In Memoriam

Recalling Amalrik

The man who saw it coming.

By From the February 2010 issue

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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 these:
• "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.

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.

Unfair as it sounds today, Amalrik himself was seen by many as a possible KGB plant assigned to observe and trap Western correspondents. Some refused to deal with him, fearful of being compromised or expelled themselves. His apparent freedom to write, move about, and meet with correspondents in our apartments seemed to be de facto evidence that he had clearance from above.

"Perhaps he was more daring than others, but also perhaps he was protected in some devious way," recalls one journalist who was based in Moscow at the time.

Amalrik was also mistrusted by many mainstream dissidents because he refused to sign the countless petitions and "open letters" circulating at the time. A co-founder of the main dissident movement, Vladimir Bukovsky, once told me that signing those petitions and protests was a good test of a newcomer's commitment to the movement. He considered that Amalrik failed the test.

In fact, as became plain after his final arrest in 1970, Amalrik is best explained in simpler terms, as a man determined to live life as a free spirit. His harsh sentence in Kolyma ended most of the speculation that he was a KGB stooge.

He later mused that he had hoped to keep out of legal trouble despite his writings. "I was trying to find a kind of coexistence with the regime," he wrote, "but that idea -- one to which I would return again and again -- was not feasible."

After his release, he was forced to emigrate to the West where he led a lively existence as a much-sought-after lecturer and writer in the Netherlands, France, Britain, and the United States. He was able to live off his lecture fees and royalties.

Just four years after his expulsion, he died in a head-on collision with a truck one rainy night while traveling to Spain for a conference to discuss Soviet compliance with the Helsinki human rights accords. His wife and two other dissidents in the car suffered only minor injuries.

As with every aspect of Amalrik's life, questions were raised again. How accidental was the crash? The long arm of the KGB was suspected by some. I asked Bukovsky if he was suspicious. "Absolutely not," he said. "There is no evidence that it was anything other than an accident."

Commentator Shelin noted with irony that Amalrik died without ever knowing that in his famous essay he was only a few years off target.

Amalrik had said shortly before his death that he wanted to revise his thinking on the direction of the Soviet Union and produce a new version of the essay. Perhaps he would have toned down his views on war with China and moved the doomsday date to the 1990s. That would have made it nearly perfect.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.