Dissident's window on Soviet life; Notes of a Revolutionary, by Andrei Amalrik, translated by Guy Daniels. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 355 pp. $16.50.
That Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik survived more than a decade of Siberian exile and labor camps, constant surveillance, harassment of his wife, relentless interrogation and physical torture, only to perish in an auto accident in Spain in 1980, four years after being forced to emigrate from his homeland, is a cruel irony.
Such an irony would not have been lost on Amalrik, who in the face of the most terrible privations and humiliations steadfastly refused to lose his sense of humor or his sense of history. Even at the darkest moments of his long years of imprisonment, subsisting on watery gruel from scarred wooden bowls in dim and freezing cells, Amalrik was able to step out of his own miserable situation and look at his even more miserable - because unaware - companions, to judge the society that sanctioned such inhumanity.
Never once in ''Notes of a Revolutionary,'' an autobiographical record of Amalrik's protests, arrests, and imprisonments between 1966 and 1976, does Amalrik lose hope, energy, or his cynical wit.
He got into trouble with the Soviet establishment (and the KGB) early, and never got out. His father was a historian who was once arrested for blaming (rightly) the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s for Russia's military unpreparedness at the outbreak of World War II. Following in his father's footsteps as a history student at Moscow State University, Amalrik wrote a dissertation maintaining that Norman traders were important in the creation of ninth-century Kievan Russia. The idea that foreigners, not Slavs, could be responsible for such an important accomplishment contradicted the prevailing Soviet Russian nationalism, and Amalrik was expelled from the university.
Through his beautiful wife, Gusel, a painter of Muslim and Tatar heritage, Amalrik became involved in selling abstract art to foreigners in Moscow; his persistent fraternizing with the Western press and diplomatic corps was one of his most serious ''crimes.''
His refusal to lie or compromise, which is the norm for those who want successful careers in Soviet society, made it difficult for Amalrik to find work as a writer or journalist. Finally he was exiled in 1965 to a Siberian collective farm as a ''parasite.'' In Soviet officialese, the fine points of which Amalrik analyzes brilliantly, a ''parasite'' is anyone who doesn't have a full-time job. The real reason, of course, that such ''parasites'' can't get jobs is that no one will hire them; prospective employers are called by the KGB and warned not to. Such circular reasoning is at the very heart of Soviet oppression.
Amalrik returned to Moscow in 1966, and immediately began writing books. It is at this point that ''Notes of a Revolutionary'' begins, when Amalrik ceased to be a mere ''parasite'' and became a political dissident. His first book, ''Involuntary Journey to Siberia,'' describes the stultifying world of Soviet collective farms, based on Amalrik's first exile in 1965. This is a world, as Susan Jacoby correctly observes in her introduction, that is ''as alien to urban Russian intellectuals as it is to Westerners,'' and Amalrik's harrowingly honest account obviously did little to endear him to the authorities, or ''organs,'' as he mockingly calls them.
Even more important was Amalrik's philosophical-political essay, ''Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?'' in which he argued that inherent internal contradictions in Soviet society and an eventual war with China would lead Russia to self-destruction. Even some members of the dissident movement found Amalrik's thesis unappealing and nihilistic. Nadezhda Mandelshtam, widow of the poet Osip Mandelshtam, told him: ''I've heard you wrote that this regime will not survive until 1984! Nonsense! It will last for another thousand years!''
Both of these books had been published abroad by 1970, and Amalrik was deeply involved with what was first known as the Democratic Movement, later the Human Rights Movement and then Helsinki Watch Group.
Amalrik and his colleagues believed - almost incredibly, it seems to an outsider familiar with long lists of victims of purges and forced recantations - that the Soviet system could be reformed from within, with the development of democratic institutions that protected individual rights. Amalrik became a master at Soviet legal doublespeak, and used it against his persecutors with a nearly insane pleasure. True, a new constitution was put on the books in the Stalin years that guaranteed (on paper) Soviet citizens as many civil rights as Americans enjoy (or even more), but no one - except Amalrik and his tiny group of associates - ever expected the government to enforce them.
The Soviet system is ''like a paranoiac,'' Amalrik writes, ''it behaves logically; but since its premises are senseless, the same is true of the results.''
''Notes of a Revolutionary,'' which was written in various European and American cities during 1977-78, is a hyperactive book that jumps not always gracefully, but usually interestingly, from topic to topic. The force of Amalrik's narrative is compelling, and recalls the conscience-stricken zeal of 19th-century Russian literature.
In one of the many asides that are the real meat of Amalrik's book, he tells us that 19th-century Russian literature was, in fact, one of the most important sources of the present dissident movement. ''Although the regime did for a time ban the books of Dostoyevsky and many works of Tolstoy, it did not totally proscribe the literature of the nineteenth century. And that may have been a mistake, since that literature is passionate in its defense of the individual against the system. The soil from which our Movement grew was nineteenth century Russian literature, not at all the Western influence that KGB officials and Western Sovietologists like to talk about. Our strongest Western teacher was Martin Luther King and his campaign against violence. But King learned from Gandhi, and Gandhi learned from Tolstoy, whose ideas returned to Russia like a kind of boomerang.''
Like Martin Luther King, Amalrik tried to change his society by holding the government to its own promises, replying in kind: ''The best response to the idiotic arguments of officials was even more idiotic arguments.'' Sadly, both King and Amalrik, men with unshakable faith in and love for their countries, and a touchingly anachronistic commitment to nonviolent means, were violently rejected by the societies they so much hoped to improve. Amalrik spoke for both of them when he wrote: ''For me freedom is the highest goal of life.''