By now we know a good deal about the brutalities inflicted by the government of the Soviet Union upon those who incur its displeasure. The independent testimonies of survivors add up to a circumstantial and terrible indictment, so that it may be fairly said that anybody who still denies the evidence is the sort of person who would deny anything-or the sort of person who, to preserve his own illusions, will stop his ears to the cries of the dying and condemned.
Where we are less well informed is about the effect of the regime on the great mass of Soviet citizens who have managed to keep out of serious trouble. It is not enough to be told by Soviet refugees what Russia looks like through spectacles acquired in Paris, London, or New York. We want to know what it looked like when they were still in Moscow, Odessa, or Novosibirsk, before they began to dream of escaping to the West, or at least before they knew enough about the West to make comparisons. This is not idle curiosity: it is the only way of getting even a faint idea of how the regime appears to those who must still live under it.
Major Klimov's book is very helpful in this matter. It is a sober, yet vivid, account of life as lived inside the Soviet bureaucracy- seen, as far as it is possible for an outsider to judge, very much as it appeared to the narrator before he decided to break away - as it must therefore appear to countless other intelligent Russians who are engaged at this moment in making the machine work. And this account has an added value because in these pages the machine is seen functioning not in the mysterious hinterland of the Soviet Union, where anything may happen and where events cannot be related to life as we know it, but in the middle of Western Europe, on the familiar ground of occupied Germany. Major Klimov and his colleagues at the Soviet Army headquarters in Berlin were grappling not with Russians but with Germans.
All this is not to suggest that Major Klimov is in every way typical of his compatriots. Obviously he is not, or he would not have written this remarkable book. He has an intelligence, a detachment, perhaps an honesty of mind well above the average. But although he saw through the hypocrisies of Stalinism more clearly and uncompromisingly than most of his colleagues, his basic emotional reactions and mental processes do not seem to have marked him off from them. With one important difference he accepted what they accepted, rejected what they rejected, and for a long time was prepared to serve his government as a patriotic citizen, whether on the battlefield or on the General Staff.
The important difference was that he was too stubborn to join, as a matter of convenience, the Communist Party, which he, like most of the rank and file of its members, despised. He was prepared to put up with the regime but not, if he could help it, to hand himself over body and soul to it. This attitude is more characteristic of Soviet citizens than some of us care to think. It is probably true to say that the majority of them accept the regime and try to make the best of it not so much because they have no choice but rather because it has never occurred to them that they may in fact have a choice. They do not spend sleepless nights brooding over the iniquities of the MVD: like all human beings everywhere they take life as they find it, enjoy it when they can, and keep their reservations to themselves. Klimov differed from the majority in that he was not prepared to keep all his reservations secret. His failure to join the Party could only be interpreted as some sort of a demonstration. And it was because of this that he found himself driven in the end, quite suddenly, to take the decisive step and abandon his homeland. There were, to be true, only six million or so Party members at that time; but these included most go-ahead young engineers who wanted to make a career. To join it was interpreted as an act of total submission.
Our own attitude towards the Soviet regime (I speak of people who have taken the trouble to read and weigh the evidence) is colored above all by horror and disgust at the physical brutalities, as expressed in police beatings, enforced confessions, arbitrary prison sentences and slave-labor in sickening conditions. The reader of this book will observe with interest that Major Klimov takes the physical aspects of the terror in his stride: the degradation of the prisoner plays a less important part in his image of the Soviet.
Union than it does in ours. In this he is, I think, characteristic of the majority of Russians, who are less concerned with the details of what the security police do to their victims than with the simple fact of their ubiquity and power. What Major Klimov brings up with extreme sharpness of focus is something far less frequently and effectively reported than the torturing and the slave driving: I mean the sustained and terrible pressure on the minds and spirits of men who are technically free. We are not allowed to forget that this pressure has its fulcrum in physical fear; but we are invited to contemplate not the by now familiar manifestations of that pressure but its effect on those whose lives are largely spent in trying to avoid the midnight arrest and the labor camps of the Far North. The price they pay for their technical freedom is the corruption of their minds and the atrophy of their will.
Different readers will find different centers of interest in Major Klimov's narrative. For example, it may be read as an enthralling behind-the-scenes account of the workings of a Soviet Army headquarters, or as a revelation of the Soviet way with occupied territory. But for me its chief fascination lies in the slowly emerging picture of what the Soviet regime is making of the minds and characters of its subjects. Without overstatement, without generalizing, simply by recounting his own personal experience of life under Stalin, Major Klimov shows us a system, which is rotten at the core. If he showed us only that, it would be a simple story-the story of a system which fears all independence of mind and spirit and in killing it digs its own grave. But it is not a simple story.
The truth about the Soviet Union is as complicated and as unattainable as the truth about human nature. Because, as Major Klimov also shows, perhaps unconsciously, the human spirit is so resilient that although whole areas of it may be effectively paralyzed in a multitude of individuals, life still persists, finding its fulfillment in a job well done, or in the heroic fighting of a patriotic war. This is good news about human nature. But in the context of the Soviet Union it has an ironic sting. For it is this stubborn spark of spiritual life, surviving in spite of all the efforts of authority to stamp it out, which alone saves the regime from collapsing under its own dead weight. We may see in it our future hope; but we must also see in it some part of the Kremlin's present strength.