The Gucci Comrade

IN 1969, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Russian Writers’ Union. ‘Unlike Akhmatova and Pasternak, he did not acquiesce in the administering of his own last rites. Instead, he mercilessly assaulted the apparatchiks with tho full force of his vitriolic pen.

Blow the dust off the clock. Your watches are behind the times. Throw open the heavy curtains which are so dear to you—you do not even suspect that the day has dawned outside.. ..At this time of crisis, you are incapable of suggesting anything constructive, any good for our society which is gravely sick, only your hatred, your vigilance, your “hold on and don’t let go”…. Openness, honest and complete openness—that is the first condition of health in all societies including our own.

Nearly twenty years later, Solzhenitsyn’s anger has undoubtedly found a resonance in the most unlikely of personages—the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Dramatic changes appear to be taking place and, of course, their effect is felt considerably in intellectual and literary circles. Last year, Vladimir Nabokov was criticized in the usual defamatory manner by the head of the Moscow branch of the Writers’ Union. Three months later the utterer of those curses performed a voile-face and poured forth fulsome praise in support of Nabokov. Mr Gorbachev himself appealed to a group of writers last July to make glasnost and perestroika irreversible. And “if not us, then who? If not now, when?” His presumably unintentional declaration of allegiance to the House of Hillel no doubt brought a wry smile to the faces of many long-term refuseniks.

Mr Gorbachev’s intention is to win the Soviet intelligentsia over for his own internal battles. The question of Jewish emigration is apparently perceived as a secondary and, indeed, external affair. Although glasnost is good news for the Jewish citizens of the USSR, its effect on Jewish emigration is far from clear despite the fact that the Soviet press now even publicizes demonstrations of refuseniks. The tangible evidence of an increase in the numbers leaving suggests that the promise to permit 11,000 refuseniks to leave within a year may indeed be kept. Those who believe Gorbachev’s moves to be selective window-dressing and not part of a reforming process  have pointed out that the Kremlin can still detain large numbers of people on the catch-all charge that they are in possession of so-called state secrets. Although there have been reports that legislation is being prepared to permit easier emigration, the future of the 400,000 who have requested invitations from relatives in Israel is uncertain. Indeed this large group of people may find their exit barred due to the recent introduction of new regulations. With a more open society and the prospect of economic amelioration, the Kremlin may hope that many will banish the thought of emigration from their minds.

Thus, in this time of apparent fluidity, many wish to ensure that glasnost also solves the lingering problem of Jewish emigration. Mrs Thatcher’s recent visit to Moscow showed her undoubted concern for Soviet Jewry—despite the publicity, the issue was peripheral in terms of the actual agenda. Edgar Bronfman, whose raison d’être in meeting Soviet officials was purely to explore the question of Soviet Jewry, came armed with the longstanding Jackson-Vanik and Stevenson amendments which make the extension of US credits to the USSR conditional on freer emigration. Bronfman returned with promises, later repudiated by a Soviet spokesperson, of a step-by-step improvement which would be matched by a gradual removal of the impediments to trade. In Britain, no such linkage has ever been implemented by Jewish activists. Nor would it have been welcome by successive British governments. Indeed Mrs Thatcher attempted an inverse linkage in suggesting that inspectors of Soviet nuclear installations could easily be deceived by a leadership which continually propagated the violation of human rights.

It is said that Mr Gorbachev wishes to create a “spiritual rebirth” of the Soviet Union, to obliterate the legacy of Stalinism and to return to Leninist ideals. What is overlooked is the fact that Soviet society has little to do with Lenin; it is essentially a creation of Stalin and his pallid successors who rose through the ranks under his suspicious patronage. The mentality of ruled and rulers has been forged by terror and naked reaction. Stalin atomized Soviet society such that trust and openness posed the greatest of dangers. Individuals died in almost unimaginable numbers because they were incapable of following the latest twist in official doublespeak. Some perished because they were labelled as kulaks, others as being of bourgeois origin and still others because they had belonged to the wrong Marxist sect a quarter of a century before. The Stalinshchina claimed the lives of millions of innocent victim. Into his moulding of Soviet society, Stalin injected his own brand of crude antisemitism—a dislike of Jews which stretched all the way back to the beginning of his revolutionary career. For Stalin, the Mensheviks were a party of Jews whilst the Bolsheviks were “true Russians”. In Stalin’s eyes, the many Jews who flocked to the party’s colours in a burst of idealism were always outsiders. Even the large percentage of Jews in the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, did not escape his blind rage. In the figure of Trotsky, the Jew and the intellectual coalesced into a demonic anti-Christ. Along with Zinoviev, Kamenev and Radek, the Great Purge eliminated a disproportionate number of Jewish Communists. Leonard Schapiro crystallized the tragedy of that generation when he suggested that “the Russian Jewish revolutionary was as much the victim of the Russian Revolution as its instigator”.

Stalin accelerated the destruction of Jewish communal life which had been initiated under Lenin. Krushchev and Brezhnev continued his work. The terrible history of the Jewish people in the USSR since 1917 is hardly known in the West and of course has been erased in the Soviet Union itself. Today there are indications that a more truthful picture of Soviet history is emerging. The Institute for the Study of Soviet History is organizing an international conference to examine the persona of Joseph Stalin whilst the new edition of the Soviet Encyclopaedia will supposedly restore to public view both Trotsky and Bukharin in the pantheon of revolutionary activists. Anatoly Rybakov’s politically sensitive novel Children of the Arbat which deals with the suspicious demise of Sergei Kirov in 1934, is being published. Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago and the final chapters of Ehrenburg’s memoirs will soon be in print. This is all well and good but will the historical fate of Soviet Jewry also be addressed? Or will it be selectively omitted in the manner of Krushchev’s famous speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956? Will the emotions of perestroika marginalize the Jewish problem as being inconsequential and thereby leave it untouched?

Mr Gorbachev, even though he joined the party during Stalin’s last year, represents a new generation, one which did not grow up in the shadow of the dictator. The struggle for glasnost is a generational conflict as well as one against a vast array of vested interests. Mr Gorbachev represents a Westernizing influence as opposed to one espousing Russian nationalism. In this respect, it is significant that Sakharov publicly supports Gorbachev whereas Solzhenitsyn has maintained a discreet silence. Such a development bodes well for Soviet Jews.

Even so, in view of the lessons of Soviet history, it would be foolish to regard Mr Gorbachev as a latter-day Dubcek. Indeed, once in the seat of power, a new leader always establishes a clear political line which includes denunciation of his predecessor. Within weeks of taking power, Mr Gorbachev blamed the Kremlin for their failure in the seventies to adopt correct policies to confront inefficiency and corruption. Brezhnev—already, at the end of his life, an “invisible” leader—is today not only forgotten but also unmentionable. Such political theatre was initiated by Stalin. He too obliquely criticized his predecessor Lenin, even during the latter’s lifetime. Stalin however legitimized his claim to authority by deifying the founder of the state and changing him from a human being into an institution.

As Mr Gorbachev knows well, the religiosity emanating from early Bolshevism has enabled Soviet history to be continually revised to concur with the political whims of the present. In reality, Lenin represented a conservative if not puritan tendency in Russian socialism and was devout in his intolerance of other viewpoints.

An early Bolshevik recalled nearly fifty years later:

If someone had told me when I was arguing with Lenin about his memo that these ideas, later incorporated into his book [Materialism and Empirico-Criticism]…would one day be dinned like divine revelation into the heads of tens of millions of people…I should have laughed at him, but what should have been a stupid joke has turned into a fact of world history. (Encounters with Lenin by N. V. Valentinov, 1968)

Lenin merged the doctrine of political expediency with revolutionary virtues. Everything was permitted in the cause of a bright future which superseded and diminished the present. Eventually, wholesale atrocities were justified in this manner by the most gentle of idealists. Ideological acrobatics were explained away by the acceptance of the Party’s hold on objective truth in contradistinction to factual truth. It is pertinent to ask how Mr Gorbachev relates to such traditional and indeed fundamental modes of Soviet thought and action?

The less perceptive sections of the press dubbed Mr Gorbachev “the Gucci Comrade” when he visited Britain. This imagery has proved to be shallow indeed. His approach to disarmament may affect the whole of humanity. Perhaps Mr Gromyko’s words in nominating Mr Gorbachev were not mere propaganda for the benefit of Western journalists—”this man has a nice smile, but he has iron teeth”.

Jewish Quarterly Summer 1987



Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.