchev and the First Russian Spring: The Era of Khrushchev Through the Eyes of his Adviser (Scribner, 1992).


8. I attend a consultation

In spring 1981 I spent a month in Leningrad. In the mornings our group took Russian language classes. Initially classes were held right at the hotel; later they took place at a nearby college. We also had the opportunity to do some on-the-spot academic research on our thesis topics. Some afternoons we spent at the Leningrad Public Library. On other days we visited educational institutions that were supposed to assist us in our work, mainly by arranging consultations with specialists. I was attached for this purpose to the Leningrad Economics Institute.

The Leningrad Public Library was an imposing classical structure. After depositing your outdoor clothing in the cloakroom, you followed long staircases and corridors into a spacious hall. Here were tables and chairs for readers, filing cabinets, and desks for interacting with librarians. To the side was a recreation area with a row of machines that for a few kopecks would fill a cup with syrup-flavored water. (There was, if I recall correctly, a choice of three flavors.) Nearby were the toilets. In short, everything you might ask of a library except the books. As in all Soviet libraries, you never caught sight of the stacks where the books were stored: that part of the library was reserved for the librarians.

You completed and handed in forms requesting the titles you wanted, and the next day the librarians would have them ready and waiting for you. That was all very well if you knew what titles you wanted, but how were you to get started if you were investigating a topic for the first time and knew nothing about the literature available on it? You couldn't browse along the bookshelves. But you could browse in the card indexes--and I spent a lot of time doing just that. Then I would order different kinds of books to look at, learning by experience which kinds were most valuable and which completely useless.

The genre that I found of most value was the "avtoreferat -- a student's own 20 to 30-page summary of his or her doctoral or candidate's thesis, printed in 200 copies or even fewer. Some of the avtoreferats I discovered in the field of statistics were very substantive, informative, and well argued. Without them I would have remained totally lost. They clearly described and criticized the established methods of the Central Statistical Administration and put forward sensible proposals to improve them. In view of the low official status of their authors, these proposals were naturally ignored.

At the economics institute I was supposed to make arrangements through an official whose special duty was to deal with foreign students. This involved repeated telephone calls to get hold of him and fix an appointment, followed by endless waiting in the corridor outside his office. Many other foreign students were always milling about in this corridor, all hoping to get to see the official and sort out some matter with him. One African student from a former British colony asked me whether I saw the irony in the fact that both of us, the colonial and the Brit, were now in the same predicament, equally dependent on the whim of some wretched Russian bureaucrat.

Eventually I got to talk to the man. I pointed out to him that I would only be in Leningrad for another couple of weeks. Couldn't he dispense with the usual formalities and just arrange two or three consultations for me? Perhaps he could advise whom it would be appropriate for me to consult? From his expression it was clear that he had no idea. As for cutting corners, he wouldn't hear of it. I should draft my "study plan" (uchebnyi plan) and then make another appointment with him to discuss it. I realized that by then it would be too late to arrange any consultations. Perhaps that was what he was counting on.

I decided to give up on him. Instead of waiting in the corridor outside his office, I explored the institute building. I studied the menu displayed outside the cafeteria on the ground floor and jotted down the prices for my own "budget survey." I read all the pieces of paper on the numerous notice boards, and when I didn't understand something I asked one of the students standing around nearby. From this I learned a lot about the way the institute was organized. In particular, I now had detailed notes of which professors taught in each department, what courses they taught, and what topics each specialized in. This enabled me to compile a short list of individuals whose interests overlapped with my own. Now all I had to do was go and look for them!

Fortune smiled on me: my first consultation materialized right away.

I walked into a departmental office and asked the secretary for the professor I wanted. She looked up at the sound of the door opening again behind me and smiled:

"You're in luck! Here is Mikhail Alexandrovich at this very moment!"

Mikhail Alexandrovich had a quizzical look on his face, as if to say: what's all this about? We shook hands. I introduced myself and asked for a consultation. He appeared surprised, amused, and also a little flattered.

"How did you choose me?" he asked. I told him about my study of the notice boards.

"Well, I'm on my way to meet a graduate student. Her name is Tatyana. Why don't you join us?"

He introduced us and we found an empty room to settle down in. I realised that this was supposed to be Tatyana's consultation not mine, so I kept quiet and listened to the conversation between her and Mikhail Alexandrovich. It was a relaxed, rather meandering, occasionally animated discussion between intellectual equals. Tatyana vehemently disagreed with Mikhail Alexandrovich on certain points and Mikhail Alexandrovich didn't seem to mind in the least. I reflected that with a more authoritarian professor the atmosphere would have been quite different. Tatyana's work was about enterprise accounting systems. I only understood snatches of what they were saying; much of the time they were talking too fast for me, or else I lacked the necessary technical background to follow the discussion.

After about half an hour, Mikhail Alexandrovich invited me to talk about my work. The theme of survey methods in statistical reporting was new to them. "We don't pay attention to this problem," he admitted. "It isn't one of the problems that worry us."

Although I hadn't really learned anything very relevant to my research topic, the very fact that I had actually had a consultation with a Russian professor elated me. I left the building and crossed the street, forgetting that I should have crossed at the lights. On the other side of the street I was told off by a police officer for jaywalking. Even that barely dented my elation.


9. Yulia and Garik

As I mentioned, during the second half of our month in Leningrad in 1981 our Russian language classes were held at a nearby college. Some of us took the opportunity to practice our Russian with the regular students at this college, who came from all over the Soviet Union. One of these students invited us to visit her and her brother at home one evening, and a group of us took up the invitation.

The “home” where Yulia and Garik lived was a spacious room in a communal apartment in an old building on Vasilevsky Island, which lies between the two main branches of the Neva River and the open sea (if the Gulf of Finland can be called the open sea). Parts of the island are often submerged in a sea mist and this gave the place an air of mystery: a human figure, perhaps wearing the uniform of the Red Army, would suddenly loom out of the mist and equally suddenly vanish.  

Although following Khrushchev’s vast housing construction program many people now had their own apartments, communal apartments were still the norm in old city districts like Vasilevsky Island. Yulia and Garik had turned their room into a comfortable and personalized refuge from the outside world. The main drawback was having to share a kitchen, toilet, bathroom, and telephone with an assortment of strangers. 

Yulia hoped to qualify as an interpreter; otherwise she would become a teacher of English. Her English was about as good as my Russian and she and I alternated between the two. With Garik we had to use our Russian. Yulia told me their family history. Their father was an Azerbaijani, some sort of manager in the oil industry (that explained their slightly dark appearance). Their mother was a Volga German—a descendant of the German farmers settled along the Volga by Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century. She was still a child when the Volga Germans were deported following the outbreak of war in 1941. She had met their father in exile.

Yulia also told me that she had asked the leader of her Komsomol group to organize a get-together with us but that he had refused. She then decided to invite us anyway.

At the hotel I bought five tickets for a concert through the tourist agency representative. She clearly assumed that “my party” consisted wholly of British students. Two of the tickets were for Yulia and Garik. We all had an enjoyable evening out.

I visited Yulia and Garik a number of times. Increasingly Yulia tried to give our friendship a romantic significance. At breakfast time on our last day in Leningrad she called me at the hotel to ask me to come again: it would be a pity not to spend as much time as possible together.

Why did I hold aloof? After all, I did like Yulia very much, with a strong liking of the kind that easily turns into love if you allow it to.

She told me that her friends had advised her to avoid me. From the way I had been talking they suspected that I had ties with one of the left opposition groups in the city. I was flabbergasted. I had not even been aware that such groups still existed (though if they did still exist Leningrad was obviously the appropriate place for them). I had also fondly imagined that I was talking carefully. Perhaps, but evidently not carefully enough to be sure I was not endangering anyone.  

Next Yulia asked whether I suspected her of being a “swallow.” I did not immediately grasp what she meant. Was she alluding to the quality of her voice? But then I remembered how in spy novels the word refers to a woman paid by the KGB to entrap foreigners. I laughed and assured her that her transparent straightforwardness made any such suspicion ridiculous.

What was the trouble then? Was I deterred by the prospect of the bureaucratic hurdles that would have to be overcome before Yulia could join me in England? I don’t think that was the real reason. Besides my general nervousness in an unfamiliar situation, I felt uneasy because part of my appeal to her was clearly the possibility that through me she might get out of the Soviet Union and go to the West. I did not see this as her only motive—I could sense that she liked me. But I was not sure whether she liked me enough to want to marry me irrespective of whether it would enable her to emigrate. Suppose that I had been a Soviet citizen like herself?

Several of my Soviet Studies colleagues of both sexes had married Soviet people and brought them to live in the West. A desire to emigrate must have been part of the Soviet person’s motivation in most if not all of these cases. And yet these couples seemed happy enough. Was I being oversensitive?

Later I learned that while Yulia was wooing me Garik was wooing one of the British girls in our group. On the morning of our departure a samovar had appeared outside the door to her room. It was a gift from Garik. She was thrown into a panic. Garik must have been strongly attached to his sister and afraid that she would go off with me and leave him on his own, so he hoped to avoid abandonment by following her example. As it turned out, they were both out of luck.

A few months later I received a postcard from Yulia. She was lonely and unhappy. She had failed to qualify as an interpreter and been assigned to teach school for two years in a remote village. I had a moment of sadness and self-doubt, but in retrospect I think I was right to look for greater clarity of motivation. I am glad to have married whom I did. 


10. A scuffle at customs

In 1983 or thereabouts, I dropped in at the Moscow Esperanto club and found an evening class in Esperanto for young people in progress. My unscheduled appearance caused some excitement and the teacher invited me to talk with the class. The students asked me whether I would find pen friends in England for them and I agreed to try. I knew that there were very few young Esperantists in Britain, but perhaps I could link the class with a class in one of the handful of British schools where Esperanto was taught. The entire class of thirty-two lined up to write down their names and addresses on the sheet of paper that the teacher provided for the purpose.

When I was passing through customs at the end of that trip, the customs officer chanced upon that sheet of paper.

"What is this?" he asked in dismay. "Such a long list! Why do you need so many addresses? We allow visitors to keep a few addresses. The maximum number permitted is officially seven. Even if there are eight we don’t mind all that much. But over thirty?!"

I explained it all to him: Esperanto, international correspondence, school-to-school links. They were just a bunch of kids looking for pen friends. It was completely harmless. He listened and nodded.

"Yes, that's all very interesting. Perhaps you are right, perhaps it is completely harmless. Or perhaps there is some hidden danger. I am not in a position to judge. For that reason I cannot allow you to keep this paper."

Well, I had tried. My concern now was with the welfare of the students and teacher of the Esperanto class. Would anyone suffer any repercussions? I didn't expect that anything really terrible would happen to anyone. But I did think it possible that a few of the kids or their parents or the Esperanto teacher himself might have the unpleasant experience of being called in for questioning by the KGB. After all, if there is a possible danger to the state then won't the paper end up in the hands of the KGB? That would be logical.

"I am concerned that there should be no repercussions for the individuals on the list."

"Don't worry about that. Nothing bad will happen to them."

At that point I suddenly received "help" from an unexpected quarter and of a most unwelcome kind--the unsolicited intervention of two other members of our tour group who were standing next to me and must have been following my exchange with the customs official. One of them, a woman, hurled a stream of invective into the customs man's face, while her male companion lunged forward and tried to snatch the paper from his hand! The customs man was too quick for him and a noisy scuffle between them ensued.

Momentarily I was stunned. Then I was astonished. Where on earth do they think they are to allow themselves such liberties? Fortunately I regained my presence of mind in time to assess and respond to the situation. At present the customs man was on the defensive, but soon colleagues would notice that he was in trouble and hasten to his aid. The intrepid “fighter for human rights” would be overpowered and the police summoned, with arrests and interrogations to follow. I had better act fast.

I walked fast and put a few yards between myself and the spot where the scuffle was in progress. Then I turned and started yelling in English at the troublemakers: "Cut that out!" Fortunately a single yell sufficed.  

The incident was over. Miraculously, no one had been hurt and no one had been arrested.

The customs officer and I resumed our conversation. Clearly he understood that I had had nothing to do with the attack on him. In fact, he spoke to me with even greater courtesy than before.

"I assure you, on my word of honor, that nothing will happen to these kids. There is no need for any other department to see this piece of paper. I'll just drop it in the wastepaper basket."

I was satisfied. I had convinced him that Esperanto students seeking pen friends were not a danger to the state. It was the best outcome that I could reasonably have expected.

Anyway, having the list of addresses confiscated meant one less worry for me. How on earth would I have found pen friends for all those keen Russian Esperantists?

I boarded the plane. A few minutes later the pilot announced that we had left Soviet airspace. The announcement was greeted with jubilant cheering. Although I did not join in I did let out a sigh of relief.


11. A literary exchange

In July 1984 I listened to a lecture on Soviet literature given by the literary critic Vadim Sokolov at the Moscow Automobile Transport Institute. I no longer recall how I found out about the lecture—probably from a notice board. But it was the first lecture I attended at any Soviet institution and both its unexpectedly rich content and the personality of the lecturer made an indelible impression on me. It demonstrated to me more than anything had before that despite the constraints and taboos there was scope in the Soviet system for honest and creative thought. The notes that I took of the lecture were published in October 1984 in the first issue of a journal produced by a group of colleagues under the name Détente (to be discussed in the next chapter). This journal is no longer easily accessible, so I reproduce them here.

The 1950s and early 1960s saw the renewal of Soviet literature. There was a desire to deal with “the whole truth of life” instead of with half-truths and lies. And this search for truth began with a straightforward concern for “the truth of fact”—the recording, often in documentary fashion, of events previously hidden in silence.

Take war literature. Literature about the last war still has meaning for us, because it is not only about the war as such but about all human experience under extreme conditions of loneliness and suffering. But Stalinist war literature was a literature devoted to triumphs alone, to the period of advance that began with the Battle of Stalingrad. It kept silent about the first tragic years of the war, filled with defeat and bitter disillusionment. In the 1950s it became possible to write about the first year of the war, as Sergei Smirnov did in his Heroes of the Brest Fortress. It became possible to write about figures like Soviet submarine commander Captain Marinesi, whom the Nazis dubbed “Enemy No. 1 of the Reich” but who had been half-forgotten in his own country in the postwar years.

Stalinist literature was written from the viewpoint of the leaders. Post-Stalinist literature focused on the lives of ordinary people, especially in the countryside—the “rural prose” of writers like Abramov and Rasputin.

Life in the countryside after the war was much harsher than in the cities. People started to aspire to intellectual work, while rural work is the most prolonged and manual, the least skilled and automated. Massive urbanization created migrants like Shukshin’s Chudik who had forgotten how to live in the old way but had not learned how to live in a new way. Shukshin’s humor, reminiscent of Gogol, colored the sadness of serious human conflict. The rural writers try to unite us with the moral roots of our life.

Rural prose was joined by the “urban prose” exemplified in Trifonov’s cycle of stories about Moscow life. In the old “production novel” production had replaced the living human being. This made for weak and boring prose. But Trifonov tackles the conflict between production and morality. The brilliant engineer, hero of the Scientific-Technological Revolution, who knows all about production and is sure of himself in facing the most complex technical problems, but who is weak and lost in love and friendship, facing everyday human problems—the contradiction of the “practical person.” Why, Trifonov asks the ordinary Moscow engineer and scientist, do you have the mind but not the conscience and sense of justice of a real member of the intelligentsia?

Literature and art are the study of Man. Science and mathematics are not sufficient for this, because there is a “something more” in Man that science cannot handle. Even in chess there is something that cannot be computerized. And it is this human complexity that is often inaccessible to the “practical person.” We recall how an animal is killed for a feast in Aitmatov’s The White Steamboat. What the adults could not understand was how for the little boy this was a great tragedy that would lead to his death.

If the first period of the renewal of Soviet literature, the 1950s and 1960s, was dominated by “the truth of the fact,” then the second period, the 1970s, was dominated by the literature of moral search, moral values, personality—“the truth of feeling.” This was a new step toward “the whole truth of life.”

The mythical fable is a popular form in the literature of moral search. The characters are forced to make a choice, and they have to find moral criteria for their choices.

Why do we need economic reform? Percentomania. In our planned economy everything is calculated as a percentage. The percentage of fours and fives [on the five-point scale used in Russia to assess the work of school students] received by students is the criterion on which schools are assessed. And whether to give a student a two or a three depends on the conscience of the teacher. A three given by one teacher can mean more than a four given by another. And a four given by a slack teacher can mean tragedy later on. But everyone has an interest in that lying percentomania.

Our education emphasizes collectivism. Why then is the psychology of crude egoism becoming not less but more common? But it is not only a matter of individual egoism. There is also group egoism. Our social conditions must give rise to egoism, and it is necessary to change those conditions.

These are the kind of problems dealt with by the most recent type of literature—the literature of historical and philosophical thought, exemplified by Aitmatov’s Longer than a Century Lasts the Day. The heroes of this literature are concerned not just with the fate and morality of the individual, but with the philosophical problems of the age. So to the truth of fact and the truth of feeling we can add “the truth of philosophical generalization.”

In these novels the main conflict is between the “philosopher” and the person who says: “I’m a little man; it is enough for me to live through the day.” A common theme of this literature is the question of the environment.

At the end of the lecture an inner impulse led me to approach Sokolov. I thanked him and introduced myself. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that a foreigner had been in the audience. I suggested that in addition to the truth of fact, the truth of feeling, and the truth of philosophical generalization there is also a “truth of the imagination” that is especially central to such genres as fantasy and science fiction. He responded with some interesting remarks about Soviet science fiction:

We have some good science fiction writers, like the Strugatsky brothers, but on the whole our science fiction is poorly developed. Why? First, Russian literature, unlike British literature, does not have a substantial science fiction tradition. We have to create such a tradition from scratch. Second, science fiction needs scientists who turn to literature, but few Soviet scientists seem to have the necessary literary ability or interest. Moreover, most Soviet science fiction is of a purely technical kind. There is not very much “social” science fiction. It is a problem of inadequate philosophical development. What sort of society will exist in fifty years’ time? In the West they cannot conceive of it. That is to be expected. But we should be able to conceive of it. And we too are unable to.    

For me this was a very rewarding exchange. I felt that I was acquiring the ability to engage in real communication with Soviet people.

Sokolov, by the way, was wrong to say that Russia lacks a “substantive” science fiction tradition. Or, rather, there was such a tradition but it was lost. The first work of science fiction appeared in Western Europe in 1816—namely, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1816) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797—1851). The first works of Russian science fiction, by A. A. Pogorelsky (Perovsky) and N. I. Grech, were published only a few years later, in the 1820s. Better known early Russian science fiction writers were Prince Vladimir Odoyevsky and Osip Senkovsky, whose works appeared in the 1830s and 1840s.1

A lecture on sex

I have a vivid memory of attending a lecture about sex sponsored by the Znanie [Knowledge] society. Unfortunately I didn’t make notes and I can’t give the exact date, but it was before Gorbachev came to power. I am not even sure whether it was in Moscow or Leningrad. The lecturer was one of a new breed of Soviet sexologists. He spoke in an indoor stadium to a large, mostly young, and very lively audience. People listened with rapt attention, nodded, smiled and laughed, and made interjections. I recall only a little of what the lecturer said. He talked about a patient of his—a woman in a responsible job who was inhibited by the feeling that even when she was alone in the bedroom with her husband people were watching her.

Note to Chapter 11

 1. For a discussion of early Russian science fiction see: Iu. I. Ritchik, "Zarozhdenie nauchnoi fantastiki v russkoi romanticheskoi povesti 30-40-kh gg. XIX v." [The Birth of Science Fiction in the Russian Romantic Tale of the 1830s and 1840s] in Utopiia i utopicheskoe v slavianskom mire [Utopia and the Utopian in the Slavic World] (Moscow: Izdatel' Stepanenko, 2002) , pp. 114-121. A synopsis of this source was published in Special Issue No. 14 of my Research and Analytical Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List (December 2002) on Russian science. At:


12. A new cultural attaché

The British embassy in Moscow is housed in a compound along the Moscow River. If you show a British passport you can go in and make use of various facilities, including a library and a small medical clinic. However, I would have had no special reason to go there had a friend not asked me to see the cultural attaché on his behalf.

Yuli Kagarlitsky was one of my favorite people. I first met him thanks to contact sharing by CREES colleagues who knew him as a result of his past participation in cultural exchanges with Britain. He was a scholar who specialized in the history of English drama and science fiction. He had translated into Russian several of the science fiction works of H.G. Wells—novels like War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, with which I had been familiar since childhood. He was also the father of Boris Kagarlitsky, a well-known left-wing dissident many of whose books have been published in the West.

Yuli held democratic socialist (Menshevik) views, so he and I were on the same wavelength politically. He explained to me that as Boris’ father and for other reasons he was vulnerable to political attack, but that the previous British cultural attaché had been so kind as to visit him regularly at his apartment and he believed that this had given him a measure of protection. This man had now left the country and he would like to set up the same sort of arrangement with the new cultural attaché. Would I act as a go-between?

I was glad to do so. Unfortunately the new man was rather stiff and wary, probably because he lacked any prior experience in the Soviet Union and felt understandably nervous. When I explained my friend’s request to him he reacted as though I had tried to incite him to commit some terrible crime or made an indecent sexual proposition. I don’t think he had any political motive. He simply believed that he was duty bound to stick strictly to the rules—any rules, whether set by the British Foreign Office, the KGB, or the Devil—and he sensed that what I was asking him to do was against the rules and therefore irregular and improper.

I was not prepared for such an angry reaction and retreated in confusion. Fortunately nothing untoward happened to Yuli Kagarlitsky despite his loss of British diplomatic protection.

I was later to see the same cultural attaché on another matter and it was clear that he still regarded me with distrust.


13. The journal Détente

In 1984 a group of friends and colleagues in the Soviet Studies field in England came together to start up a new magazine. The magazine was finally launched in the fall of 1984 under the name Detente: A journal devoted to understanding the Soviet Union. The editorial board consisted initially of Ann Helgeson, Philip Hanson, Nick Lampert, and myself at CREES, Mammo Muchie at the University of Sussex Institute of Development Studies, and Jeff Gleisner of the University of Leeds, who became editor. Later we were joined by Jean McCollister, a young American scholar at the University of Oxford.

Through Detente we hoped to promote peace and cooperation between the USSR and the West, provide a public outlet for intra-system reformers in the USSR, and raise awareness of positive changes maturing below the frozen surface of Soviet society. These tendencies were already clearly visible to many Soviet Studies specialists in 1984 or even 1983, well before Gorbachev came to power.1

Detente publicized the ideas and activities of Soviet reformers working in various fields. Thus the first two issues featured, besides "Colonel X," the writer Chingiz Aitmatov, the literary critic Vadim Sokolov, the journalist Fyodor Burlatsky (see above), the film maker Yuli Raizman, the Moscow Trust Group (an unofficial peace group), and a group of science educators in Leningrad ("Earth and Universe").

One reader perceptively remarked that there was “something odd” about Détente, although he could not put his finger on what it was. As an English-language publication on Soviet affairs Détente was indeed unique. However, if that reader had been familiar with Russian-language Soviet sources of a reformist orientation he might not have been so puzzled—because we used those sources as a model. That meant criticizing Soviet reality in a restrained, low-key manner and avoiding condemnatory language. It meant observing certain taboos, engaging in self-censorship, and hoping that readers would grasp the need to read between as well as along the lines.

We did not present the within-system reformers with whom we collaborated as dissidents, for this would have been dangerous to them as well as misleading. Nor did we present them as spokespersons for an official Soviet point of view, which would have been equally misleading. They tried to navigate the narrow channel between the official and the dissident worlds and we sought to help them do exactly that.2

For example, the scientists in “Earth and Universe” had their own approach to education, even (covertly) political education, but at the same time they had established protective ties with the Academy of Sciences and the official trade unions. In Détente we emphasized these ties and avoided portraying the group as “anti-system” in any respect. The appendix to this chapter illustrates this approach: our interview with two of the scientists as it appeared in the second issue of Détente (January 1985) is followed for purposes of comparison by extracts from a confidential trip report (circulated to selected peace activists, also in January 1985) containing more sensitive information excluded from the Détente interview.

All this was necessary in our view if the journal was to serve its purpose, especially in the first few years before and in the early stages of perestroika. Our self-restraint made it possible for Détente to circulate freely among reformist intellectuals in Moscow and we regarded these people as an important part of our readership. Later it became possible to take a somewhat more relaxed approach.

Detente went through some twenty issues before fizzling out soon after the same fate befell the Soviet Union, the object of its analysis.3 Like all ventures that lack solid institutional and financial backing and rely on the free labor of a handful of enthusiasts, it collapsed when the editor and members of the editorial board had got fed up or exhausted or moved on to new interests. But in a modest way it had already served its purpose.

Notes to Chapter 13

 1. One dramatic sign was the leaking of the "Zaslavskaya Report," a paper on economic reform delivered by Academician Tatyana Zaslavskaya at a seminar of the Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk attended by Gorbachev (already a member of the top leadership). See also, for instance: Archie Brown, "Political Science in the Soviet Union: A New Stage of Development," Soviet Studies, Vol. XXXVI, July 1984, No. 3, pp. 317-44.

I also noticed that scholarly journals were starting to analyze the process of state policy making and administration—an area previously off limits. I was especially impressed by A.V. Obolonsky’s article “Formal and Informal Groups in the Apparatus of State Administration” in the May 1983 issue of Soviet State and Law [Sovetskoe gosudarstvo i pravo]. 

2. Another movement for educational reform with a similar semi-official status was that known as “developmental education.” The developmental educationalists operated a number of experimental schools in several Soviet cities for many years. However, the movement was suppressed by the Communist Party Central Committee after it adopted the position that further experimentation was unnecessary and it was time to introduce its methods throughout the schools system. See: Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 2003, Vol. 41, No. 5 and 2011, Vol. 49, No. 6.

 3. The last few issues came out under a new name—Russia and the World.


Earth and Universe [Détente, No. 2, January 1985]

This interview was conducted recently in Leningrad by a Détente correspondent (D) with astronomer Alexander Tron and ecologist Oleg Drugoveiko, two of the lecturers for the Youth Scientific Club “Earth and Universe.”

D: Perhaps you would start by explaining what the “Earth and Universe” club is?

Tron: Within the Soviet Academy of Sciences there are organized a series of scientific societies, one for each branch of science. Our club was founded about five years ago under the auspices of the Leningrad Section of the Society for Astronomy and Geodesy (study of the shape of the earth). It is run as a form of “self-activity”—that is, on a voluntary unpaid basis—by a group of ten scientists and mathematicians. We provide special scientific tuition to about 200 children from the senior classes of secondary schools. We also assist the educational program of the Central Council of Trade Unions.

D: What sort of topics do you cover in your classes?

Tron: We cater for the most enthusiastic and imaginative children, those whom the standard school curriculum leaves unsatisfied. What we teach cannot easily be learned elsewhere. We began in astronomy, focusing on those topics youngsters are curious about, such as the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations. Later we branched out into other fields of science.

D: In the West there has been growing interest in the social and ethical problems of scientific activity.

Drugoveiko: We try to develop an awareness of these aspects also in our students. For example, I teach a course in ecology, in which I deal not only with the purely scientific issues but also with the view that different cultures—ancient, Eastern, Christian, etc.—have taken of the relationship between Man and Nature. I show the position held on ecology by the communist ideology. Then I discuss the ecological consciousness expressed by social movements in the West—the Movement for Survival, the youth movement of the 1960s, and the contemporary Green movement in Europe. I examine the ecological situation in the developed countries and in the Third World.

Tron: Our work answers to a growing need. The recent educational reform has increased the amount of time devoted to direct work training in the school curriculum. Might this not have a detrimental effect on academic standards? These are known to be high in our country, and they should remain high. Perhaps the Youth Scientific Clubs will be able to make an even bigger contribution to science education in the future.

D: It seems to me that there is great potential for international cooperation in this field. Are you interested in contacts with colleagues abroad?

Drogoveiko: Yes, we would certainly like to expand our professional contacts.

Note: The official addresses of the Youth Scientific Club “Earth and Universe” are ...

The editors of Détente can help in establishing contact with “Earth and Universe” and would be interested to know about the progress of any contacts.

Section on “Earth and Universe” from my confidential report of a trip to the Soviet Union over Christmas and the New Year 1984—85

The first aim of the organizers is to maintain academic standards, which they see as threatened by the recent educational reform, which greatly increased the amount of school time devoted to direct work training, and also by the increasing emphasis on ideological education. Secondly, they aim to raise the social awareness of the most able youngsters. They do this by covering social and ethical problems of science (e.g., ecological thinking) in their science courses. They also hold social-science courses on a covert unofficial basis, covering a wide range of social thought.

They escape effective party control because party officials are unable to understand what they are doing. The party organization of the Academy of Sciences decided to check up on them and sent inspectors to their science classes, but everything seemed to be in order. They were merely asked to give their teaching an anti-religious slant. The officials of the Central Council of Trade Unions, who are expected to organize an educational program, rely on “Earth and Universe” to help them out with this.

The local KGB seem aware of the unofficial orientation of the Club. Their activity is tolerated but contacts with foreigners are discouraged...

The personal views of the people I met are extremely anti-system... They say things like: “The West doesn’t understand the real danger of our system.”

They would like contacts with academics, ecology and peace organizations. Letters and publications can be sent to them to their official addresses... Suitable people visiting Leningrad can also be put in touch with Tron personally. They would like scientists to come over and lecture to their classes, ideally in Russian but with translation if necessary. This involves some risk, but they think this is justified by increased contact.

I think contacts with “E & U” should be expanded and suitable academics encouraged to set up cooperation with them... People need to be briefed about the whole situation before going, and asked to make sure not to have published anything about the unofficial side of “E & U.”

Note. As a result of our efforts quite a few Western peace activists visiting Leningrad made contact with “E & U.” So far as I am aware the lectures by foreign scientists did not materialize.


14. Viktor Girshfeld (“Colonel X”)

A crucial role in the emergence of "new thinking" under Gorbachev was played by the mezhdunarodniki—international affairs specialists based at a number of institutes of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Moreover, as Matthew Evangelista has demonstrated,1 these people developed their ideas in close interaction with West European peace researchers and peace activists. I was personally involved in this interaction, especially through my cooperation with the late Colonel Viktor Girshfeld, a former army officer and senior adviser at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (usually known by its Russian acronym, IMEMO).

In documenting the changes in Soviet thinking, Western researchers have, understandably enough, relied primarily and in some cases exclusively on openly published Soviet sources. However, there were influential mezhdunarodniki who never wrote for open publication but communicated their ideas only through classified papers for restricted circulation and orally at closed meetings. Girshfeld was one of these.2 From what I know of his work, his contribution to the new thinking was no smaller than that of such individuals as Georgi Arbatov and Andrei Kokoshin, whose names are much better known.

Let me convey a little about Viktor Girshfeld’s background in his own words:

I represent the third generation of Bolsheviks. We are, so to speak, a Marxist aristocracy. My grandfather was in the Party from its creation and my father from 1918. My uncle, a diplomat at the Soviet embassy in Paris, was shot by Stalin. I do not suffer from any inferiority complex, either personally or politically. And that implies a feeling of responsibility. I am proud that I live in the USSR. We are such a mighty country that nothing, apart from our own fools, can any longer shake us.

All three generations of my family fought. My grandfather fought in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 and in World War One.3 My father fought in the Civil War with Chapayev and in World War Two. He worked with Lenin personally during the Civil War, reporting to him on the situation on the fronts. After a brilliant military career, he joined the Soviet embassy in Berlin in 1931.4

I grew up in the West. I spent part of my childhood with my uncle in Paris, part of it with my father in Germany. I saw with my own eyes both the democratic West and fascism. Could it be said that I love the West? I love people. That is the most important thing.

In 1941, at the age of 16, I went to the front as a volunteer. At that time they were forming the Home Guard for the defense of Moscow, and my age worried no one. Later, it is true, when the situation stabilized, they released me from active service and sent me to study in a military school.

I served in the army until 1959.5 Postwar service in the army helped me to get to know the country better. It gave me the opportunity to understand much in life. It is not that I fear war. Simply, I know war.

After leaving the army, I enrolled in the History Faculty of Moscow University. Soon after graduation, I was accepted by the Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

So I have had luck in life. I grew up in the West, fought, stayed alive, studied military affairs, then history and political science. All that has made me a globalist. The world is one in its changing variety. I have grown accustomed to seeing my country as part of the world, and to feeling myself to be a scholar and at the same time a citizen of a great power. That is a heavy cross to bear. And I myself am part of this world.

Our country is a special one, it has many problems specific to itself, but we are still part of the industrialized world and of humanity as a whole. All general problems concern us too. Russia contains within itself the North and the South, the East and the West. We have all peoples and all religions, from Catholicism to Buddhism and even Shamanism.6 Therefore I consider my service to my country as service to humanity. And my only compass needle is love for people.

I am an optimist. The experience of my work as an expert has shown that I have often been too much of an optimist, and that what I expected in one year has taken five years to happen. But all the same, it did happen! Humanity and my own country have acquired such wealth and might that only their own failings prevent them from living in prosperity and peace, without war and hunger. Fifty years ago this was still impossible.

The changes now taking place in our country confirm that we shall be able to make our contribution to the transformation of the world. The time is coming when the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, of which Marx spoke, will be a current task.

First meeting

I first met Viktor in late 1983 after a mutual friend told each of us about the other. When I called the number I had been given the telephone was answered by Viktor's wife Tanya, who told me that Viktor was in hospital. I apologized for disturbing her and was about to hang up, but she forestalled me.

"Hold on, are you Stephen? Viktor very much wants to meet you. Why don't you visit him at the hospital?"

I wandered for some time in the back streets near the monument to Yuri Gagarin, trying to follow Tanya’s instructions. Finally, a passerby pointed out to me an unmarked entrance path leading to the sprawling low-set building that housed the hospital of the Academy of Sciences. (This was a moderately privileged facility for people working at institutes belonging to the USSR Academy of Sciences—not as well provided for as the Kremlin Hospital for the power elite, but a cut above the hospitals for ordinary people.)

I told the receptionist whom I had come to see and sat down to wait with a few others. She looked up and informed me that I was not allowed to leave my shoulder bag on the floor. I shrugged slightly and place it on the bench beside me. To my surprise, a woman who was also waiting in the reception area took issue on my behalf. What was the point, she wanted to know, of a silly rule like that? After all, everyone was allowed to go around in outdoor shoes that were much less clean than my bag. The same thought had occurred to me too. The receptionist did not deign to reply.

After five or ten minutes, the receptionist told me I could go and see Girshfeld. She pointed me in the right direction and let me find my own way. I was surprised not to be escorted. I had assumed that I was waiting for someone to become available to escort me. Why else?

So I set off into the labyrinth of corridors, trying to stick to the direction indicated to me. Every so often I passed a medic or a patient wearing a dressing gown. When I caught someone's eye, I'd ask: "Girshfeld?" Eventually I ran into a man who responded: "You're looking for Girshfeld? He's in the courtyard."

It was a pleasant little garden in the midst of the hospital. By a little fountain there stood a squat gray-haired man of about 60, evidently deep in thought. He looked up and acknowledged my presence with a satisfied "Ah!" He knew who I was.

We exchanged greetings and I asked about his health. He irritably waved the inquiry aside. Doctors! He was just in for a checkup. There was nothing wrong with him.

An Indo-Pakistani conundrum

Then he asked me what I thought of the state of relations between India and Pakistan. He said that he was very worried by the possibility of another Indo-Pakistani war and was hoping I would use my influence with the British Foreign Office to prevail upon them to do everything in their power to avert the danger.

That threw me. First of all, the topic was completely unexpected. I had not been following events on the Indian subcontinent. Second, I was astonished at the idea that I had influence with the British Foreign Office. What on earth had our mutual friend told him about me?

I rambled on evasively about Britain no longer having the influence in the world that it once had. Then I suddenly thought it best to admit that I had not been following Indo-Pakistani relations. Why did he think a war was especially likely at this moment in time? Did it have something to do with the situation in Kashmir?

No, he replied, the likelihood of a war was not especially great, but if one did break out the likelihood that the great powers would be drawn in was especially great at this conjuncture. Why? He waffled. I could not get a clear explanation out of him. But he did make the point that there were strong links between the security situation in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. He also made ominous references to "mistakes that we may make on our southern border."

When I thought back on the matter later, it seemed to me that Girshfeld was hinting at something of great importance. He was trying to turn my mind in a certain direction and give me a few clues. From his conversation on other topics I learned that he usually expressed himself very directly and pungently, so if in this instance he had been vague there must have been a good reason for it.

On my return home, I made a closer study of what was going on in Indo-Pakistani relations and in Afghanistan and came up with what seemed to me a plausible hypothesis. Girshfeld was surely hinting at some connection between the possible outbreak of an Indo-Pakistani war and the war in Afghanistan. There had recently been Soviet air raids against the refugee camps in northern Pakistan from which the mojaheddin infiltrated back into Afghanistan. The Soviet foreign affairs weekly Novoe vremya [New Times] was issuing thinly veiled threats that it might become necessary to take more drastic military action against the mojaheddin bases.

I guessed that the Soviet leadership might be considering the option of a lightning cross-border operation by ground forces with air support to "take out" the camps. Moreover, the outbreak of war between Pakistan and India would have created optimal conditions for undertaking such an operation, forcing Pakistan to fight on two fronts. Therefore a decision to go ahead with such an operation was most likely in the event of a new Indo-Pakistani war. A senior adviser like Girshfeld would surely have known what was being considered and may indeed have been consulted about the possible international consequences. It certainly sounded like a scenario for World War Three.

With the help of my CREES colleague Phil Hanson, I did get the chance to present this analysis to a roomful of officials at the Foreign Office. They appeared skeptical but encouraged me to speak at length and asked me many questions, not all of which I was able to answer. The crucial question was: "What do you want us to do about it?" I suggested that they try to make Pakistan's political and military leaders aware of their country's vulnerable situation and of the consequent need to avoid war with India at any cost.

Viktor's propaganda scheme

Returning to that first conversation in the hospital garden, Girshfeld asked me to help him implement a scheme aimed at improving the image of the Soviet army in the West. His argument was that the Soviet army was really much smaller than it appeared from figures on total personnel because many soldiers were engaged in civilian tasks. He would send me photos of friendly Soviet soldiers engaged in such peaceful pursuits and I would place them in the Western press and/or publish them in a special magazine for wide distribution.

I replied that while I was willing to do whatever I could in the cause of peace, I did not unfortunately have the time or the resources that his scheme would require. What I did not say was that I did not believe crude propaganda of this kind would be effective and did not want to be associated with it.

Those in thrall to a stereotyped conception of Soviet society will find it hard to reconcile Viktor's concern to thwart a dangerous Soviet "mistake" with his propaganda scheme. I am sure that from his point of view there was no contradiction. He saw himself neither as a dissident nor as a functionary, but as a loyal and responsible Soviet citizen with initiative and a mind of his own. No doubt he maintained cooperative relations with Soviet intelligence agencies. In his position that would have been expected of him and he would have seen nothing shameful in it. But he was not their puppet.

Viktor and Detente

Viktor Girshfeld was exactly the kind of reformer with whom those of us associated with Détente magazine wanted to cooperate.7 I explained to him the aims of our new journal and proposed that we have a series of conversations and go through all the key issues of East-West security. I would then organize my notes of our conversations into the form of one or more "interviews" for publication in Detente. I would set out his main ideas systematically, preserving to the best of my ability his style of expression in the English-language text.

He responded with enthusiasm and we carried out our plan. In October 1984 the first issue of Detente featured the first "exclusive interview with Colonel X," based on our first conversation in the hospital courtyard. Over the new year I was in Moscow again. Viktor was out of the hospital by this time and we held further conversations in his apartment and walking together in the nearby Fili Woods. These were the basis of the second "interview" which appeared in the second issue of Detente in January 1985.

Speaking of the Fili Woods, I can't resist recounting a curious incident from one of our walks there that sticks in my memory. As I was talking—with insufficient caution, I suppose, being out of doors—he suddenly interrupted to warn me to take care, pointing up into the branches above our heads and whispering that there were listening devices concealed even there. I was unsure whether he was speaking in the light of inside knowledge or just being paranoid.  

Later Viktor wrote two pieces especially for publication in our journal. I translated them from the Russian typescripts that he gave us and they were published (with editorial commentary) in the fifth issue of Detente in the winter of 1986. For this purpose he chose a new pseudonym for himself—Viktor Olenev. The first piece was the self-portrait that introduces this chapter. He wrote it at our request to show that he really existed, as some of our readers believed that we had made him up.8 The second piece was an article on the likely strategic and political consequences of the militarization of space—the only article of Girshfeld's, to the best of my knowledge, ever to be published openly. In it he says interesting things not only about his main topic but also about such matters as the war in Afghanistan, the Soviet economy, the psychology of Soviet people, and the internally contradictory character of the Soviet state.

What’s in a name?

In agreeing to my proposals for publicizing his ideas in the West, Viktor asked me to refer to him by means of a pen name. He suggested that his name simply be replaced by its English equivalent. As he did not speak English, he did not know what that would be. That, I said, would make him “Cherryfield.” That didn't sound right to me. How about calling him "Colonel X"? He agreed.

“Cherryfield” was a mistake on my part. “Girsh”—the first part of Viktor’s surname—is a Russified form of “Hirsch,” which is the German word for “red deer”; but because the sounds G and K are so close “Girsch” made me think of “Kirsch,” which means “cherry.” The correct English equivalent of “Girshfeld” would have been “Deerfield” (which happens to be the name of a town and a private school in Massachusetts).

I had another misgiving about basing his pen name on his real name but for some reason did not express it. Had I done so a misunderstanding might have been avoided. I thought that a pen name of the kind he proposed would be too transparent and fail to conceal his true identity from the Soviet authorities. In fact, there was no way of concealing his identity. For those in the know, it would be obvious who he was from the content and style of the interviews, for there was no other senior Soviet adviser and officer who would have expressed the same ideas in the same way. Concealing his identity was not the purpose of using a pseudonym. It was a purely formal requirement, a rule of the game. Breaking the rule would get him into trouble with "our formalists"—and, for better or worse, that is what happened.

Misunderstanding as I did the reason why he wanted me not to make public his real name, I did not grasp the importance of the matter. At the same time I was very concerned with the evident lack of credibility of anonymous material, because I very much wanted it to have a political effect and advance the cause of peace and disarmament. So I cheated. In Detente Viktor appeared as "Colonel X" and later as "Olenev"—the Russian counterpart to “Deerfield” (olen’ = deer). But I also sent a short article about him using his real name to the ADIU Report, a low-circulation bulletin on peace research produced by the Armament and Disarmament Information Unit at the University of Sussex. This way, I thought, at least a few specialists would believe me. I did not want or expect the article to receive any wider publicity. However, it was picked up by Andrew Wilson, a journalist at The Observer, a Sunday newspaper in London. Wilson published a brief report based on my article in the ADIU Report.

Matthew Evangelista tells in his book what happened next:

Back in Moscow, the Observer piece caught the attention of Kim Philby, the famous British spy, who kept an office at IMEMO and followed developments in the British press on behalf of the Institute. Philby translated and circulated the article, ... creating a scandal for Girshfeld, who had expected ... to be given a pseudonym... At that point Girshfeld's views on “sufficient defense” received some attention from the higher-ups, and he justified his actions on the grounds that the Western media were the only source of new ideas that Soviet military and political officials took seriously.9

When I next saw Viktor he chided me for disregarding his request not to use his real name. But he wasn't really angry. He was actually very pleased at how things had turned out. More important than the scandal itself was the fact that it had attracted attention to him and enabled him to present his ideas at a higher level than ever before, helping to prepare the ground for "new thinking" to emerge as official ideology under Gorbachev.

Viktor’s regional interests

Viktor had an abiding fascination with the Caucasus and Central Asia. Perhaps it was from him that I picked up that particular bug. He often traveled in the region and frequently hosted people visiting Moscow from the region in his apartment. I remember calling on him once with my fiancée (as she then was) and meeting there a young man from Dagestan and a young woman teacher named Zoya from a collective farm in Uzbekistan. They were in Moscow to attend a training course for people assigned to work in the Soviets (i.e., local government structures). We corresponded with Zoya for a while.


I kept up occasional contact with Viktor through the early 1990s. Tanya was no longer around. He grew more and more eccentric. He insisted that when I called him I should not identify myself by name but instead meow like a cat as a secret signal. He managed to make a living through trading ventures with the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Viktor also developed links with certain "red-brown" organizations, notably Stanislav Terekhov's Officers' Union. This might seem odd in light of his Jewish family background but he was totally assimilated. I never detected in him any sign of interest in Jewish matters: when I once happened to mention to him that I had been to a performance of the Yiddish song and dance ensemble Freilichs a grimace of distaste appeared on his face and he dismissed the subject with a wave of the arm.

As Viktor aged his health and memory deteriorated and he found it increasingly hard to cope even with everyday domestic tasks. For a time a very kind woman friend used to visit him, keep an eye on him and help him in various ways. Then I was no longer able to establish contact with him when I came to Moscow. His telephone line was cut off and his apartment looked deserted. Perhaps he had moved, but it was more likely that he was dead.

Looking over what I have written, I fear I may have conveyed the impression that Viktor was always a very serious person. In fact, he liked nothing better than to fool around. On one visit to his apartment, he persuaded me to try on a soldier's greatcoat and cap and then urged me to take them with me as souvenirs. I managed to escape without the greatcoat but I accepted the cap with the red star. Back in Birmingham I went around in it for some time, showing it off to all and sundry, until I made the fatal mistake of washing it. It fell to pieces. You weren't supposed to wash it. It was the dirt that held it together.

Notes to Chapter 14

 1. Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (Cornell University Press, 1999). See also: Robert D. English, Russia and the Idea of the West: Gorbachev, Intellectuals, and the End of the Cold War (Columbia University Press, 2000); Gerard Snel, "'A (More) Defensive Strategy': The Reconceptualisation of Soviet Conventional Strategy in the 1980s," Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 50, No. 2, March 1998, pp. 205-240; and my own monograph The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology. Chatham House Papers 37 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987).

 2. In the notes to his book (p. 301), Robert English gives a reference to one of Girshfeld's classified papers. The title (in English translation) was: "Normalization of Relations and Rapprochement Between the Korean People's Democratic Republic [North Korea] and South Korea in the System of International Relations in Asia." It was printed by IMEMO in 1973 and marked "secret." It is unusual for a Western researcher to gain access to such a document. Undoubtedly, Girshfeld wrote many documents of this type on a wide variety of issues of foreign and defense policy.

 3. This is pertinent to Viktor's ethnic identification. A Jewish officer was a rarity in the tsarist army. The only Jews who might become officers were kantonisty—those who had been removed from their families and communities while still young boys, served in the army for 25 years, and then permitted to settle outside the Pale of Settlement. Thus even Viktor’s grandfather must have been totally Russified.

 4. I did a little historical research and was able to confirm the basic facts that Viktor gives about his grandfather, father, and uncle. Thus his father was indeed a political commissar in the Red Army during the Civil War. Trotsky mentions him in one of his dispatches.

 5. Many army and navy officers were discharged at this time in connection with Khrushchev's large-scale reductions in land and sea forces.

 6. Among Soviet ethnic groups, Poles and Lithuanians were traditionally Catholic and Kalmyks and Buryats Buddhist. Some Siberian peoples have shamanistic beliefs.

 7. For these and other materials on Viktor, see Research and Analytical Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List Special Issue No. 26. November 2004. The Girshfeld file at

 8. The RAND analyst Harry Gelman took the view that "Colonel X" did exist but was not a former army officer as he "alleged." He was "presumably in fact a representative of a Soviet intelligence service" whose mission was to plant "rumors and private suggestions" about possible unilateral Soviet reductions in order "to increase domestic popular pressures on Western governments to adopt a more forthcoming negotiating posture regarding Western reductions, and more generally to inhibit Western defense expenditures" (The Soviet Military Leadership and the Question of Soviet Deployment Retreats, RAND Report R-3664-AF, 1988). I cannot disprove this hypothesis, but I knew Viktor well enough to regard it as extremely implausible. Gelman and many others with his mentality perceived Soviet people only as programmed robots carrying out missions assigned from above rather than as thinking individuals pursuing their own goals within the constraints of a specific political environment. This perception was never subjected to the test of experience because such analysts had no real contact with Soviet people.

 9. Evangelista, Unarmed Forces, p. 190.


15. Russia in the early 1990s

During the early stages of the post-Soviet “economic reform” I made three trips to Russia—in May 1992, October 1992, and July—August 1994. These are my observations about how people lived in Russia at this period.

May 1992

In May 1992 I returned to Moscow after an absence of six years, officially in order to attend a conference on international security organized by the Russian-American University (RAU). The name is misleading: the RAU was a wholly Russian outfit with strong ties to the military. About a dozen generals and admirals participated in the conference and the program included a guided tour of the General Staff Academy.

The conference organizers had sent a car to pick me up at the airport. When the car entered the city and stopped at traffic lights an old woman jumped out and started thumping on the window. She was holding a few flowers and wanted to sell them.

She was one of the thousands of street traders who stood outside subway stations, along the sidewalks of main streets, and anywhere else they were allowed to display their wares. Some had small stocks of goods they had bought from the state stores and were reselling at a higher price. Others were selling off family belongings—clocks, crockery, used clothing, all sorts of things. As sellers far outnumbered buyers the prices they got for their treasures were pitifully low. Many stood for hour after hour without ever selling anything. A few had on offer handicraft goods they had made themselves; one young man, for example, was selling bamboo pipes.

Only 10% of Muscovites (the proportion elsewhere was even smaller) were doing well—mainly those working successfully in the new private sector. The rest had to struggle merely to get by. Most of my acquaintances were associates of one or another institute of the Soviet (now Russian) Academy of Sciences. They continued to be paid their salaries but those salaries were not index-linked and exploding prices were rapidly reducing their real value to a pittance. Somehow they had to find new sources of income. A lucky few with strong connections abroad gained access to foreign grants. Some managed to obtain better-paid work at the new private schools and universities. Others put their old cars to use as taxis or became “shuttle traders” (importing and reselling goods bought cheap on trips abroad). The additional income was rarely enough to maintain their accustomed standard of living; it merely enabled them to survive.

Old age pensions had likewise nominally remained the same while losing most of their real value. Again, as in the Stalin era, the elderly had to rely on the support of their children. Those who had no children or whose children could or would not support them begged or starved. I also heard talk about old people committing suicide in order to relieve their children of the burden of supporting them.

Most people had been reduced to a diet consisting mostly or wholly of staples—bread, potatoes, and cheap vegetables such as cabbage and onion. Few could still afford to buy fruit for their children, let alone for themselves. People who used to take pleasure in offering guests a variety of tasty dishes could now offer them just potato fritters.

Many people looked haggard, even exhausted. I saw a man ahead of me on a subway escalator collapse; the people around him held him upright and got him to safety. Beggars—elderly, blind, crippled—abounded in the subway stations. Some had hung placards tied round their necks telling their tales of woe. The placard worn by one old woman explained that she had no source of support because her children were dead—a sort of apology for begging. Some crossed themselves when you gave them money.

When I gave money to one beggar woman with a baby on the street I was suddenly besieged by a crowd of ragged children yelling: “Give, uncle, me too, give, hungry.” I started to feel annoyed and then endangered and escaped with some difficulty. A man who had been watching the scene from a safe distance approached me and said in English: “I know you are a kind-hearted man, but please don’t do that again. You could be robbed or knifed.” He explained that these beggars were Gypsies for whom begging was an organized business. The children live with a beggar master and bring their takings back to him—like Fagin in Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Now I knew what to look for I spotted the same regressive phenomenon while waiting at the airport for my plane home. A little boy “worked” the crowd of waiting passengers with a monotonous whine. “Where is your mother? Stay with your mother”—I told him. He glanced at a woman standing a few yards off, gave me a mean look, and kicked me on the leg. Was that his mother or someone else—his beggar mistress?

October 1992

Returning to Moscow after only five months, prices had risen so much that it was hard to get a hold on the meaning of money. The absurd exchange rate also distorted one’s perceptions: in the two weeks I was there it rose from 300 to 370 rubles to the dollar and people were discussing whether it could be held below 500. To a foreigner almost anything priced in rubles appeared cheap, usually ridiculously cheap. That was not how it looked to a Russian.

An example. I was standing in line to buy buns from a street vendor. The price of a bun was 11 rubles, roughly equivalent to 3 cents. Many passersby asked as they approached: “How much?” I repeatedly replied “eleven” and observed their reactions. Most continued on their way; some shook their head or made a grimace as they did so. Only a few joined the line. Three cents were a trivial sum; eleven rubles were not. It must also have seemed extravagant to spend 11 rubles on a single bun when you could get a whole loaf of fresh bread for 15 rubles.

Another example. I got into the habit of giving beggars a 25-ruble note, roughly equivalent to 8 cents. They were startled to receive so much. From my point of view, of course, it was hardly generous.

July—August 1994

I was struck by signs of the rapid growth of a new stratum of rich people in Moscow. The number of private cars on the—now often congested—roads and the range of costly imported goods on sale showed that this had become a sizeable stratum, although (I was told) only in Moscow. One result was that prices no longer seemed ridiculously low in dollar terms. Indeed, Moscow was now the third most expensive city in the world (after Tokyo and Osaka).

The “intelligentsia”—a group previously united by a fairly uniform lifestyle and shared values—was now divided. A minority had successfully adapted to the new conditions and found or created niches for themselves in the “commercial structures” while the rest remained sunk in poverty. The division was marked by bitterness and moral contempt on both sides. The “failures” were especially embittered by their loss of social status, prestige, and respect. Many had lost their self-respect too.

Not only social and professional groups but also many families were breaking apart as a result of this division. Among our colleagues at a single institute three marriages were collapsing under similar pressures. Typically it was the wife who had found a new niche and become the main or sole breadwinner, while the “humiliated” husband made her a target of his resentment. “I was the sole support for the family and for my parents and on top of that I had to be a psychotherapist for my husband”—bemoaned one acquaintance, now divorced.

In the old Soviet days no one worried about crime. Even when out very late at night you might worry about catching the last subway train, but you didn’t worry about getting mugged. Moscow was now more like New York in that regard. Many Muscovites were installing fortified front doors to their apartments. People tried to get home before it got dark, although that was hardly feasible in the winter. To carry anything that looked as though it might be worth stealing was to invite assault. One of our colleagues had been unwise enough to walk on the street one night holding a shiny briefcase. A man jumped on him from behind and tried to strangle him, but somehow he managed to throw the assailant into a deep icy puddle. (These puddles often formed where a road was in poor repair and in normal circumstances were a real menace.) After that he always used a worn old briefcase to carry his papers.

It was not rare to hear gunfire. At lunch in the suburban apartment of a couple of well-known scholars—specialists in Central Asian society—we heard a crackling noise. “That sounds like gunfire,” I remarked in surprise. “Not only does it sound like gunfire,” replied my host. “It really is gunfire.” He thought that it was a shootout between members of rival criminal gangs.


16. What people were reading

Here are my notes about reading matter for sale in Moscow subway stations in May and October 1992.

May 1992

The books on sale cater mainly to private concerns (sex, child rearing, occupational retraining (computing, foreign languages, how to establish a business), hobbies (dogs, gardening, guns), and entertainment (crime and spy novels). There is some highbrow literature too, but not much.

The newspapers most commonly on sale are the liberal Nezavisimaya gazeta [Independent Newspaper] and the “patriotic” Den’ [Day]. The latest issue of the latter features extracts from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, accompanied by comments on their relevance to current events. The volunteer selling Den’ is a harmless-looking teenage boy.

Other papers on sale include Russkii vestnik [Russian Messenger], also Russian nationalist but with a stronger religious slant, and the openly Stalinist Molnie [Lightning] that you see pasted on walls and often partly scraped off. Also—Tyur’ma i svoboda {Prison and Freedom], an admirable periodical devoted to humanizing the penal system.

Some newspapers are completely devoid of politics (at least in the narrow sense). Chastnaya zhizn’ [Private Life] is all about sex. But there is nothing pornographic about it: the articles are on serious topics like AIDS among the indigenous Siberian peoples. One newspaper, Baldo, is devoted solely to the serious study of humor.

Most revealing of all is a weekly called Vsyo dlya Vas [Everything for You]. It contains small ads and nothing else. Many are inserted by people trying to buy or sell things, exchange apartments, or obtain a job, sex, or a spouse. Some are from wizards offering to cast off evil spells. Others are from families willing to take in and look after elderly people with no relatives to help them. Evidently not everyone agrees with the irate reader of Russkii vestnik who wrote in to complain about foreign food aid going to useless old people while her own children and others like them go without the meat, milk, eggs, and fruit they need to grow into healthy Russian people.   

October 1992

I cannot resist describing a couple of fantastic newspapers that I picked up in the subway. Lots of people were buying them.

Nye mozhet byt’ [It Cannot Be] is subtitled: “Almanac of Wonders, Sensations, and Secrets”—and indeed it is. The front page carries a large photograph of a Martian ant, “published in the world press for the first time.” The story is that the American Mariner-2 probe discovered the ants on Mars, but the US government hushed it up. What a scoop!

Golos vselennoi [Voice of the Universe] is “the press organ of the Supreme Reason.” The lead story is “The White Brotherhood of Yadivod” by L. Yukhno. Here is the opening paragraph:

In a recent issue we printed an article about “the message to earthlings from the planet Yadivod.” This message in verses was recorded by contacts with that extraterrestrial civilization under the dictation of Yadivod (the Devil). From these verses it is clear that the Devil is trying to mislead people into believing that he is our God. He entreats people to obey him, to bow before the Moon, to bathe in moonlight, to fill their bodies with this light. Knowing well the souls of today’s earthlings, the Devil is sure of his victory over them.


17. With American colleagues

When I used to visit Russia (and other post-Soviet countries where Russian was widely spoken) I was usually in the company of one or more American colleagues with whom I was collaborating on some research project.

Usually these colleagues spoke little or no Russian and knew much less about the country than I did. They needed me to interpret for them. Sometimes they also needed me to explain and handle difficult situations. At a psychological level my company helped them cope with the disconcerting sense of “strangeness” at being in a foreign country and made them feel less insecure.

However, I hardly ever felt that I needed them. I liked to feel that I was in a different country. Russia felt much less “strange” to me, partly because the sound of the spoken language reminded me of my time as a child with my grandmother. I needed them like a hole in the head. Interpreting for them was a drag and being with them prevented me from feeling that I was really in Russia (or Georgia or Ukraine or Kazakhstan). I yearned to get away from them and “do my own thing.” And quite often I did precisely that, much to their annoyance – an annoyance that was quite understandable, because I was really was causing them considerable inconvenience.

Well, here are a couple of stories on this theme. 

Waiting for the focus group

Russia is a place where interesting things always happen. However, they are never the things you planned to happen and often they are things completely different from what you planned to happen. You have to get used to it. Otherwise you end up a nervous wreck.

My late friend and colleague Richard Smoke was one of those Americans who do not get used to it. He was therefore at risk of ending up a nervous wreck.

At some point in the early 1990s Richard and I were in Moscow together to conduct focus groups in collaboration with Russian sociologists. We were waiting one evening for a focus group to begin.

The focus group was scheduled to start at 7 pm. I had already learned from experience that neither the Russian colleague appointed to lead the focus group nor any of its members would arrive until 7.30 at the earliest. Richard had not learnt this because it was at variance with his deeply held beliefs concerning the virtue of punctuality.

On this particular evening Richard and I arrived at the premises that we had hired for the focus groups at 6.30 pm. He liked to arrive “half an hour early”—although it was really a whole hour early. At 6.45 pm he mentioned that he was thirsty, so I suggested that we go to the cafeteria in the basement of the building and get some tea. I could see that he was tempted by the idea, but he was afraid that we would not get back “on time”—that is, by 7 pm. I pointed out that we had plenty of time because no one ever arrived for a focus group before 7.30. And so we went.

Richard sat at a table and I went to get us tea. It wasn’t easy. The young lad on duty told me that we couldn’t have tea because they were about to close. I could have objected that they were still officially open for another twelve minutes. But I knew a better way. I asked him his name and told him mine. Then I asked him one or two other personal questions. By this time his attitude toward me had changed for the better and without further fuss he gave me two cups of tea. Or was it glasses? 

The service you used to get in Russia depended wholly on the relationship you had with the person concerned. I had noticed how Russian acquaintances with a problem to solve first identified someone who might be able to help and established a personal relationship with that person. Only then did they mention their problem. After such cultivation service workers would be willing to do whatever they could to help, even if that meant breaking the rules. Otherwise they couldn’t care less.

I use the past tense because perhaps by now, after a decade and a half of “market reform,” Russian service workers have been stripped of their human idiosyncrasies in the name of efficiency and reprogrammed to be as boringly predictable as their Western counterparts. Or perhaps they are still resisting and defending their freedom.

To return to my story, by the time I got back to the table where Richard was waiting it was 6.55. I was flushed with pride at my achievement in getting the tea, but Richard showed no sign of pleasure. He was nervously looking at his watch. I explained again that we still had time to enjoy our tea because no one ever arrived for a focus group before 7.30. Nor would we be thrown out of the cafeteria for a few minutes. But Richard could not bear to “be late” and insisted on returning immediately to the focus group premises, without drinking our hard-won tea. We got back at 7 pm on the dot. People began to arrive for the focus group at 7.30.

Breakfast at McDonalds

I was with Terry in Moscow. It was soon after the financial collapse of 1998 – which, by the way, I predicted in a widely circulated paper just a few weeks before it happened. But in fact the crisis had some very positive consequences for Russia. Devaluation of the ruble reached a point at which only the wealthiest Russians could still afford to buy imported foodstuffs and other goods. This gave a big fillip to domestic producers.

So on our first morning in Moscow I got up early and went shopping in a food store not far from our hotel. I bought a selection of produce, none of it imported – a loaf of fresh bread, a bottle of fruit juice, cucumbers, some sliced meats, and so on. I brought it all back to my room to try. It was good tasty stuff. The fruit juice in particular tasted better and more natural than similar Western products – fewer additives, I supposed.

The telephone rang. Terry had woken up. I told him about my purchases and invited him to come to my room for breakfast. But when he turned up he looked over my treasures with a wary eye and wouldn’t touch them. What he wanted us to do was go to McDonalds and have breakfast there. It was quite a long walk and I didn’t feel like going. I tried to persuade him. Why bother going all the way to Moscow and then eat at McDonalds? But I saw that he could not be moved and we did indeed end up seated in front of burgers and French fries at McDonalds.


18. Old friends

In Soviet days it was not so difficult for a Western visitor to make genuine long-lasting friendships with Russians (although it might be advisable to avoid “politics”). Now most people saw the Western visitor mainly as a direct or indirect means of getting hold of foreign currency. The prostitute who woke you in the middle of the night with a “getting-to-know-you” call to your hotel room and the institute director touting joint research projects were after one and the same thing. Other motives might be present but they were clearly secondary. 

This is a story told me by an English colleague who had been visiting Russia for many years about a family—a couple and their adult son—whom she had long regarded as trusted friends. While in their apartment two men knocked on the door and had a whispered conversation with the young man, who then drew his parents aside to tell them what was going on. My English colleague “happened to overhear” that the men at the door were gangsters demanding several hundred dollars. Otherwise he would be killed. He had no idea how he could get hold of such a sum in time.

She shifted uneasily in her chair, but eventually she resolved that as a true friend it was her duty to help. She offered her “friends” the money and they “reluctantly” accepted. Later she confided what had happened to other Russian friends and was dismayed to find that none of them believed the story about gangsters demanding money. In their experience, they told her, gangsters demand money only from people whom they know to have money. They all thought that her “friends” had swindled her. What upset her, of course, was not so much the loss of the money as the betrayal of her trust.


19. A talk with military officers

Russian military officers do not like a woman to intrude into their professional domain, however competent she may be.

On one occasion I had arranged an interview at the Institute of Military History of the Ministry of Defense. I happened to mention this to a Russian friend of mine—one of the new breed of civilian analysts of military affairs (until the late 1980s civilians were not allowed to study military affairs) and, worst of all, a woman. She immediately asked to come along with me. She saw it as an opportunity not to be missed, as she would have found it extremely difficult to obtain such access on her own.

At the institute we were introduced to two army officers. The discussion went on for a couple of hours. One of the officers in particular spoke with impressive frankness and a nice sense of humor. My friend spoke several times and at some length, clearly demonstrating her competence (at least to me!). The whole time, however, neither of the officers ever so much as glanced in her direction. Each time she opened her mouth they patiently waited for her to finish and then resumed their conversation with me, as though she were not there at all. She kept on trying to attract their attention but to no avail.  


20. At a meeting of the Grazhdanin Association

The Grazhdanin (Citizen) association was a civic organization that in the early 1990s tried to contribute to the resolution of ethnic and interstate conflicts in the former USSR by means of "people's diplomacy." I never learned much about its activity. It had sister societies in some of the other post-Soviet states, including Tajikistan; in spring 1992 it held a conference on Russian-Ukrainian relations. I don't know how long it remained in existence.

While I was in Moscow in October 1992, the association's chairman Viktor Girshfeld, a former army officer and international relations expert, invited me to come to its annual meeting. The meeting took place in the conference room of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology (IEA) in the new high-rise headquarters of the Russian Academy of Sciences. I was the only "real foreigner" (that is, from outside the former USSR) present.

Perhaps my notes of the meeting will still be of some interest to students both of post-Soviet ethnic relations and of civil society. I don't think that the problems discussed have changed much, except for the worse.

The meeting was chaired by Taras Shamba, chairman of the Moscow-based World Congress of Abkhazians. Also on the presidium were Girshfeld, the prominent ethnologist Mikhail Guboglo,1 and Rafik Nishanov, chairman of the Soviet of Nationalities of the Supreme Soviet, who headed the society's honorary council. In the middle of the meeting, a young man arrived and joined the presidium, introducing himself as a chief specialist in the department of nationality affairs of the Moscow Soviet. He looked just like the portrait I had in my mind of a Jewish Menshevik intellectual from 1917.

There were about seventy people present. Most of them represented various cultural societies of ethnic minorities in Moscow (there were 68 such societies altogether, but not all were represented). By occupation they were teachers and other "minor intelligentsia." The cultural attaché from the Azerbaijan embassy was also there.

Girshfeld delivered the opening address. The gist of his remarks was: "Let us learn to understand one another better." Each time he referred to the society as "the Independent Non-Governmental Civic Peacemaking Association Grazhdanin." After the opening address he remained silent for the rest of the meeting.

Nishanov also made some opening remarks. "However much we may all wish otherwise, there is no way back to the Union. Yet we are so interdependent that a sharp break anywhere is felt everywhere." He too took no further part in the proceedings.

Then Guboglo stood up and delivered an academic lecture about tribal minorities in the mountains of Vietnam! I found it quite interesting myself, especially because my wife is from Vietnam, but after a while members of the audience began to show signs of restlessness and irritation. Later a man criticized Guboglo for talking about Vietnam and not Russia.

Shamba spoke next. He started by giving the World Congress of Abkhazians a plug. Then he held up a sand-glass and explained how he was going to use it to limit the length of speeches from the floor.

The man from the Azerbaijan embassy rose at this point to complain that the organizers had not explained what the purpose of the meeting was. They had talked vaguely about interethnic understanding, but what specific problems were to be discussed? He urged speakers to avoid issues of interstate politics and focus on the tense ethnic situation "right here in Moscow." The reaction from the floor was positive.

I suggested that a representative of Grazhdanin present a brief report on the work of the association over the past year as a starting point for discussion. The reaction was again positive. "Yes, what the hell is Grazhdanin anyway?" someone asked.

Shamba played for time. "Well, we have some proposals. Our foreign guest proposes that we make a report. That is quite an interesting idea. What does everyone think about that?" But no one offered to make a report.

There followed twenty or so short speeches from the floor. Here are my notes of a few of them.

A man from the Azerbaijani Cultural Society

The system of residence permits blocks the formation of ethnic neighborhoods in Moscow like those in New York or London, with their own restaurants, stores, and cinemas. The ethnic minorities in Moscow are so dispersed that even if we had our own facilities we couldn't make good use of them. For example, if an Azerbaijani school were opened how could we send our children there from all over the Moscow area?

Moscow is an ethnically Russian city. Non-Russians are marginalized. There is public concern only for the Russian refugees in Moscow. Who cares about the Azerbaijani refugees who are also here?

There are little symbolic things that create unease, such as Yeltsin's public identification with Christian ceremonial...

Our society is a new one. We have been begging the Moscow authorities to give us some accommodation. All we ask for is one room.

Another Azerbaijani

There is a political campaign in progress against Azerbaijani speculators. Russian and Kazakh speculators are fine, only Azerbaijani speculators are unacceptable...

The Azerbaijani community in Moscow is very poor. It is not true that we have a powerful combat organization. We don't even have any schools.

The chairman of the Moscow Tatar Social Center

A quarter of a million Tatars live in Moscow. We have been here for generations. We helped build the city and we pay taxes. Isn't it our city too? But we have no theater or other buildings that we can call our own. We are not demanding compensation for past wrongs.

Moscow has the most reactionary nationalities policy in the whole of the former USSR. What we get from the Moscow Soviet is mere kopecks. We have to struggle to get a room for our office, while Popov and Stankevich2 have palaces. The media pay no attention to the minority communities.

Not a single Tatar sits as a deputy in the Moscow Soviet. Russians won't vote for candidates with non-Russian names, so we need ethnic quotas. We claim ten seats for Tatars.

A man from the Society of Crimean Tatars

According to the census there are 200 Crimean Tatars in Moscow, but I personally know of 1,000. They conceal their origin and pretend to be Russians. On the buses I hear people muttering about "those accursed Tatars."3

A man from the Association of Karaim4

There are only 2,700 Karaim in the former USSR. Moscow is home to 350 of us. Most of the rest are in Crimea. There are a few in St. Petersburg, the Baltic states, and Galicia. We formed our association in 1990.

Recently we won a victory. The government agreed to send the ancient Karaite manuscripts to Israel, but we protested and they are to stay in the Lenin Library after all.

A man from the ethnic-German Freiheit Society

There used to be ten million Germans in Russia. (Other participants: "What?! You mean two million, surely?") Why are we all talking only about cultural centers? Is that all we aim for? We need statehood!

The Freiheit Society thinks that the best solution is to set up a Baltic-German Republic in Kaliningrad province. Kaliningrad will be Koenigsberg once more. We shall restore our own architecture there, our own houses and churches. This is our only hope of resisting the genocide of forced assimilation. Half of our young people marry out. We don't trust the Russian parliament to solve our problems.5

A man from the Kazakh Society

In our society we have not only Kazakhs but people of many other ethnic origins (who have ties with Kazakhstan): Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, Tatars, Uzbeks. They are all fluent in the Kazakh language. We have a cinema on Lenin Prospect, financed by the Kazakhstan government.

We Kazakhs have a right to be in Moscow. Kazakhs fought with Kutuzov.6 And there are not so many of us Kazakhs in Moscow, while there are very many Russians in Kazakhstan...

An elderly Lak woman7

We need some elementary human culture, not just ethnic culture. All the ethnic minorities should work together to solve our common problems. Why not establish a single cultural center that could be used by different ethnic societies on different evenings?

I used to live in an old communal apartment with 36 residents of many nationalities. We were all very close. How many people are ashamed of their nationality! You should not be ashamed of being a Tatar or a Jew! You should not change your name or lie to the census taker! I won't accept any passport that doesn't show I am a Lak!8

The young man from the Moscow Soviet was pressed to respond to the societies' demand for office space. His speech was eloquent, flowery, and demonstratively "sincere"—quite in fitting, I thought, with the image of a Jewish Menshevik intellectual. Here is an extract:

We never use the expression "national minority." It is immoral, repulsive, and logically absurd. Your task is to bring about the rebirth of Moscow's true culture. We want to help you. But it's much more difficult than you think. Dear friends, don't just go on and on about how bad the Soviet regime is.9 We all know how bad it is. What shall we do now, in concrete terms -- for example, in terms of legislation? I ask you to cooperate. We arranged a meeting, but none of you showed up.

Responses from the floor: We were never told about it!

He announced a new meeting at the Moscow Soviet in three days' time. Someone expressed the general attitude:

We're all very busy. We can't just leave our regular jobs at the drop of a hat and go to a meeting at the Moscow Soviet during working hours. It's very hard for us to find time for our cultural work, let alone constantly go to meetings.

Then, without a word of explanation or apology, he started to collect his things in order to leave. Very politely, Shamba rebuked him:

We are grateful to you for taking the trouble to come, but we are not so pleased that you ask for practical suggestions and then leave right away without waiting to hear any.

After he had left, a number of speakers from the floor repeated the same point in rather less polite language. They were quite upset.

Notes to Chapter 20

 1. Guboglo was at this time deputy director of the IEA. He is now head of the Ethnological Research Center.

 2. Gavriil Popov was mayor of Moscow and Sergei Stankevich deputy mayor. In 1995 Stankevich fled the country to escape corruption charges.

 3. This was probably connected with the tension that existed at this time between the Republic of Tatarstan and the federal center.

 4. The Karaim (or Karaites) are an ancient Judaic sect who accept only the Torah and reject the Talmud and other rabbinical literature.

 5. The ethnic German community was divided on this issue. Many other Germans considered the Kaliningrad option unrealistic and aimed instead to restore the autonomous German republic on the Volga. Most Russian Germans have now given up on any solution within Russia and left for Germany.

 6. Prince Mikhail Kutuzov commanded the Russian armies in the war against the Napoleonic invasion (1812-13).

 7. The Laks are one of the ethnic groups native to Dagestan.

 8. Whether the entry on ethnic affiliation in internal passports should be removed has was a matter of controversy for many years. The ethnic minorities were themselves divided on the issue. The entry was finally removed.

 9. Why did he use the present tense here despite the fact that the Soviet Union no longer existed? Perhaps he had just forgotten. Or perhaps he was referring not to the Soviet regime in the sense generally understood in the West but to the system of governance by Soviets, which was abolished only in October 1993.


21. At a red-brown rally

On Saturday October 24, 1992 I went to a rally on October Square organized by the Russian Communist Workers Party (RCWP). During the interval between the banning of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union following the attempted putsch of August 1991 and the formation of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in February 1993 the RCWP was the largest and most active communist organization, although there were many others.

Although winter still lay ahead it was already bitterly cold. I arrived at noon. Over the two and a half hours that I was there the crowd roughly doubled in size to about 3,000, which was not enough to fill the square. Most were middle-aged or elderly, but there were also a few hundred young people, including couples with small children, plus a sprinkling of military men wearing uniform.

This was a mainly working class crowd: the intelligentsia were at a rival "democratic" rally on Manezh Square. This was a sore point for the main speaker, RCWP leader Viktor Anpilov, who introduced the sole "academic" speaker—the economist Sergeyev, "prime minister of the shadow Soviet government"—as follows: "It may seem that the intelligentsia are all on the other side, but that is not so. We too have our intellectuals."

Slightly over half of those present stood under the banners of the RCWP or its front movement "Working Russia" (Trudovaya Rossiya). This was clearly an RCWP rally, with others tagging along. There was a largish group from the Russian Party of Communists and a contingent of Christian communists whose banner declared: "Christ—the first communist." Reform communists such as the pro-Gorbachev Socialist Workers’ Party did not take part, nor was there any sign of the non-communist left. Monarchists, fascists, and other "patriots" stood in a separate phalanx, making up about a fifth of the crowd.

Judging from the banners, up to a quarter of the participants had come from outside Moscow, mostly from provincial Russian cities but also from the North Caucasus ("Working Adygeya") and Ukraine ("Communists of Ukraine" and "Communists of Kharkov for the Union"—in Russian and Ukrainian).

I was amused to overhear a group of old women discussing personal conflicts among various comrades in their local party branch. Then they started complaining about “the Yids” and my mood darkened. I moved away.

Here are some of the slogans that I copied down from banners and placards:

Comprador-bourgeois government, resign!

Yeltsinik resign! -- a play on words, i.e., Yeltsin + tsinik (cynic).

Down with the autocrat Boris II! (accompanied by a caricature of Yeltsin draped in the Russian tricolor, a crown on his head, holding a bottle of Smirnov vodka in one hand and an ax dripping blood in the other)

Free the prisoners of Matrosskaya Tishina! (Sailors Rest, the jail where the leaders of the attempted putsch of August 1991 were being held)

The GKChP [State Committee for the State of Emergency] prisoners are being slowly smothered.

Who is not with us is against himself (a twist on the old Stalinist slogan "Who is not with us is against us")

Better to die fighting like a human being than starving like a lumpen!

One banner displayed a long list of names of corrupt government officials, followed by the words "to the wall!" (i.e., to be shot). Another compared the prices of bread and other basic foodstuffs in 1982 and in 1992.

Inadvertently I stepped on a big cartoon painted on the ground. A middle-aged woman yelled at me and I noticed the cartoon and joined the circle of people admiring it. Someone laughed. The cartoon showed a prostrate Yeltsin lying across the doorstep of a grand mansion with people treading on him as they went in and out. Nearby a dog with Gaidar's face gnawed at a bone in a kennel. The caption read: "We've found a cozy little place for ourselves in the common European home."

The speeches were grim and harsh in tone and contained many stereotyped phrases from the Soviet era—even, indeed, from the Stalin period (e.g., "the land of Lenin and Stalin"). Declaratins of loyalty to the Soviet system alternated with attacks on the corrupt and traitorous Soviet bureaucracy. No trace remained of communist idealism—only longing for the homeland that used to give working people a very basic material and psychological security and anger at the evil men who had abandoned them to the wolves. 

Besides Anpilov himself, who spoke more than anyone else, there were several other speakers. I made notes about five of them:

* An interpreter translated a speech by a representative of the Communist Party of Brazil. His message: "Russia now shares the lot of the dominated and exploited Third World. Do not weep over your losses, but learn how to fight imperialism from us, your Latin American comrades."

* A young woman from the Communist Party of Japan expressed simple sentiments of solidarity in heavily accented Russian: "I love you, I love the USSR."

* General Albert Makashov—the only speaker whose name was chanted by the crowd.

* A representative of the Officers Union gave the only speech with a clearly Russian nationalist rather than communist slant. He said that the institution of the presidency did not accord with the Russian spirit and called for the convening of a national veche (the name of a popular assembly in medieval Russia). Other speakers were also against the presidency but wanted to replace it with Soviet power.

* The economist Sergeyev outlined the economic program of his "shadow Soviet government." It was not a coherent plan to restore the command economy but a contradictory mishmash of ad hoc measures. The first point was that prices must be brought down immediately. "There are those who say that keeping prices low will fuel speculation. To this we reply that speculation is one of the greatest crimes against the people and must be punished by the supreme measure." ("Speculation" means buying cheap and selling dear. The "supreme measure" means shooting.)

Whenever certain words or phrases came up in the speeches, the crowd responded with rhythmic chants like:

* "Soviet Union! Soviet Union! Soviet Union!" (I watched one woman make an excited run, skip, and jump each time as she shouted this)

* "Long live the Soviets! Soviets! Soviets!"

* "Down with plunder! Down with plunder!" (i.e., of the people's property)

* "Shame on Yeltsin! Shame on Yeltsin!"

* "Shame on Gorbachev! Shame on Gorbachev!" (for visiting Israel and "selling himself to the IMF and World Zionism")

A number of the speakers called for "unity with the armed forces." One explicitly appealed to the military to rise up and overthrow the Yeltsin regime, upbraiding them for their passivity: "Comrade officers, you come from the people. Why don't you come to the people's aid when they need you?"

There were also appeals to the army to stop all ethnic conflicts in the USSR (that was not a slip of the tongue but a refusal to recognize the legality of the USSR's dissolution). "The national fascists [in the ex-Soviet republics] are killing innocent people. Will no one stop them?" Shevardnadze was the target of especially vitriolic attacks.

Apart from the speeches, there was some singing of the Soviet national anthem and the Internationale. A few resolutions were adopted by show of hands. Anpilov asked a couple of times whether anyone was opposed or wished to abstain, but no one took up the offer. So the meeting demanded unanimously that Yeltsin resign and that new elections be held through work collectives to the Soviets at all levels.

There was some controversy over the issue of Yeltsin's fate. The resolution as proposed and carried promised that if Yeltsin resigned voluntarily that would be taken into account as a mitigating circumstance at his treason trial. The next speaker objected: "We have just passed a very soft resolution. I hope there won't be any more of such soft resolutions. Treason must be punished!" How? By shooting, of course! Another speaker pointed out: "Yeltsin isn't going to resign voluntarily. We'll have to help him!"

Although I was warmly dressed the cold eventually started to vex me. I made sure I had not missed any of the newspapers on sale on the square and retreated to the warmth of my hotel. There I looked through my collection of periodicals—nineteen in all. I grouped them by ideological orientation with the following results:

Stalinist                     7

Trotskyist                   1

Self-management        1

Independent leftist      6

Fascist                       4

There was a discrepancy between the mostly Stalinist banners and speeches and the availability of independent leftist and reform communist periodicals. Anti-Stalinist leftists had not supported the rally but some of them had turned up to sell literature. 


22. A very little mafia

On one occasion I was returning to Moscow by train from a conference in Nizhny Novgorod on regional issues. From the railway station I had to go collect the luggage I had left at the Russia (Rossiya) Hotel and get from there to the Intourist Hotel, which was the starting point for the minibus to the Interhotel next to Sheremetyevo Airport, where I was going to stay the night before flying out. From one hotel to the other was not very far. Unburdened I could easily have walked, but as I had quite heavy luggage with me I had no choice but to take a taxi. 

The first taxi driver whom I approached in front of the hotel would accept no less than 30,000 rubles ($15) for a drive that would take five minutes at most. I tried to bargain:

But that’s blackmail!

No it isn’t. It’s the normal fare.

You’ve all fixed the fare among yourselves.

Well, go ask one of the others.

I tried another driver.

Fifty thousand rubles ($25), not a kopeck more! And the suitcase for free! And the bag for free!

I go back to the first driver.

Well, what did I tell you? We do have competition! He offers a higher fare. I offer a lower one.

Competition is when the second person you ask undercuts the first person and tries to get your custom by offering a lower fare, not a higher one! Anyway, all your fares are ridiculous. You’re a mafia!

Us, a mafia? We’re just friends. The mafia is over there, in the Kremlin.

Well, there are big mafias and small mafias.

Us, we’re a ve-e-e-ery small mafia!

I shrugged and paid him the fare he had originally demanded. The repartee had put me in a good mood. I could not help chuckling to myself. I no longer begrudged these guys their little arrangement.   

It is often said that Russians are “corrupt” and most of them are. But the word strikes me as unnecessarily harsh, implying as it does a readiness to resort to any means of advancing individual or group interest. “Corruption” is not an absence of ethics but an ethic based on personal relationships rather than formal rules or civic duty. It’s just a way of being “friends.”


23. Anti-Semitism

It is hard for me to judge how prevalent anti-Semitism was in the Soviet Union or in early post-Soviet Russia. At the red-brown rally the dislike of Jews was overt and palpable, but much anti-Semitism lay below the surface. I did not accumulate enough experience during my visits to assess the situation with any confidence. Yakov Isayevich remarked that the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the country was often exaggerated. I would say that it was fairly common but far from pervasive.

Occasionally I had an unpleasant experience that I suspected had something to do with anti-Semitism, but I couldn’t be sure. Once, for instance, I went to see my cousin Solya. The tenant of the main apartment in which Solya had a sub-apartment let me in and told me that Solya was not at home but invited me to sit and wait a while. Then she went over to the window and pretended to spot him coming. From a false note in her voice I knew she was pretending. Nevertheless I joined her at the window and looked down at the ants far below us. We were too high up to recognize an individual. It was like looking down from an airplane. I pointed this out to her so that she would know she hadn’t fooled me. Of course Solya did not appear. She was playing a mind game. But there was no proof that anti-Semitism was involved.

At a party a young woman told me that she had a “problem.” She was not Jewish, she explained, but she happened to look Jewish and people generally assumed that she was Jewish. Evidently this bothered her a lot. That alone suggested to me that anti-Semitism must be common. I also thought it possible that she really might be of Jewish descent but no one had ever informed her of her true origins.

It is a mistake to attribute anti-Semitism to the Soviet system as such. In the early post-revolutionary years it was an advantage—other things being equal1—to be of Jewish origin. Jews were vastly overrepresented in the party and government leadership. This gave rise to numerous witticisms and anecdotes that especially Jews enjoyed telling. My grandmother Manya told me that people called the Politburo “the minyan with a goyishe rebbe.”2 Over time the “Jewish” character of the regime became less pronounced and eventually disappeared, and in the last decade of Stalin’s life anti-Semitism became state policy. But it was basically the same Soviet system all along. 

Notes to Chapter 23

 1. By this I mean that it did not help to be Jewish if you had the wrong politics or class origin or if you were overtly religious. 

 2. A minyan is a prayer group of at least ten Jewish men. The “Gentile rabbi” was Lenin.


24. In memoriam

Several people known to me personally have been murdered by gangsters in post-Soviet Russia.

The ethnologist and politician Galina Starovoitova, whom I knew when she was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Brown University in 1994-95, was shot down in the entryway of her apartment building in St. Petersburg on November 20, 1998, probably in connection with her investigation into corruption in the city administration. 

When I was in Moscow I sometimes met up with Nikita Khrushchev, grandson and namesake of the Soviet leader, who worked as a journalist for Moscow News. His death on February 22, 2007 at the age of 47 was officially attributed to a stroke, but there is reason to suspect foul play, again in connection with his investigations into corruption.

Consider by way of comparison that under the Soviet regime you might be put in jail, a labor camp, or a psychiatric hospital for what you said or wrote, but except at the height of the Great Purge you would not have received the death penalty.

The politician Boris Nemtsov, whom I met when he visited Brown University to give a seminar, was shot down in broad daylight just outside the Kremlin on February 27, 2015.

The socialist and activist for children’s rights Vladimir Sirotin perished in Moscow under suspicious circumstances on January 10, 2016 at the age of 50.1 He fell headlong down a flight of stairs at a metro station, broke his head, and died instantly.

*   *   *

Here I want to say a few words about the tragedy that befell the family of the international affairs specialist Yuri Davydov, with whom my Brown University colleagues and I cooperated on various projects. Although a highly respected scholar, Yuri worked part-time as a taxi driver in order to eke out a livelihood. His wife was also a researcher: as with many Russian couples, her vivacity balanced his calmer temperament.

They had a teenage daughter, a shy and gentle girl whom I remember meeting once when my colleagues and I visited their apartment. On our way there we had gone into a big store and I had taken the opportunity to buy them a gift—a large string bag full of oranges. I knew that even with Yuri’s extra earnings a costly imported product like oranges would be beyond the family’s means. When I entered the apartment I put the oranges down somewhere and joined the conversation. As we got ready to leave, Yuri said to me: “Don’t forget your oranges.” “But they’re for you, of course.” A little surprised, he handed them to his daughter and told her to go to the kitchen, take a knife to peel them, and eat them all.

A few years later she started university and went to live in a student hostel. How much they must have wished that she had stayed safely at home! The top story of the hostel was taken over by gangsters—that sort of thing was commonplace at the time—and they must have disliked her for some reason, because she fell out of the window to her death. It was not credible that she should have committed suicide.

Yuri’s wife was driven out of her mind with grief. No trace was left of her previous vivacity. She was broken inside and she remained broken. Later Yuri brought her along on a visit to Brown University. My colleagues and I sat with him as usual round a conference table and talked. She sat on one of the chairs along the wall, opposite me. I noticed that she was twisting her head in order to look at me. I didn’t want her to strain her neck, so I moved my chair to give her a clear view.

Note to Chapter 24

 1. For my obituary of Vladimir see The Socialist Standard, February 2016 


25. Concluding reflections

The perceptive reader will have detected in these reminiscences my ambivalence toward the Soviet system. Such ambivalence is very common among people who experienced that system, even among those who emigrated to escape from it. In many cases, indeed, “ambivalence” is too weak a word; “split personality” is closer to the mark.

Despite all the tyranny and hypocrisy, such shibboleths of Soviet propaganda as “confidence in tomorrow” and “friendship of peoples” were not wholly fraudulent. They contained a genuine core, even if this only became clear to us after the system was destroyed and the genuine core was lost together with everything else. Hence the famous post-Soviet nostalgia for the good old days, shared even by former dissidents who suffered the full brunt of Soviet oppression.

Only by acknowledging that there were positive as well as negative aspects to the Soviet system can we understand why some people chose to emigrate not from but to the Soviet Union. There were not many such people but there were a few. One whom I met was an English teacher who worked in Irkutsk for a year in the framework of an exchange program and then decided to stay on. With persistence—at first Soviet officials were not sure what to do with her—she obtained long-term employment and Soviet citizenship. What did Jenny find so appealing in the Soviet Union? The natural beauties of the region around Lake Baikal were an important attraction, but so was the quality of the friendships she was able to form there. Later Jenny was deeply involved in the East Siberian environmentalist movement.

Few of us in the peace and disarmament movement aimed at the wholesale destruction of either of the contending social systems. Rather, we hoped for an extended period of peaceful cooperation and competition between the systems, giving each system an external as well as internal incentive fully to develop its latent potential for democracy and human welfare. Just as there is inherent value in the coexistence of different species (biodiversity), so is there inherent value—within certain limits—in the coexistence of different social systems (sociodiversity). 

It was this perspective that led Academician Andrei Sakharov to advocate the gradual convergence of the two systems. And it was this perspective that inspired Chingiz Aitmatov’s novel Longer Than a Century Lasts the Day. It is curious that those who sing the praises of competition in the context of the market should fail to appreciate what it might achieve at the level of alternative social systems.

The Soviet system is no more, but that does not mean there is no longer any point in its study, analysis, and assessment. It is a major element in the cumulative experience of humanity. Let us forget neither the horrors and dangers that it entailed nor the glimpses that it occasionally offered into a new kind of life and a new kind of human being.  




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