The man who saw it coming.
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Further, he wrote with sure-footed authority:
• Ultimately the “granting of independence to the various Soviet
nationalities will come about peacefully, and some sort of
federation will be created.”
• On the dissidents, he correctly judged that they “will be in no condition to take control.”
• Writing just one year after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, he accurately predicted a pullout of Soviet troops from client states in Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany.
• And as for the lineup of geriatrics running the Kremlin, he wrote that they were hopelessly isolated and enfeebled.
“It was time for me to come out and say what I thought about the disgusting regime,” he later wrote in his book Notes of a Revolutionary. “My aim,” he explained in a later interview with Abraham Brumberg, editor of Problems of Communism, was “to provide a new interpretation, and not yet another scholarly work.”
Amalrik was off by just seven years in his doomsday prediction, and Medvedev is still grappling with the remnants of the Soviet legacy.
Rereading the essay today, one is struck by the 30-year-old author’s remarkable grasp of social problems and geopolitics, extraordinary for a previously unpublished writer with minimal foreign language skills, no foreign travel, and no academic credentials. He had attended Moscow University in the history department for two years but was expelled for writing a paper that took the heretical view that 9th-century Rus’ was ruled by Scandinavians, not Slavs.
The great-grandson of Jean Amalric, a French émigré from Avignon, Andrei spent most of his life resisting authority, as a child, a schoolboy, a university student, and a gulag victim.
He was first arrested in 1965 after attempting to send his university thesis to a Danish Slavic scholar, the late Adolf Stender-Pedersen. Unaccountably, he later wrote in his memoir Involuntary Journey to Siberia, the Danish embassy turned it over to the Soviet Foreign Ministry, which passed it along to the KGB for vetting. Amalrik was cleared of criminal activities at this stage but now was in the sights of the KGB.
A short time later, for daring to live outside the system, he
was convicted of “parasitism” and exiled
to Siberia for two and a half years. The sentence was reversed in 1966, however, and he returned to Moscow. His next clash with authority came after publication abroad of his “1984” essay, a clear crime under Soviet law of the day. He was picked up in 1970 and shipped off to the Kolyma region in the far east of the country, the most feared isle of the Gulag Archipelago, for three years of hard labor followed by a term of exile. In 1975 he was back in Moscow, rearrested as a parasite, and was expelled to the Netherlands in 1976.
Amalrik knew he was a misfit in Soviet society. As he told Brumberg, “Perhaps I am somewhat closer, psychologically speaking, to the West than others. Russians, generally speaking, have a passion for lecturing others….I hardly pretend to be able to explain everything.”
During one of his moments of freedom, when he was allowed 12 days in Moscow to visit his ailing father, he managed to marry a Tatar artist, Gyusel, who survives in France today. They had no children. In her Moscow days she produced a series of charming portraits of expat wives, mainly in the Modigliani tradition.
As a writer, Amalrik recorded his prison, gulag, and exile years in meticulous, colorful detail in his books, determined to reveal the pathetic conditions of incarceration, much as Dostoevsky and others had done a century earlier. His approach was introspective and descriptive, often spiced with moments of jocularity. He had a sure touch for characterization, describing one police inspector as having a face “like a piece of boiled meat in sour sauce,” and an old Communist neighbor “as squat as a mushroom, with a squeaky voice.”
In one memorable incident, he described his bureaucratic wild goose chase to achieve permission to reside in Moscow. Asked by a clerk why he was going to such trouble, he replied that he wanted to experience it so he could write what “idiots you all are.”
His works are now out of print but can be found on used-book websites.
The “1984” essay has undergone its own curious life of ups and downs. It made controversial headlines and was chosen as an alternate selection of the U.S. Book-of-the-Month Club. It survived as a curiosity in Russian studies programs in U.S. and European universities, then gained credence after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it is enjoying a new life as Russian political commentators rediscover it.
But was the essay legitimate? It was initially regarded by some in the West as a bizarre KGB concoction. Others had problems accepting it at face value because it was a personal political work by a citizen of a police state, an unprecedented achievement in modern times.
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