LEV KOPELEV is one of the major figures in Solzhenitsyn's novel, The First Circle, where he is depicted as Rubin, a man dedicated to communism in spite of his own unjust arrest, a man who Solzhenistyn quotes as having said -- while imprisoned in a Soviet forced-labor camp! -- that Stalin was a genius of great foresight.
In To Be Preserved Forever Kopelev described his ordeal; The Education of a True Believer is the story of Kopelev's youth and the forming of his views. In reading this interesting and stimulating book -- considerably more successful from an artistic standpoint that the previous memoir -- one cannot but be struck by the differences between the Soviet Union of the early post-revolutionary years and the Soviet Union of today. Kopelev's account provides an insight into the minds formed during that idealistic period, an understanding and an empathy for the youth of that time. Not only the story of one young man, his book is also the story of a whole class.
Born in 1912 in Kiev into a well-to-do Jewish family and raised by German governesses, he soon became, in his own words, a "fanatic": "Even in my innermost thoughts I identified myself with that party of which I was still not an official member. And I was ready to submit to its strictest discipline, the most captious censorship. . . . My blind readiness for self-denial, for unconditional obedience, my renunciation of all the temptations of freedom, eventually led me to different inner conflicts, tormenting struggles with my conscience."
In 1929-30 the beginnings were laid for a process which neither Kopelev nor his friends really understood at the time: "the extermination of the peasantry -- that is, the uprooting of a national historical way of life." Peasants who refused to join collective farms were executed on the spot or exiled en masse to Siberia. Ultimately these people slaughtered their own livestock rather than give it up. No one outside the Kremlin really knows how many people died during the collectivization, but Kopelev quotes a samizdat study placing the mortality at 6 million. (Some estimates run as high as 10 million.)
Kopelev describes how every night trucks covered with tarpaulins gathered up the corpses of the starving nation. In 1933 he himself took part in the forced grain collections -- confiscating from the peasants even their seed grain and leaving them to starve: "And I persuaded myself, explained to myself, I mustn't give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the five-year plan."
Like Andrei Sakharov, Kopelev-Rubin no longer considers himself a Marxist. As for the Communits Party of the Soviet Union today, he writes that it is "no longer a party, nor even an ideological organization in the usual sense of the world. It is a mighty administrative establishment. . . . Within it you can find almost no trace of those naive revolutionary dreamings, those self-effacing, sincere, sometimes homicidal and not rarely suicidal, impulses which stirred our youth." s
Kopelev is an intelligent informed individual and a respected professor of German Literature. Nevertheless, there is a certain naivete in his "coup" theory of the Russian revolution -- that Stalin somehow managed to overthrow the entire system. Kopelev himself talks much about the need to draw lessons from the past, but he himself refused for a long time to recognize that the investiture of such vast power in the hands of the state made massive misuse of that power virtually inevitable.
By way of a footnote: At the present time, Kopelev has left his Moscow apartment (virtually the only place where dissidents could meet after Sakharov's arrest) to spend the summer in a rural area not far from Leningrad -- partially to avoid the real physical danger of being a dissident in Moscow during the Olympic games. According to Pavel Litvinov, his son-in-law, there have been no telephone threats from the KGB for the last few months. He has applied for a temporary visa to visit the West, where he has received invitations to give talks at several universities. The delay in issuing a visa is evidently explained by the government's desire to issue only a permanent exit visa, stripping him of Soviet citizenship.
Joshua Rubenstein's Soviet Dissidents does not attempt to describe all the significant groups of dissenters that coalesced during Brezhnev's rule, but only those deemed most important. The various individuals described do not and cannot form any formal organization (although their personal contacts are impressive), nor are their numbers by any means overwhelming. Nevertheless, Rubenstein's presentation (in chronological order) depicts the development of the real movement and a national mood, of which the dissenters are representative.
There is a systematic discusion of the various methods used by the various dissident groups: attempts to force the Soviet government to observe its own laws (Valery Chaildze), Pyotr Grigorenko's efforts to gain permission for the Crimean tartars to return to the Crimea after their exile and near genocide in Siberia, documentation of human rights violations in the underground Chronicle of Current Events, insistence that the "third basket" of the Helsinki accords on human rights be taken seriously (something that amazed both the Soviets and the West), the defense of religious freedom.
Rubenstien discusses in detail the Jewish question within the framework of the dissident movement as a whole. The book is truly "ecumenical" in nature, treating Lithuanian Catholics, Ukrainian nationalists, Crimean tartars, Georgians, Armenians, Russian intellectuals, Baptists and Pentecostals. Although the group is riven with ideological differences, their common values unite them into such a broad spectrum of opposition to the government, that the thought of a government or governments in exile suggests itself in the most pressing fashion. The Soviet empire, ruled by a gerontocracy (the average age of the Politburo is now close to 70) and threatened with disastrous war with China (considered virtually inevitable by the latter), may very well need someone to pick up the pieces in the event of such a disaster.
Documented here are attempts by government psychiatrists to diagnose the dissidents as suffering from "sluggish schizophrenia with delusions of social reformation," (prescribing, of course, appropriate "treatment": prison sentences, deportation, deprival of citizenship, physical threats, often carried out gangster-fashion), as well as public recantations of broken dissidents, such as Pyotr Yakir and Victor Krasin.
Rubenstein presents the existing regime as not having dismantled Stalin's apparatus of control -- the secret police, the labor camp system, the strict censorship. He quotes a guard in Andrei Sinyavsky's A Voice from the Chorus to illustrate the government's attitude toward the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "You don't understand. It's not for you. It's for negroes."
Rubenstein accesses the American government, under the guidance of Nixon and Kissinger, of "developing a policy of detente that ignored fundamental western values." He also condemns the Ford administration for continuing this policy in refusing to see Solzhenitsyn in 1975. The question of how to deal with the Soviet Union is still central to our own foreign policy, even though, as Rubenstein points out, there are no longer any intellectuals of genuine stature -- as there were in the 1930s -- who defend the regime's internal policies.
In any case, the solution for those Soviets have the option of emigration -- the Jews, the ethnic Germans, and the Armenians -- has been simply but eloquently expressed by Boris Khazanov, a Soviet writer using a pseudonym: "For at least three years, already, I see myself in an unbelievable situation. A dream which for years has drained me has become real: to leave. To escape, without looking around, without saying adieu, without wasting time on arguments and separations, to leave, and the farther the better."