Monday, June 09, 2008

Stalin's Russia seen from two sides

Two recent books, Martin Amis' novel House of Meetings and Pete Early's account of conversations with a former KGB spy Comrade J, tell two very different stories from inside the Soviet Union. The central character of Amis' novel is a gulag prisoner, forced into a labor camp for "fascist" views, or dissent from the Communist party line. Amis describes the excruciatingly cruel conditions in which these prisoners were forced to live for many years of their lives. Many of the prisoners were there because of "Western sympathies" or other forms of challenges to the Communist state. But I read House of Meetings while also reading Comrade J, where Sergei Tretakov (the name is probably misspelled since I don't currently have the book in front of me) details his life as an elite member of the KGB and SVR, the new name given to the KGB after the fall of Communism. Tretakov describes the living and working conditions of KGB operatives, which were much better that those of ordinary Russians and included access to Western luxury goods, a blatant hypocrisy that was never questioned. While reading about the suffering of gulag inmates under Stalinism, I also read about the special treatment given to the spies and secret police dedicated to keeping conditions dour for the Russian people. It's hardly surprising that Soviet officials were such self-serving hypocrites, but reading about it next to accounts of the gulags makes it all the more glaring and unforgiveable.
Tretakov also reveals the duplicitous and often cruel training that every KGB hopeful had to endure. In several interviews, his loyalty to the Soviet Union is tested, as well as his personal conduct. One interviewer tries to engage him in friendly discussion about "French girls" (make of that what you want) and mocks Sergei when he says he's married and has no experience in that area. Sergei also, in keeping with his loyalty to the state, backs up a recent controversial diplomatic move and is again mocked by his superior. Thinking he has blown the interview, Sergei later hears that the superiors were actually very happy with his performance. This is only a minor example of what KGB spies had to go through, including meticulous background checks and covert missions that potentially involved turning over friends and family to Soviet officials. Sergei was praised for lying to colleagues and ratting them out, which Amis' Russian protagonist describes as a characteristic unique to Russian criminals, in that they don't see betrayal as a crime. The fact that Amis includes future president Vladimir Putin with "Russian criminals" is likely why Amis joked that if he went to Russia, he'd end up getting a dose of polonium like the unfortunate Alexander Litvenenko.
As a member of the SVR, Sergei was sent to America to find state secrets to send back to Russia. During this time, Sergei became a double agent, also giving Russian secrets to the US government. After his retirement, he contacted true crime writer Pete Early to tell his story. Early was skeptical about Sergei's motives, but since the US government had taken care of him and his family financially, it wasn't about money. Sergei said that the reason he came forward, knowing that it could lead to his death, was to warn Americans that just because the Soviet Union has fallen doesn't mean that Russia is now their friend. The KGB still exists under a different name, and has infiltrated American soil. Sergei Tretakov is a skilled liar and double agent, so his motives may not be entirely honorable. But still, he tells an intriguing and often frightening story.
One of Sergei's best stories is his shock at discovering that Vladimir Putin had become president of Russia. Putin was a low-ranking member of the KGB who had never distinguished himself in a remarkable way. Even after serving as a member of Boris Yeltsin's cabinet, he was not a favorite to win the upcoming election. Until an attack on a Russian state building that was blamed on Chechan rebels (I really need to look into this story further, so it's not as complete in this post as I'd like). Putin vowed swift justice on the perpetrators, which made his popularity among Russian voters skyrocket. It's all a bit suspicious, and would set the course for more suspicious acts to come. Included in Comrade J is a collection of photos, such as one of Sergei Tretakov with other Russian spies, one who would later become Vladimir Putin's chief of private security.
In House of Meetings, the protagonist, looking back on his time in the gulags, has one wish: an apology for how he and millions of other prisoners were treated by Stalin and his minions. The damage can't be undone, but for the officials to acknowledge their wrongdoing might make his suffering a little easier to take. In the mess that the Bush administration has made, again the damage has already been done, but somehow I feel that an admission of guilt, an acknowledgment that mistakes had been made, might make it slightly easier to forgive them. But the League of Evil has refused to admit any mistakes in Iraq, the economy, 9/11, or anything. Condeleeza Rice tried, during a visit to England when she said that the administration had made "thousands" of mistakes in Iraq, but she and/or her co-conspirators promptly ate her words and tried to convince the world and themselves that they had been right all along. Backing down and admitting defeat isn't always a sign of weakness. Sometimes that's what takes true strength. I've learned that myself, that it's often hardest, but best in the long run, to admit that I've made a mistake and to learn how to fix it and avoid the same behavior in the future.
In a side note to my last post: Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert Kennedy, was a Palestinian radical who objected to the US's support of Israel and thought that he could somehow start a revolution (or something) by shooting an American politician. It may not have mattered to Sirhan who he shot, as long as it was an American public figure.

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