'Breaking With Moscow' Is a Break for U.S. Understanding of the Soviets

February 24, 1985|Charles William Maynes | Charles William Maynes is editor of Foreign Policy magazine

WASHINGTON — For several years the most extraordinary accounts of the Soviet attitude toward Andrew Young, then the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, used to flow into the Department of State, where I was serving as an assistant secretary for international organization affairs.

These reports, directly from an unnamed Soviet source, indicated that Young was greatly enhancing the prestige and influence of the United States among Third World countries, to the detriment of the Soviet Union. Soviet officials were worried and looked for a counterstrategy.

With the publication of Arkady N. Shevchenko's sensational memoir, "Breaking with Moscow" (Knopf), the source of these reports is now clear. For several years until his defection in 1978, Shevchenko served as an American spy, using his privileged position as an undersecretary general of the United Nations to inform the American government of Soviet plans on a number of highly sensitive issues. Making the defection all the more electrifying was Shevchenko's previous experience as personal aide to--and protege of--Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko.

It is hard for Americans to understand how unusual any defection from the Soviet Union is. Most accounts of Shevchenko's decision have focused on the fact that someone with great privileges--special shops, travel and weekend dachas-- chose to live in the United States. The implication seems to be that other defections are more understandable because the people in question did not have Shevchenko's advantages. But the biggest barrier to defection from the Soviet Union has always been psychological, not monetary.

Russian culture is highly collectivist, and for good reason: The climatic and security conditions have been so harsh that the community historically prospered only because the individual was willing to subordinate his interests to those of the larger group. As observers of the Russian scene have pointed out over the centuries, this feature of Russian life has caused the culture to regard defectors as virtual traitors, because by leaving they increased the burden of others. The anti-Semitism that seems to be on the increase in the Soviet Union thus has two sources: the traditional prejudice found in other European countries and this special Russian hostility to any who chose to leave the group.

For its own purposes the Soviet state manipulates these popular attitudes to make the psychological pressure on suspected defectors usually unbearable, especially those of Slavic origin. But on Shevchenko it did not work. Why is not clear. Without saying so, the book suggests than the explanation may lie in the somewhat freer air that a privileged Soviet diplomat is permitted to breathe. Shevchenko denounces the stultifying conformity and hypocrisy of official Soviet life. But he also details episode after episode--from his student days to his period as undersecretary general--when he was not afraid to tell his Soviet colleagues that he thought the Soviet position on a particular issue was wrong. In a sense his defection may have begun with the first student query.

In any event, Shevchenko's memoirs will influence American attitudes toward the Soviet Union for years to come. Already one prominent reviewer has labeled the book as a "Cold War militant's paranoid dream come true." But there are several ways to read the book: as confirmation of Soviet malevolence, as evidence of Soviet uncertainty and as proof of recurring diplomatic opportunities.

For those who see the Soviet Union as only an evil empire, the book is a godsend. Soviet leaders are described as "avidly" seeking hegemony, "infected with the imperialistic sickness of which they accused others."

They are "all aggressive, all hawks with respect to the final goals of their policy." They are also ruthless. Shevchenko suggests that they may have ordered the assassination of former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold (who died in a 1961 Africa plane crash while on a mission to the Congo) because they opposed his actions in the Congo crisis of the early 1960s. And Shevchenko also suggests that the Soviets continue such activities to this day.

Notwithstanding the convention banning the production of biological weapons negotiated with the United States in 1972, a Soviet general told Shevchenko that Soviet Defense Minister Andrei A. Grechko had instructed the Soviet military "not to abandon its program to produce these weapons." Shevchenko asserts that the Soviets seek nuclear superiority.

Soviet officials value the United Nations only because it is in New York, where they can assign their many spies. "Over half of the more than 700 Soviets in New York" are "either full-time spies or co-opts under KGB and GRU (the Soviet Union's chief intelligence directorate) orders or influence."

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