The KBG Were No Fools - By Alexander Melikhov

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By Alexander Melikhov
September 2006

“They forgot nothing and learned nothing” – this could be the name for the series of memoirs by prominent functionaries of the Soviet era. The fire and water Vladimir Semichastny, the former head of the Komsomol and KGB chief, had lived through had no effect on his views laid out in his book

It is quite an original idea, to inject small dozes of big-time Soviet bureaucrats into the sparkling beau monde of the Vagrius Publishers’ Memoirs Series, My 20th Century: the reader, I am sure, will see that the 20th century would have been incomplete without them. “V.E.Semichastny partly wrote and partly dictated his memoirs not long before his demise”, says the publisher’s annotation (2002). “In them he, a man of integrity, a staunch and uncompromising person, tried to interpret both his own life and the history of the country whose true and faithful servant he was for about a quarter of a century. The book reveals many intriguing facts of the methods and style of work used by the governmental bodies of the CPSU and the KGB. The book has vivid descriptions of the Soviet political leaders (N.S.Khrushchev, L.M.Kaganovich, L.I.Brezhnev, Yu.V.Andropov, A.N.Shelepin) and of outstanding Soviet intelligence officers (R.I.Abel and K.T.Molodoy). It contains curious details of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, of the notorious Penkovsky Case, of Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva’s escape abroad, and many others”. Indeed, the book reveals a lot of interesting things, but the most curious of them become disclosed unwillingly, probably, through the author’s artlessness (integrity).

Actually, the man who headed the Komsomol (the Young Communist League) and then the KGB and occupied positions of importance even in disfavour, has recorded only the things that produced some tensions and reshuffles in the nomenklatura circles. Apparently, for a bureaucrat the apparat is really the only window to the world that generates a kind of collective solipsism: the orderliness in the apparat means orderliness everywhere, in the country and in the universe.

Style is not everything a man is, of course, but it is, at least, a considerable part of his appearance. V.E.Semichastny’s style starts with his book title: “The Restless Heart” (there used to be such sentimental officialese names as “The heart given to the people”, or “There is no pain in the world he doesn’t feel as his own” but to apply such things to oneself…). The book opens with summing up the results and advice for the future, integral and uncompromising…

“The Komsomol was everything for me. Actually, it shaped me up and made a statesman and party worker of me. There I gained a lot of experience, learned to work with people, and armed myself with the knowledge one needs to manage people. We were taught to be honest, to love our country. Remember the words of the song: ‘Give your first thought to your country and the next one to yourself!’”

Today “young people have become dangerously apathetic” in public affairs, they are more focused on what they have been used to hear the last years: profits, enrichment, personal prosperity. Dissipation, drugs, racket and banditry have become common today”.

“When I worked for the Komsomol, young people’s powerful response to any interesting initiative for the good of the nation was a natural thing and was considered a civic duty. Nobody forced them to do it, contrary to what the mass media say these days. Instead, it was a patriotic drive”. While with the youth of today “we would lose contest with any serious foe”... “We have lost the Cold War” (actually, with the youth of that time and their fathers - A.M.)… “We have lost the 1-st Chechen war”…, “We have left the land to harrowing”…, “By the scenario written overseas”…, “The people are humiliated”…, “Stuck in the bog of unscrupulousness”… “The youth organisations manifest their complete helplessness”…

“All we the older generation could do is tell the younger people what life used to be like in times past”.

That’s how it was: look and learn.

But “sometimes” an idea comes to the author’s mind that the responsibility for what is going on today rests also with the party and Komsomol leadership: “We taught people not to think and not to reason too much, to accept the government’s care as something natural. As a result, we disarmed them and turned them into dependants. We thought things would be forever as they were, that there was no need to fight for it. And so we failed to preserve our ideals”.

We just failed to teach the people to value the care by the government.

“There is a pressing need for setting up youth organizations”. “It is important that the youth organizations have the government’s support and help, and then the youth will be able to say its weighty word in the struggle for the salvation of their Motherland”.

It would be a fine move if some publishing house printed a series named, They Have Forgotten Nothing and Have Learned Nothing.

Here is a man who lived through fire and water of nomenklatura career, tasted honourable disfavour, dared riot moderately as befits a disciplined soldier of the party, got, for edification of others, a humiliating series of vacancies from deputy minister of culture to deputy chairman of Znaniye popular science society where he ended his career. So what discernment he gained from those ups and downs? Because life made one think and re-think about some very important issues…

The national feelings of the Ukrainians are “nationalistic tricks” , the Ukrainian intelligentsia have always been “rotten in the sense that they used to talk too much about independence” .

As for religious feelings of the believers, “Maybe, we went to the extremes in some points. Maybe, we should not have pushed to closing churches and should have been more considerate towards worshipers. The Komsomol and the party bodies should have been more self–critical, for, despite all their efforts, children were baptised and young people wed in churches”.

About Solzhenitsyn: “I think Solzhenitsyn was sentenced quite logically and with every reason”.

The trial of Daniel and Sinyavsky was “the only disputable case of harsh moves against the dissidents when the KGB under me gave up preventive steps of persuasion and explanation and let them get what was due under law”.

True, though, Semichastny seems slightly embarrassed as he relates the story of Pasternak and alleges that the most loutish, so to say, cattle-breeding descriptions: (“lousy sheep”, “the swine that does not defecate where it eats and sleeps”) had been dictated to him by Khrushchev.

Now about “the international hotbeds of tensions” as he sees them from the heights of his long and stormy life. Germany: the erection of the Berlin Wall in1961 resolved partially the problem of East German emigration to the West and cut down the chance of ideological sabotage against the countries of the socialist camp. Cuba is “rising up, gaining strength and, I am sure, will say her word”.Of strikingly colourless memoirs of disgraced Marshal Zhukov: “We happened to have a fleeting glance at his manuscript. At that time he was no longer a member of the Party’s Central Committee. But at his desk he did not let his resentment guide his pen when he was writing about the state, the party, or Khrushchev. The Marshal wrote as a disciplined soldier, as a communist firm in belief in the righteousness of his cause and devoted to it with all his soul and heart. There was just nothing in his text that he could be blamed for”.

In fact, there were no insoluble problems. “One day historians will come to the conclusion that in our state, in view of its vast territory, multinational population, climatic conditions, etc., Soviets are the best form of government. At the same time, I think, they will also agree that in its harshest days the Party was fully justified in assuming responsibility for the solution of all problems”. But the relations between the party and Soviets had to be cleverly and well adjusted”. Not the system but “the people were deciding everything”, the leader’s duty was not to interfere with running of the economic ministries but to prod them and supervise, watch and aid”.

“The situation called for reforms, for bringing elementary order but not for the elimination of the Communist party and the Soviets as it has been done in the last ten years”. What should the reforms have been like to leave the party and the system unscathed? You youngsters look how the KGB was reshaped under Khrushchev: “For the past not to recur, the men to fill the official positions had to be mature, experienced, have principles and character. The experience of former secretaries of regional, city and district party committees helped newcomers to lead other workers”.

I think everyone of us has happened to hear sophisticated discourses that Gorbachev should have turned the party into the tool of authoritarian modernisation: had the Central Committee been filled mostly with such integral and uncompromising heroes, they would have modernised a lot. By the way, Gorbachev, for Semichastny, is “a traitor on top of them all”. Nor would he even dispute with ideological opponents in the liberal camp as if he is not even aware of their existence.

It is very good that The Restless Heart has been published by a liberal-minded publishing house, otherwise the book would have passed unnoticed among other pensioners’ writings, and we would have missed an excellent opportunity to have one more look at those who governed us and were willing to do it ad infinitum with not a shred of doubt of either their personal abilities or the truth of their primitive doctrines.

But probably, the word “doctrine” is too lofty for views of such kind. Or, maybe, the word “views” is also too lofty?