The man who saw it coming.
A wiry young Russian writer attracted the attention of Western correspondents in Moscow exactly 40 years ago when he began openly theorizing that the Soviet Union was headed for disintegration. He said he wanted to write a book about it.
I was an Associated Press reporter in Moscow at the time and joined in the mirthful dismissal of Andrei Amalrik’s contrarian idea. Normally such talk would merit a warning from the KGB, if not incarceration in a mental hospital. Amalrik was clearly an inakomyslyashchiy, “one who thinks differently” — the original Russian code word for dissident.
The world was very much on edge in that period. The USSR was flexing its muscles in Asia and Africa, rivaling the United States for spheres of influence. The Vietnam War was at its height. Rocket-rattling pronouncements from Moscow were frequent occurrences. The spread of “Euro-communism” in Italian and French democracies loomed large, and it was not at all clear how this was going to pan out.
And yet Amalrik, the intellectual gadfly, was a regular visitor to the closely guarded compounds reserved for foreigners, somehow able to brazen his way past the uniformed militia at the gates. Those who knew him best recall evenings of cheerful, animated debate on subjects normally off-limits in those days.
Unique among dissidents, he became a close friend of the late Washington Post correspondent Anatole (Tony) Shub, New York Times correspondent Henry Kamm, and Dutch correspondent Prof. Karel van het Reve. All three men had long talks with him over the future direction of Soviet society and foreign policy, undoubtedly contributing to his thinking.
Finally in 1969 Amalrik produced a bold 20,000-word essay, “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” and circulated it to a few friends. Kamm, now retired in France, recalled for me recently that he carried it to New York and brought it to Harper & Row, who published it in book form in English in 1970. It was also published in Russian by the Alexander Herzen Foundation in Amsterdam and in Britain by Allen Lane.
Amalrik wrote subsequently that he had expected his little book to be noticed only by “a few dozen Sovietologists” in the West. Instead it struck a chord and was widely read, although rejected by most academics as unrealistic. Historian Walter Laqueur praised Amalrik’s talent as a writer but called his clairvoyance accidental. Amalrik benefited from “brilliant luck” in futurology, Laqueur wrote after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Laqueur aside, I find the essay worth rereading today for its uncanny predictions and a look into Amalrik’s wide-ranging mind. Now it has found a new life in Russia — where it was banned by the Soviets — as a perceptive survey of some of the country’s long-standing problems.
One Russian commentator, Sergei Shelin, writing recently for the liberal web newspaper gazeta.ru, says Amalrik’s arguments still make sense on domestic issues if you merely substitute “Russia” for “Soviet Union.” Modern Russia, he wrote, faces a formidable bureaucracy, a lack of social mobility, and a dearth of independent thinking, just as Amalrik said in 1969. “The style, the approach to the subject and even his terminology are close to today’s Russian political analysis.”
Amalrik had written that “the most independent-minded and active people” in the Soviet Union had been suppressed, leaving “an imprint of greyness and mediocrity on all strata of society.” He saw his homeland as a country “without beliefs, without traditions, without culture.”
And a recent article by Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, also published by gazeta.ru, reads as if pulled from the pages of Amalrik’s essay. Medvedev described today’s Russia as “backward and corrupt,” and wondered whether a nation burdened with such problems “has a future.” The article generated thousands of online comments from Russian citizens, most agreeing with him.
Amalrik’s text examines three levels of Soviet society — the peasantry, the middle class, and the elite — noting that in the countryside “potatoes were still being dug by hand” while the elite thrived. If not corrected, “it is a gap that may deepen into an abyss,” he wrote. In a passage calculated to disturb the Kremlin leadership, he said he had “no doubt” that the Soviet Union “has entered the last decades of its existence.”
His observations that best match current Russian conditions are
• “In reaction to the power of the regime, [the middle class] practices a cult of its own impotence…imbued with the defensive thought ‘You can’t break down a wall by beating your head against it.’”
• “The regime, in the interests of stability, is constantly forced to observe its own laws …[but] is constantly forced to violate them to counteract the tendency toward democratization.”
• “The process of liberalization, instead of being steadily accelerated, is at times palpably slowed down, perverted or turned back….The very nature of the process gives us grounds to doubt its ultimate success.”
Amalrik faltered in one major respect: his confident prediction that China and the Soviet Union were headed for a prolonged war, possibly involving nuclear weapons.
But he rightly foresaw that, given the chance, the non-Russian peoples of the USSR would begin to assert themselves, first in the Baltic area, the Caucasus, and the Ukraine, then in Central Asia.
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H/T to National Review Online