Modern history

Chapter 27


The statue’s sundered plinth is being smashed,
The steel of drills is sending up a howl.
The special hardest mixture of cement
Was calculated to endure millennia . . .
All handmade things in the world we live in
Can be reduced to scrap by hands of men.
But the main point is this:
Stone in its essence can
Be never either good or bad.

—Alexander Tvardovsky, “The Statue’s Sundered Plinth” 1

BY THE TIME Yuri Andropov took over as the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1982, his “crackdown” on the asocial elements in the Soviet Union was in fact well under way. Unlike some of his predecessors, Andropov had always believed that the dissidents, despite their small numbers, should be treated as a serious threat to Soviet power. Having been Soviet Ambassador to Budapest in 1956, he had seen how quickly an intellectual movement could turn into a popular revolution. He also believed that all of the Soviet Union’s many problems— political, economic, social—could be solved through the application of greater discipline: stricter camps and prisons, heavier surveillance, and more harassment. 2

These were the methods Andropov had advocated while head of the KGB, from 1979 on, and these were the methods he continued to pursue during his short reign as the Soviet Union’s leader. Thanks to Andropov, the first half of the 1980s are remembered as the most repressive era in post-Stalinist Soviet history. It was as if the pressure within the system had to reach a boiling point, just before the system itself broke down altogether.

Certainly, from the late 1970s, Andropov’s KGB had made large numbers of arrests and re-arrests: under his direction, recalcitrant activists often received new sentences right at the end of their old ones, as had happened in Stalin’s time. Membership of one of the Helsinki monitoring groups—dissident organizations which tried to monitor the Soviet Union’s observation of the Helsinki Treaty—became a surefire route to prison. Twenty-three members of the Moscow group were arrested between 1977 and 1979, and seven were expelled abroad. Yuri Orlov, leader of the Moscow Helsinki group, remained in prison throughout the first half of the 1980s.3

Nor was arrest Andropov’s only weapon. Because his aim was to frighten people away from joining dissident movements in the first place, the scope of repression became much wider. Those even suspected of sympathizing with the human rights, religious, or nationalist movements stood to lose everything. Suspects and their spouses could be deprived not only of their jobs, but also of their professional status and qualifications. Their children could be denied the right to attend university. Their telephones could be cut off, their residence permits revoked, their travel restricted.4

By the end of the 1970s, Andropov’s multilayered “disciplinary measures” had succeeded in dividing both the dissident movement and its foreign supporters into small, hardened, and sometimes mutually suspicious interest groups. There were human rights activists, whose fate was closely monitored by groups like Amnesty International. There were Baptist dissidents, whose cause was supported by the international Baptist Church. There were nationalist dissidents—Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Georgians—who were supported by their compatriots in exile. There were Meskhetians and Crimean Tartars, deported in Stalin’s time, who wanted the right to return home.

In the West, probably the most prominent group of dissidents were the refuseniks, Soviet Jews who had been refused the right to emigrate to Israel. Raised to prominence by Congress’s 1975 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which had linked U.S.-Soviet trade to the emigration issue, the refuseniks remained a central concern for Washington right up to the end of the Soviet Union. In the autumn of 1986, at his meeting with Gorbachev in Reykjavik, President Reagan personally presented the Soviet leader with a list of 1,200 Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate.5

Now kept firmly apart from the criminals, all of these groups were well-represented within Soviet camps and prisons, where they organized themselves, like the politicals of eras past, according to their common causes.6 By this time, it might even be said that the camps served as a sort of networking facility, almost a school of dissent, where political prisoners could meet others with similar ideas. At times, they celebrated one another’s national holidays, Lithuanian and Latvian, Georgian and Armenian, and argued lightly over whose country would be the first to free itself from the Soviet Union.7 Contacts were cross-generational too: Balts and Ukrainians had the opportunity to meet a previous generation of nationalists, the anti-Soviet partisans who had been given twenty-five-year sentences and never released. Of the latter, Bukovsky wrote that because “their lives had come to a halt when they were about twenty,” the camps had somehow preserved them. “On summer Sundays they would crawl out in the sun with their accordions and play tunes that had long since been forgotten in their native regions. Truly, being in the camps was like having entered a land beyond the grave.”8

The older generation often had trouble understanding their younger compatriots. Men and women who had fought with guns in the forest could not understand dissidents fighting with bits of paper.9 But the old were still able to inspire the young with their example. Such encounters helped to form people who would, later in the decade, organize the nationalist movements that ultimately helped to destroy the Soviet Union itself. Looking back on the experience, David Berdzenishvili, a Georgian activist, told me he was glad that he had spent two years in a 1980s labor camp rather than two years in the 1980s Soviet army.

If the personal networks had hardened, so too had the links with the outside world. An edition of the Chronicle published in 1979 illustrates this perfectly, as it contains, among other things, a day-by-day account of life in the Perm-36 punishment cells:

September 13: Zhukauskas found a white worm in his soup.

September 26: He found a black insect 1.5 cm long in his bowl. The discovery was immediately reported to Captain Nelipovich.

September 27: In punishment cell No. 6 the temperature was officially measured as 12 degrees centigrade.

September 28: The morning temperature in the cells was 12 degrees. Second blankets and padded trousers were issued. Heaters were placed in the rooms of the duty guards. In the evening the temperature in the cells was 11 degrees.

October 1: 11.5 degrees.

October 2: A 500-watt heater was put in cell No. 6 (Zhukauskas, Gluzman, Marmus). The temperature, both morning and evening, was 12 degrees. Zhukauskas was asked to sign a document in which his output was stated to be ten times lower than it was. He refused . . .

October 10: Balkhanov refused to attend voluntarily a meeting of the camp Education Commission. On the orders of Nikomarov he was taken by force.

And so on.

The authorities seemed powerless to stop this sort of information from flowing—or to prevent it from instantly appearing on Western radio stations, broadcasting in the USSR. The 1983 arrest of Berdzenishvili was announced on the BBC within two hours of its occurrence.10 Ratushinskaya and her barrack mates in the women’s camp in Mordovia sent Reagan a congratulatory message after he won the U.S. elections. Within two days he had received it. The KGB, she wrote gleefully, were “beside themselves.” 11

To most sensible outsiders peering through the looking glass at the strange world of the Soviet Union, such cleverness seemed somewhat beside the point. For all practical purposes, Andropov appeared to have won the game. A decade’s worth of harassment, imprisonment, and forced exile had kept the dissident movement small and weak.12 Most of the better-known dissidents had been silenced: in the middle of the 1980s, Solzhenitsyn was in exile abroad, and Sakharov was in internal exile in the city of Gorky. KGB policemen sat outside Roy Medvedev’s door, monitoring all of his movements. No one in the USSR seemed to notice their struggle. Peter Reddaway, probably the leading Western academic specialist on Soviet dissent at the time, wrote in 1983 that dissident groups “have made little or no headway among the mass of ordinary people in the Russian heartland.”13

The goons and the warders, the crooked doctors and the secret police, all seemed safe and secure in their chosen professions. But the ground was moving beneath their feet. As it turned out, Andropov’s strict refusal to tolerate dissent would not last. When he died in 1984, that policy died with him.

When Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985, the character of the new Soviet leader at first appeared mysterious, to foreigners and countrymen alike. He seemed as slick and as smooth as other Soviet bureaucrats—yet there were hints of something different. During the summer after his appointment, I met a group of Leningrad refuseniks who laughed at the West’s naïveté: how could we believe that Gorbachev’s alleged preference for whiskey over vodka, and his wife’s admiration for Western clothes, meant he was more liberal than his predecessors?

They were wrong: he was different. Few knew, at the time, that Gorbachev came from a family of “enemies.” One of his grandfathers, a peasant, had been arrested and sent to a labor camp in 1933. His other grandfather had been arrested in 1938 and tortured in prison by an investigator who broke both of his arms. The impact on young Mikhail had been enormous, as he later wrote in his memoirs: “Our neighbors began shunning our house as if it were plague-stricken. Only at night would some close relative venture to drop by. Even the boys from the neighborhood avoided me . . . all of this was a great shock to me and has remained engraved on my memory ever since.” 14

Nevertheless, the refuseniks’ suspicions were not wholly ill-founded, for the early months of the Gorbachev era were disappointing. He threw himself into an anti-alcohol campaign, which angered people, destroyed the ancient vineyards of Georgia and Moldavia, and might even have provoked the economic crash that followed some years later: some believe that the collapse in the sales of vodka destroyed the country’s delicate financial balance for good. Only in April 1986, after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear complex in Ukraine, was Gorbachev ready to make genuine changes. Convinced that the Soviet Union needed to speak openly about its troubles, he came up with another reform proposal: glasnost, or “openness.”

At first, glasnost, like the anti-alcohol campaign, was essentially an economic policy. Apparently, Gorbachev hoped that open discussion of the Soviet Union’s very real economic, ecological, and social crises would lead to quick resolutions, to the restructuring—the perestroika he had begun talking about in his speeches. Within an amazingly short period of time, however, glasnost began to be about Soviet history.

Indeed, when describing what happened to public debate in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, one is always tempted to use flood metaphors: it was as if a dam had broken, or a dike had burst, or a water main had given way. In January 1987, Gorbachev told an intrigued group of journalists that the “blank spots” in the Soviet Union’s history would have to be filled in. By November, so much had changed that Gorbachev became the second Party leader in Soviet history to refer openly to the “blank spots” in a speech:

. . . the lack of proper democratization of Soviet society was precisely what made possible both the cult of personality and the violations of the law, arbitrariness, and repressions of the 1930s—to be blunt, crimes based on the abuse of power. Many thousands of members of the Party and non-members were subjected to mass repressions. That, comrades, is the bitter truth.15

Gorbachev was actually less eloquent than Khrushchev had been—but his impact on the broad Soviet public was probably greater. Khrushchev’s speech had, after all, been made to a closed meeting. Gorbachev had spoken on national television.

Gorbachev also followed up on his speech with far more enthusiasm than Khrushchev had ever shown. In its wake, new “revelations” began appearing in the Soviet press every week. Finally, the Soviet public had the chance to read Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova’sRequiem, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, even Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. After a struggle, Novyi Mir, now under new editorship, began publishing installments of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.16 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich would soon sell millions of copies, and authors whose works had previously circulated only in samizdat, if at all, sold hundreds of thousands of copies of their Gulag memoirs too. Some became household names in the process: Evgeniya Ginzburg, Lev Razgon, Anatoly Zhigulin, Varlam Shalamov, Dmitri Likhachev, and Anna Larina.

The rehabilitation process resumed as well. Between 1964 and 1987, only twenty-four people had been rehabilitated. Now—partly in response to spontaneous press revelations—the process began again. This time, those who had been overlooked in the past were included: Bukharin, along with nineteen other Bolshevik leaders convicted at the 1938 purge trials, was first among them. “The facts had been falsified,” a government spokesman announced solemnly.17 Now the truth would be told.

The new literature was accompanied by new revelations from the Soviet archives. These came both from Soviet historians who had (they claimed) seen the light, as well as from the Memorial Society. Memorial was founded by a group of young historians, some of whom had been collecting oral histories of camp survivors for many years. Among them was Arseny Roginsky, founder of the journal Pamyat (Memory), which first began to appear in samizdat, and then abroad, as early as the 1970s. Already, the group around Roginsky had begun to compile a database of the repressed. Later, Memorial would also lead the battle to identify the corpses buried in mass graves outside Moscow and Leningrad, and to build monuments and memorials to the Stalinist era. After a brief, failed attempt to turn itself into a political movement, Memorial would finally emerge, in the 1990s, as the most important center for the study of Soviet history, as well as for the defense of human rights, in the Russian federation. Roginsky remained its leader, and one of its star historians. Memorial’s historical publications were soon known to Soviet scholars around the world for their accuracy, their fidelity to facts, and their careful, judicious archives.18

Yet although the change in the quality of public debate had come about with astonishing rapidity, the situation was still not quite as straightforward as it seemed to those on the outside. Even as he was introducing the changes which would soon lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, even as “Gorbymania” swept through Germany and the United States, Gorbachev remained, like Khrushchev, a deep believer in the Soviet regime. He never intended to challenge the basic principles of Soviet Marxism, or the achievements of Lenin. His intention was always to reform and modernize the Soviet Union, not to destroy it. Perhaps because of his own family experience, he had come to believe that it was important to tell the truth about the past. Yet he did not, at first, appear to see the connection between the past and the present.

For that reason, the publication of a slew of articles about Stalinist camps, prisons, and mass murders of the past was not immediately accompanied by mass releases of the still-imprisoned dissidents. At the end of 1986—although Gorbachev was preparing to start talking about “blank spots,” although Memorial had begun openly to agitate for the construction of a monument to repression, although the rest of the world was beginning to talk with excitement about the new leadership of the USSR—Amnesty International knew the names of 600 prisoners of conscience still in Soviet camps, and suspected the existence of many more.19

One of them was Anatoly Marchenko, who died during a hunger strike in Khristopol prison in December of that year.20 His wife, Larisa Bogoraz, arrived at the prison to find three soldiers standing guard over his body, which had been taken apart in an autopsy. She was not allowed to meet anyone at the prison—no doctors, no other prisoners, no administrators—except for a political officer, Churbanov, who treated her rudely. He refused to tell her how Marchenko had died, and would not give her a death certificate, a burial certificate, a medical case history, or even Marchenko’s letters and diaries. With a group of friends, and the three-man prison “escort,” she took Marchenko to be buried in the town cemetery:

It was deserted there, and a strong wind blew, and there was nobody else around apart from us and Tolya’s escort. They had everything necessary ready to hand, but they understood that we would not let them approach the grave, and they stood to one side “until the end of the operation” as one of them put it. Tolya’s friends spoke some words of farewell over the grave. Then we started to fill in the grave with earth—first with our hands and then with spades . . .

We erected a white pinewood cross—I hope that it had been made by the other prisoners. On the cross I wrote in ball-point pen “Anatoly Marchenko 23.1.1938–8.12.1986 ...”21

Although the authorities surrounded Marchenko’s death with mystery, Bogoraz said later, they could not conceal that “Anatoly Marchenko died in struggle. His struggle had lasted twenty-five years, and he had never hoisted the white flag of surrender.”22

But Marchenko’s tragic death was not entirely in vain. Possibly spurred on by the wave of bad publicity surrounding his death—Bogoraz’s statements were broadcast around the world—Gorbachev finally decided, at the end of 1986, to grant a general pardon to all Soviet political prisoners.

There were many strange things about the amnesty that shut down the political prisons of the Soviet Union for good. Nothing was stranger, however, than the scarce amount of attention it attracted. This, after all, was the end of the Gulag, the end of the camp system that had once contained millions of people. This was the triumph of the human rights movement, which had been the focus of so much diplomatic attention for the past two decades. This was a real moment of historical transformation—yet almost nobody noticed.

Moscow-based journalists sometimes dashed off the odd article but, with one or two exceptions, very few of those who wrote books about the era of Gorbachev and Yeltsin mentioned the last days of the concentration camps at all. Even the best of the many talented writers and journalists who lived in Moscow at the end of the 1980s were too preoccupied with the other events of that time: the bungled attempts at economic reform, the first free elections, the transformation of foreign policy, the end of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe, the end of the Soviet Union itself.23

Distracted by those same issues, nobody in Russia much noticed either. Dissidents whose names had been famous in the underground returned— and found themselves famous no longer. Most of them were old, and by now out of sync with the times. They had, in the words of a Western journalist who was in Russia at the time, “made their careers in private, tapping out petitions on ancient typewriters at their dachas, defying the authorities while sipping absurdly sweet tea, dressed in their bathrobes. They weren’t made for battles in parliament or on TV, and they seemed profoundly confused by how dramatically their country had changed while they were away.” 24

Most of those former dissidents who remained in the public eye were no longer solely focused on the fate of the Soviet Union’s remaining concentration camps. Andrei Sakharov, released from internal exile in December 1986, elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, quickly began agitating for the reform of property ownership.25 Two years after his release, the Armenian prisoner Levon Ter-Petrossian was elected president of his country. A host of Ukrainians and Balts moved straight from camps in Perm and Mordovia into their respective countries’ political madhouse, agitating loudly for independence.26

The KGB noticed that its political prisons were closing, of course—yet even they seemed scarcely able to understand the significance. Reading the few available official documents from the second half of the 1980s, it is striking how little the language of the secret police had changed, even relatively late in the game. In February 1986, Viktor Chebrikov, then the head of the KGB, proudly told a Party Congress that the KGB had carried out a major counter-intelligence operation. It had been necessary, he said, because “the West spreads lies about human rights violations to spread anti-Soviet aspirations among such renegades.”27

Later that same year, Chebrikov sent a report to the Central Committee describing his organization’s continued battle against the “activities of the imperialist spy agencies, and the Soviet enemy elements who are linked to them.” He also bragged that the KGB had effectively “paralyzed” the activities of various groups, among them the Helsinki monitoring committees, and had even, in the period from 1982 to 1986, forced “more than 100 people to resign from the conduct of illegal activity, and to return to the path of justice.” Some of them—he named nine—had even “made public declarations on television and in the newspapers, unmasking the Western spies and those who think like them.”

Nevertheless, a few sentences later, Chebrikov acknowledged that things might have changed. One has to read closely to understand how dramatic the change actually was: “The current conditions of the democratization of all aspects of society, and the strengthening of the unity of the Party and of society, make possible a re-examination of the question of amnesty.” 28

What he meant, in fact, was that the dissidents were so weak they could not do much harm anymore—and in any case they would be watched, as he had said at a previous Politburo meeting, “to be certain that they don’t persist in their hostile activity.”29 In a separate statement he added, almost as an afterthought, that by the KGB’s calculation, ninety-six people were being held unnecessarily in special psychiatric hospitals. He suggested that those among them who “do not present a danger to society” should be released as well.30 The Central Committee agreed, and in February 1987 it pardoned 200 prisoners convicted either of Article 70 or of Article 190-1. More were released from camps a few months later to mark the Millennium of Russian Christianity. Over 2,000 (a good deal more than ninety-six) would be released from psychiatric hospitals in the coming two years.31

Yet even then—perhaps out of habit, perhaps because it saw its own power waning along with the prison population—the KGB seemed strangely reluctant to let the politicals go. Because they were formally pardoned, not amnestied, the politicals released in 1986 and 1987 were at first asked to sign a piece of paper disassociating themselves from anti-Soviet activity. Most were allowed to invent their own formulas, evading apology: “Thanks to worsening health I won’t engage in further anti-Soviet activity,” or “I was never an anti-Soviet, I was an anti-communist, and there are no laws prohibiting anti-communism.” One dissident, Lev Timofeev, wrote that “I ask to be freed. I do not intend to harm the Soviet state, not that I have ever had such an intention before.” 32

Others, however, were asked, once again, to renounce their beliefs, or ordered to emigrate.33 One Ukrainian prisoner was released, but sent directly into exile, where he was held to a curfew and made to report to a militia station once a week.34 One Georgian dissident remained for an extra six months in his labor camp, simply because he refused to put his pen to any formula the KGB could invent.35 Another refused to ask formally for his pardon, “on the grounds that he had committed no crime.”36

Symptomatic of the time was the plight of Bohdan Klymchak, a technician from Ukraine, arrested for trying to leave the USSR. In 1978, fearing arrest on charges of Ukrainian nationalism, he had walked over the Soviet border into Iran, and had asked for political asylum. The Iranians sent him back. In April 1990, he was still being held in the political prison at Perm. A group of American congressmen managed to visit him there, and discovered that conditions in Perm were virtually unchanged. The prisoners still complained of extreme cold, and were still sent to the punishment cells for crimes such as the refusal to button the top buttons of their uniforms.37

Nevertheless, creaking and cranking, groaning and complaining, the repressive regime was finally grinding to a halt—as was the entire system. Indeed, by the time the Perm political camps were finally closed for good, in February 1992, the Soviet Union itself had ceased to exist. All of the former Soviet republics had become independent countries. Some of them— Armenia, Ukraine, Lithuania—were led by former prisoners. Some were led by former communists whose beliefs had crumbled in the 1980s, when they saw for the first time evidence of the past terror.38 The KGB and the MVD, if not quite disbanded, had been replaced by other, different organizations. Secret police agents started looking for new jobs in the private sector. Prison warders saw the light, and discreetly moved into local government. The new Russian parliament passed, in November 1991, a “Declaration of Rights and Freedoms of the Individual,” guaranteeing, among other things, freedom to travel, freedom of religion, and the freedom to disagree with the government.39 Sadly, the new Russia was not destined to become a paradigm of ethnic, religious, and political tolerance, but that is another, separate story.

The changes took place with bewildering speed—and no one seemed more bewildered by them than the man who had launched the Soviet Union’s disintegration. For this, in the end, was Gorbachev’s greatest blind spot: Khrushchev knew it, Brezhnev knew it—but Gorbachev, grandson of “enemies” and author of glasnost, failed to realize that a full and honest discussion of the Soviet past would ultimately undermine the legitimacy of Soviet rule. “We now visualize our goal more clearly,” he said, on New Year’s Eve, 1989. “It is a humane and democratic socialism, a society of freedom and social justice.”40 He was unable, even then, to see that “socialism,” in its Soviet form, was about to disappear altogether.

Nor could he see, years later, the link between the press revelations of the glasnost era and the collapse of Soviet communism. Gorbachev did not realize, simply, that once the truth had been told about the Stalinist past, the myth of Soviet greatness would be impossible to sustain. There had been too much cruelty, too much bloodshed, and too many lies about both.

But if Gorbachev did not understand his own country, plenty of others did. Twenty years earlier, Solzhenitsyn’s publisher, Alexander Tvardovsky, had felt the power of the hidden past, had known what revived memories could do to the Soviet system. He described his feelings in a poem:

They’re wrong to think that memory
Hasn’t an increasing value
Or that the weeds of time grow over
Any real past event or pain.

That on and on the planet rolls,
Measuring off the days and years . . .
No. Duty commands that everything now
That hasn’t been said be said in full ...

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