Commentary Magazine


Notes of a Revolutionary, by Andrei Amalrik

The Yeast & the Flour

Notes of a Revolutionary.
by Andrei Amalrik.
Translated by Guy Daniels. Knopf. 343 pp. $16.95.

Andrei Amalrik is associated in A the public memory with his influential treatise, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? Written in 1969, this brief and provocative book predicted the dissolution of Soviet society as a result of internal separatist tendencies among the non-Russian nationalities, the absence of democratizing forces, and a likely Sino-Soviet war.

Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? was a signpost, marking the transformation of the Soviet dissident movement from a mainly literary phenomenon into a political one. The book achieved international celebrity for its author, who until then had been an obscure historian expelled from Moscow University for a paper offering a nonconformist interpretation of 9th-century Russian history and who had already served two-and-a-half years’ forced exile for promoting the work of dissident artists. And it also earned him nearly six more years of prison, forced labor, and Siberian exile.

In 1976, after serving out his sentence, Amalrik was coaxed into emigrating under threat of another term of imprisonment. From the moment he arrived in the West, he was a vocal and effective publicist who traveled and lectured widely on Soviet affairs and human rights. His death in 1980 in an auto accident, en route to a Madrid conference of Soviet-bloc dissidents, cut short the productive life of a highly original theorist and advocate of democratic change—and a remarkable literary talent.

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One might think that the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Andrei Sinyavsky would have left little room for original contributions to what, thanks to the persistence of Soviet totalitarianism, has regrettably become a literary genre. Yet in Notes of a Revolutionary, a memoir of the years 1966 to 1976, Amalrik gives us a view of the Gulag that seems entirely new. Among chroniclers of the Soviet prison camps only Amalrik is interested in the political opinions of the inmate population. From him we not only learn, for example, that the attitudes of ordinary criminals toward the Soviet regime are almost unanimously negative, but that “the younger people [are] more anti-government than the older generation.” In the five years between Amalrik’s two arrests, moreover, there had developed a spectacular growth in anti-Soviet sentiments within the prison population.

In a totalitarian state, the prison camp is perhaps the only place in which social relations are stripped of their masks. Prisoners, after all, have nothing more to lose, and therefore nothing to hide. More significantly, as Amalrik sarcastically notes, “A penal camp is a microcosm of the socialist society. It guarantees all those social and economic rights of which the Soviet authorities are so proud and toward which socialists strive: the right to paid labor, food, clothing, and medical care.”

Amalrik’s descriptions of his captors are scrupulously fair. Under the brutal conditions of prison life he is able to remember clearly and to record the small kindnesses and gestures which humanize even the escort guards, prison officials, and prosecutors. (Only a chronicler as good-natured as Amalrik would tell us that the judge at his trial resembled the French actor Jean Gabin.) In this way he allows us to penetrate the psychology of the police state whose requirements transform its citizens into daily participants in an elaborate theater of cruelty.

The society that emerges from the pages of Notes of a Revolutionary is one whose underpinning is the humiliation of the individual by the unfettered state. There are the endless searches, which lead one to feel that “you have no home—that nothing is really yours.” There is the degradation of Amalrik’s wife Gusel, who is subjected to friskings and threatened with a gynecological “search” when she comes to visit her husband in the prison camp. But then there is also the other side of this humiliation, the struggle of the individual to secure for himself a sense of dignity. Aware that arrest is imminent, Amalrik and his wife leave for a respite in their country cottage. And when at last the authorities come, he passively resists, clinging tenaciously to an armchair until he is carried away on his makeshift throne “like a Chinese emperor.”

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While most of this memoir is told from the vantage point of prison and forced exile, Amalrik’s briefer account of life in the relative comfort of Moscow is equally rewarding and fresh. Amalrik is frank in his portrayal of several colleagues in the democratic movement. From these portraits we learn that the road toward open dissent is rarely taken consciously or as the result of a rigorous world view. Rather, the progress into political opposition is often gradual and hesitant. Nor are these dissidents saintly in their personal behavior. Notes of a Revolutionary contains several unflattering (though at times amusing) descriptions of a world marked by human failings: lack of seriousness, drunkenness, moral debauchery.

But Amalrik’s most scathing portrayals are of Western journalists. He recounts the prodigious array of privileges—a good salary, a maid, a secretary, a chauffeur—which make an assignment to Moscow a journalistic plum. Such material incentives, coupled with the promise of access to government officials and “inside” information, work to induce in Western correspondents the deadly habits of caution and self-limitation. In this way, Amalrik notes, “Although the Soviets cannot control foreign journalists, they can and do to some degree control the information foreign correspondents send abroad. . . .” Western embassies cooperate in this endeavor, by acting “as a restraining force, trying to persuade journalists not to write anything that would displease the Soviet authorities.”

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In Amalrik’s view, the behavior of the journalists and embassies is part and parcel of the entire ethos of détente. For him, the Nixon administration, and Henry Kissinger in particular,

understood very well the military and political factors accounting for the USSR’s advantage over the West. Yet it was [Kissinger] who became the most consistent in personifying the West’s will (which might rather be called a lack of will) to preserve the status quo. And what détente boiled down to was that the USSR had to be bought off so that it would not aggravate the world situation.

Yet for the Soviet Union détente proved to be something else again. “In détente,” Amalrik writes, “the USSR saw not only an opportunity to avoid internal reforms with the help of Western credits, technology, and grain, but a chance to weaken the ties among the Western countries.”

It has always been one argument among proponents of detente that it creates more favorable conditions for dissent. To this argument Amalrik’s memoir offers an effective answer. What it reveals is that Soviet authorities have dealt with internal dissent according to the requirements of a single abiding need, the need to control a society that is a potential powderkeg. At best the short-term fate of Soviet dissidents is independent of the Western line, whether that be “hard” or “soft.” And as for their long-term fate, Amalrik is unequivocal in his belief that the interests of democracy in the USSR will not be advanced by any Western strategy whose effect is to help stabilize a failing Soviet economic and social system.

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Notes of a Revolutionary appears at what can only be regarded as a bleak moment in the history of Soviet dissent. Most leading proponents of democratic change (Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Orlov, Anatoly Shcharansky, and Mykola Rudenko among them) are in prison or in exile. The Helsinki monitoring group in Moscow has announced its dissolution; its ranks have been depleted by repression, and anyway the ideas embodied in the Helsinki accords (increased East-West contacts, economic cooperation, and respect for human rights by the Soviet bloc) are dead. The brutal crackdown against Poland’s Solidarity labor movement likewise stands as a clear warning to dissident Soviet trade unionists of what their future might hold.

Yet as Amalrik’s book usefully reminds us, the Soviet democratic movement has gone through previous cycles of repression only to emerge again. Hopes may have been dashed by the suppression of Solidarity, but similar hopes were dashed by the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, just prior to the great flowering of the dissident movement. In 1972-73 an extensive crackdown in Moscow and in the Ukraine suggested to many observers that the human-rights movement was on the verge of extinction, yet by 1976 Helsinki monitoring groups had emerged in Russia, the Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, and Lithuania, and by 1977 a nascent independent trade-union movement had been formed.

That each of these groups has once more been repressed is true, but it is equally true that new ones continue to spring up. Although the community of Soviet dissidents is rather small and weak, it is worth remembering, with Amalrik, that the dissident movement is not only “one of the chief indicators of ferment in Soviet society,” it is “also one of the fermentation agents.” As Amalrik remarks: “Lots of flour, and only a little yeast; but it’s the yeast that makes the dough rise.” With this proposition many in the Soviet government clearly concur.

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