“We’re doing the worst thing to you: We’re depriving you of an enemy.”
So spoke Georgi Arbatov to American journalists in the 1980s, when his country, the Soviet Union, was going through the throes of perestroika (restructuring and reforming). Arbatov, founder of the USA and Canadian Institute in Moscow, adviser to Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev, and confidant, throughout his long career, to a gamut of figures from German Chancellor Willi Brandt and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme to Henry Kissinger and George H.W. Bush, has dedicated his life to domestic reform at home and positive diplomacy with the outside world.
Last year, he published his autobiography, “Detstvo Otrochestvo Voina (Childhood, Adolescence, War),” which I have just finished reading. As far as I am aware, the book has yet to be translated into any foreign language; and, publishers take note: This book affords stunning insights into the development of policy and thought in Russia in the 20th century.
Arbatov’s father, a metalworker in Odessa, joined the Communist Party in 1918. Appointed a Soviet trade representative in the 1930s, he went with his young family to Berlin, Hamburg, then Paris. While still a teenager, Georgi was exposed to foreign cultures and languages that he readily assimilated. But life in Europe then was no picnic. He writes . . .
“You would often encounter men with posters on their chest reading: ‘Professor at Heidelberg University, will be grateful for any work.’ “
Back in Moscow at the height of Stalin’s purges, the situation was hardly an idyll either. Every night there were “several arrests” in their apartment block. At a young age, he learned from his father the types of people who committed themselves to the party . . .
“First, fanatics. You find them in every movement . . . Second, unprincipled careerists. Third, so-called well-meaning cynics. And fourth, true believers.”
Arbatov analyzes the Stalin terror in great detail, and criticizes his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, for not dismantling Stalin’s “totalitarian, imperialist social structure” when he denounced Stalin at the 20th Party Congress in 1956.
“(Khrushchev’s) deStalinization,” he writes, “was superficial and inconsequential. . . . Recently, President (now Prime Minister) Putin . . . has called the collapse of the USSR ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.’ . . . But for me and for millions of citizens of my generation . . . the greatest catastrophe and tragedy of the last century were the three decades of Stalin’s bloody tyranny and World War II, historically and inextricably linked to it.”
The “War” in the title is not there for effect. Arbatov’s first day as a soldier was June 21, 1941, the very day that Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the USSR. By March 1942, he was at the front at Kalinin, then Voronezh, where, unbeknownst to him, he was fighting alongside the father of his future wife. Arbatov followed the front through Ukraine, “in towns right out of Gogol.” He describes the public hanging of suspected Nazi collaborators there, expressing revulsion at this display of revenge, like some “barbarian punishment out of the Middle Ages.”
Throughout this book one feels the author’s profound sense of decency toward friend and foe.
At the front, he contracted tuberculosis and was sent home to Moscow.
“Mama, I’m sick,” he told his mother in the doorway.
“TB?” she asked.
“Oh, what happiness!”
In the summer of 1944, Arbatov was demobbed. When the war ended, he watched Soviet soldiers returning home, only to be shipped further east to the Gulags. Their crime was that “they had been abroad.” This was sufficient for Stalin to condemn them. Stalin was a keen student of Russian history. He knew that the Russian officers who had been to France during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century had come home demanding more freedom. He wasn’t about to let history repeat itself.
One person Arabatov came to know in the ’50s was Leonid Brezhnev, who “at that time was neither a fanatic, villain, nor ruthless tyrant.”
In fact, Arabatov’s portrait of Brezhnev, under whose rule the Soviet Union stagnated and the quality of life of its citizens seriously deteriorated, is very revealing. He saw the young Brezhnev as “a man of experience, common sense and human goodness.”
I suppose this just goes to show how thoroughly power can thwart ability and corrupt character.
As for Yuri Andropov, Arbatov’s (and Gorbachev’s) mentor, “despite a very modest formal education . . . (he was) the most cultured and intelligent leader of the country that we (consultants) had direct dealings with.”
But his hero is Gorbachev: “a creative and courageous man . . . open to new ideas. The end of the Cold War was, above all, his achievement.”
Arbatov observed the Cold War as scholar, publisher, journalist and adviser to the very top echelons of government. He writes . . .
“On both sides of (the Cold War) there were powerful forces, strongly interested in its preservation and expansion. The Cold War had its own infrastructure.”
In many ways, that infrastructure, on both sides, is still alive and kicking hard in every region where Russian and U.S. military-industrial interests collide.
After Khrushchev’s liberalization of Soviet life, the academic sphere began to exert a major influence on politics; and, by the early ’70s, Arbatov’s institute was playing a vital role in the evolution of detente with the West. He personally strove to wrest the political discussion out of the realm of ideology and propaganda, “the realm,” as he puts it, “of ‘them or us.’ ” If this sounds familiar, it only indicates how little the basic tenets underpinning the Russia-U.S. relationship have changed since the nominal end of the Cold War.
In 1973, Arbatov became a deputy of the Supreme Soviet, and in 1981, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Hope for fundamental, long-lasting change came with the ascendance of Gorbachev, who became head of state in 1985 and surrounded himself with objective advisers, Arbatov among them.
Arbatov strongly disapproved of Gorbachev’s successor, Boris Yelstin, whose “pseudo-scientific approach” to problems undermined Russian life in virtually every sphere of activity, save those linked to the bank accounts of careerist bureaucrats and self- aggrandizing oligarchs.
Arbatov is a never-say-die social democrat who has faith in the rule of law and the pluralism of openness.
He believes that a new socio-economic model is necessary for Russia to prosper, and regrets that his country has fallen under the double spell of new Western capitalism and old Russian repression.
He points to the great pluralistic and humanitarian traditions in his country, traditions that may have not often held sway but are rooted in the national conscience: the seeking of liberty by those Russian officers, known as the Decembrists, back from the Napoleonic Wars in the 1820s; the great Stolypin agrarian reforms of the first decade of the 20th century; the flowering of the arts and sciences, without significant censorship, in the 1920s; and the tradition of academic excellence, at times tied to diplomacy, in the post-Stalin era.
At a time when the raucous chanting of the past is again threatening to deafen us, the calm and harmonious voice of Georgi Arbatov is surely what we should all be straining to attend to.
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