My favourite Soviet dissident was Andrei Amal’rik (1938-80). He was short, he had suffered physically during two terms of exile in Siberia, but he was very squarely built and radiated resistance and survival. His black hair was cut in what is called a ezhik, i.e. ‘hedgehog’ (crew cut), but it was always growing out and therefore more resembled bear’s fur. As his absurdist plays show, he also had an irrepressible sense of humour. He was a very lovable Russian bear with the hardest political head around.
Amal’rik’s most famous work — for which he served five years in Kolyma — was Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? He finished it in 1969, when I was a twenty-one-year-old student in Moscow. I read about it in the western press, but it was impossible to get a copy in samizdat: it was simply too hot to handle. It was published in Amsterdam in 1970 and I read it as soon as I returned from Russia that year.
You do not see it referred to much these days, which is a pity and a mistake. In what Putin has called ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century’, the Soviet Union actually broke up in 1991. There is a vague feeling, then, that Amal’rik got it wrong and is passé; that he did not foresee the way in which the USSR would collapse, let alone the ascendancy of the KGB, and has nothing to say about Russia today.
It is true that Amal’rik was glaringly wrong to predict a war with China that would lead to the regime’s demise. Also, there is amazingly little reference in his book to the KGB. It seems astonishing now that he thought the army was more powerful and might stage a coup. But Amal’rik was very focussed on the growth of a Soviet ‘middle class’, as he called it, which he believed would ultimately demand change. He hoped it would espouse the values of his ‘Democratic Movement’, which on his own admission in 1969 accounted for only ‘a few dozen active participants and a few hundred sympathisers’.
However, in my experience at least one in five members of this ‘middle class’ worked for the KGB. Although the Soviet ‘middle class’ did not espouse western democratic values, and the KGB are now in control, Amal’rik was therefore absolutely right about the future of the ‘middle class’! Moreover, when he spoke in Cambridge in the late seventies he said that he had badly underestimated the intelligence and power of the KGB, and now believed that if the Communist Party died of old age and the USSR started to break up, of all the parties and factions that would come out of the woodwork probably only the KGB could hold the country together. Possibly he also suspected that the then chairman of the KGB, Iurii Andropov, was heading for the general secretaryship of the Party.
Above all, though, Amal’rik was right in 1969 that the Soviet system was in terminal decay. At the time, hardly anyone in Russia or the West agreed with him. Shuffling with the ‘demonstration’ across Red Square past the mausoleum on May Day, 1970, I certainly couldn’t believe it myself. But Andrei had only chosen 1984 for literary/marketing reasons; he actually thought the collapse would occur between 1980 and 1985, and let’s face it, in terms of historical time he wasn’t far out.
Andrei Amal’rik died in a terrible, but at least not staged, car accident in Spain in 1980. On my final visit to Russia the year after, it was utterly clear that the Soviet regime was sclerotic. People were openly wondering and worrying about how it would end and what would replace it. I asked a highly educated friend of mine, at the top of his literary profession, what Russians like him wanted. ‘What you have in the West — free elections, freedom of speech, rule of law,’ he replied simply. I asked his wife, similarly at the top of her intellectual profession, what she thought would happen if the whole system collapsed. ‘Budet russkii bunt, bessmyslennyi i besposhchadnyi,’ she answered, quoting Pushkin and meaning ‘There will be senseless, merciless violence in the Russian manner’.
As we know, neither statement came true. The Soviet ‘middle class’ did not want the hard work of establishing democracy, they chose Yel’tsin’s nationalism, which opened the way for Putin. They thought that if everyone started wearing Orthodox crosses and eating cabbage pie in Lent, Russia’s future would be assured.