Soviet Politicians Speak Out

But Gromyko, Pozner, and Yeltsin rely on cold-war cliches in their respective autobiographies

MEMOIRS by Andrei Gromyko, Foreword by Henry Kissinger, New York: Doubleday, 414 pp., $24.95 PARTING WITH ILLUSIONS by Vladimir Pozner, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 324 pp., $19.95 AGAINST THE GRAIN: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Boris Yeltsin, New York: Summit Books, 263 pp., $19.95 AMERICANS too often overlook their history; Soviets are constantly - and painfully - reminded of theirs.

Consider these autobiographies. All are very different (so much for cold-war stereotypes about ``faceless,'' ``monolithic'' Soviets), with thinly disguised, yet distinctive personal agendas. Over each book, however, hovers the same question: How can dictatorship be avoided, legitimacy provided, and dynamism encouraged, in a reformed Soviet state?

Andrei Gromyko, that quintessential Czarist/Soviet bureaucrat, here performs a last service to the state he served until his death last July, by offering a cold-war view of a righteous Soviet Union, constantly besieged by the capitalist world.

Vladimir Pozner, the personification for American television of a reasonable, humanistic Soviet spokesman, simultaneously defends and criticizes the Soviet system, while also hinting at the painful shifts and expedients it demanded of this ambitious outsider from New York.

Boris Yeltsin, that tough-talking Siberian cowboy and would-be successor to Gorbachev, denounces the elite, the privileged, and Gorbachev himself, in populist language that may delight ordinary Soviets.

Though evocative and occasionally informative, these are burdensome books for the general reader. Gromyko is dull, defensive, disdainful of the West; Pozner is evasive and meandering; and Yeltsin is simplistic, egocentric, without insight or subtlety.

But let's face it. Many public figures are flat and dreary as writers: witness Paul Nitze's recent memoirs. Truly interesting memoirs, `a la Acheson, Kissinger, or de Gaulle, require introspection, literary grace, the long view; these are rarities, especially among public personages who usually live for the here and now.

The peculiar publishing circumstances of these books impose further difficulties. Gromyko's memoirs first appeared in Russian in two fat volumes, far too much for an American audience. The American publisher then required much cut-and-paste work, plus new material on various personalities - especially Stalin - who might interest American readers. The result is too superficial for scholars, yet too stiff for the general public.

Pozner and Yeltsin, by contrast, apparently are writing for the American market; there is no sign that either book will appear in Russian. Both seem to have been compiled hastily, at odd moments in busy lives. Neither author displays the insight or skill needed to go beyond thumbnail accounts of Soviet political or cultural shenanigans; outsiders may feel adrift.

There are doubtless useful tidbits for specialists who track Pozner and the increasingly important Yeltsin, but this hardly compensates for the absence of depth and coherence, and for pages that move as fitfully as balky cars on a bumpy road.

Andrei Gromyko's Memoirs are more predictable, less pretentious. His is the authentic voice of the foreign policy apparatchik, rooted in the geopolitical conceptions of 19th-century czardom, with an admixture of Marxist dogma and anti-German trauma.

Gromyko proudly labels himself ``a Communist to the marrow of my bones.'' Yet his is a profoundly conservative, defensive Communism, always fearful lest terrible forces - NATO? the Pentagon? Muslim extremism? - will rip the world asunder.

West Germany is of course his greatest fear. Gromyko was eight years old in 1918 when the ``Germans arrived like an enslaving force'' in his Byelorussian village; he was 31, and soon to become ambassador in Washington, when the Germans struck in 1941.

Hence his suspicions about NATO, the American bases circling the Soviet Union, and even Helmut Schmidt, whose wartime service in Russia is not forgotten: ``he had not fully freed himself from the outlook of an officer in the German Wehrmacht.''

With defending his motherland against Western attack as his prime aim in life, Gromyko felt close to Henry Kissinger, whose political visions were equally wary and pessimistic, and who appears in both the foreword and the appendix of this book.

Gromyko was a peasant's son, who rose to the heights through academic training, loyalty to Communism, and the patronage of Stalin. Kissinger is another outsider, a Jewish immigrant, an academic achiever, and a faithful Nixonian.

A shared respect for professionalism, for dignified behavior (Gromyko was angered by the casual vulgarities of Ernest Bevin, the working-class British foreign secretary), and for global stability: These two pin-striped gentlemen shared more than ideologues would care to recognize.

They differed, however, in Gromyko's bizarre misjudgments about the capitalist world.

All the predictable bugbears are present in the ``Memoirs'': Wall Street and John Foster Dulles as its ``chief representative''; America First as a ``fascist'' organization; Harry Truman as the evil architect of the cold war; Marilyn Monroe - and possibly John F. Kennedy - as victims of reactionary conspirators; and so on.

To such depths had clear, common-sense thinking degenerated in the realm of Stalin and Brezhnev that Gromyko, a basically reasonable and well-educated official, could so twist the truth - to defend Communism. And it is the new Communism, that of Gorbachev and glasnost, to which Gromyko links himself in the spirited attack on Stalin that has been tacked on to the English edition.

Parting With Illusions, by Vladimir Pozner, is something entirely different: a glib, rather flashy and sentimental autobiography by a career-minded survivor whose life shifted from Manhattan to Moscow during adolescence and the cold war in the 1950s.

With a relaxed, easy manner, colloquial English, and good debating tactics as his trumps, Pozner has since become an international television celebrity, especially since Gorbachev's ascendancy.

It is tempting to accept Pozner's self-portrait as a man of good will, caught between opposing systems whose best, most positive elements he has sincerely tried to reconcile. True; but only partially so.

The deeper story of Vladimir Pozner lies, not in the political cliches he recycles about the cold war and the sins of both Stalin and American capitalism, or the facile equation he makes between, say, McCarthyism and Stalin's gulags, or the CIA in the Bay of Pigs and the Soviet army in Afghanistan, but the family drama that seeps out between the lines.

Consider the players. A staunchly Communist father, brilliant and impressive, but also ruthless, overbearing, philandering, and suspiciously well connected to the KGB. A beautiful, yet mentally unstable French mother, bourgeois and apolitical, dragged submissively by her husband through the cold-war world. A barely mentioned younger brother, prudently building a low-profile scholarly career.

And Pozner himself, an outsider in both New York and Moscow, a would-be intellectual whose aspirations outstrip his abilities, always puzzled by the suspicious, punitive Soviet world, enjoying whatever he can of perquisites and pleasures, and only now - at 56 - seeming to find some peace.

Here lies a great story - if only Pozner felt free to ditch the Soviet political doublespeak that covers his flanks, and just tell it, straight and true.

In Against the Grain, Boris Yeltsin is oblivious to protecting his flanks and examining history, to the cold war and Stalin, to virtually everything, except to changing the Soviet system - while gaining power in the process. Of thought, ideas, sweeping visions, there is nothing; of ego, ambition, and anger at the Soviet elite, a great deal.

Hatred for that 40,000-strong cohort (including Gorbachev), which lives well while all others scrape and struggle, is Yeltsin's populist message; applause has been vigorous.

Yeltsin himself is tough, a competitive, energetic, sports-minded, volleyball-playing, extroverted pol out of Mayor Daley's Chicago. But was there much democracy in Daley's Chicago? And how much would there be in Yeltsin's Russia?

To sum up: These books suggest how 73 years of dictatorship and dogma has debased Soviet political thinking, smothering it in cliches, ignorance, and outright lies. Honor and praise, then, to the literary intelligentsia, writers and readers both, who have sustained the 19th-century tradition of dissent, even as the political careerists have tried to stamp it out.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Soviet Politicians Speak Out
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today