Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Review: "The Russians," by Hedrick Smith (1976)

Paperback cover of "The Russians," by Hedrick Smith, 1976.

Publicity photo of Hedrick Smith for "The Russians." Photo by Jill Krementz.
When Hedrick Smith’s book “The Russians” was published in 1976, it gave American readers a taste of what life was like inside the Soviet Union. In “The Russians” Smith paints a vivid portrait of the culture of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev’s rule. Smith was the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times from 1971-74, and in 1974 he won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his articles about life in the Soviet Union. I was lucky enough to intern for Hedrick Smith during college in the fall of 2001, as he was finishing up the excellent documentary “Rediscovering Dave Brubeck.” Smith’s most recent book is 2012’s “Who Stole the American Dream?” a very important book that I reviewed here.  

 “The Russians” is a large book, 680 pages in the original paperback edition, and Smith covers just about every imaginable aspect of Soviet society. I learned something new on every page of this book. I can’t accurately summarize all of the different parts of the book in this review, so I’ll focus on the sections that I enjoyed reading the most. 

While reading “The Russians” I was very struck by how completely the Soviet government controlled society and everyday life. Smith chronicled how the government censored the information that citizens had access to, which ranged from not informing citizens about wildfires raging only 15-20 miles outside of Moscow, to the heartbreaking story of a man whose daughter died in a plane crash, which he only learned of by going to the airport police-who only told him about the crash on the condition that he keep the news confidential. Because people had so little access through the state-run media to any kind of meaningful information, either about their own country or any others, the government was able to better control the population. This total control over information even extended to seemingly mundane things. For example, while Smith was in Moscow in 1973, the government published the first telephone directory in 15 years. Smith writes, “The problem with this phone book, as with so many desirable items in the Soviet Union, is that supply made not even the barest pretense of satisfying demand. For a city of eight million people, the printers published 50,000 phone books.” (p.472) 

I knew that Soviet citizens had very little political freedom, but I didn’t realize how many perks the elite members of the Communist Party enjoyed. Smith deftly exposes one of the many contradictions in Soviet society: that the supposedly classless society was actually just as stratified between the haves and have-nots as the West was, if not more so. Members of the elite were granted access to special stores where they could buy goods not available to other citizens. Elites also had opportunities to travel abroad, which meant that they had access to foreign goods, and work abroad was often paid in special “certificate rubles” which could be used in special stores and had more purchasing power than ordinary rubles. There was also little chance of upward mobility in the Soviet system-if you weren’t a Party member you didn’t have much of a chance of making a decent living. 

Political dissent in the Soviet Union was given very little chance to exist. As Smith shows, the temporary “thaw” in Soviet culture under Khrushchev in the 1950’s and 60’s was quickly replaced by the cold chilliness of the Brezhnev era. Under Brezhnev dissenters were rather quickly neutered by being sent to the labor camps of Siberia or exiled to the West. The methods of dealing with dissenters were not as cruel as they had been under Stalin, but the Soviet government was extremely effective at shutting down any dissenting points of view. 

Smith wrote about how it was not the KGB that most ordinary Soviet citizens feared. “For the quiet erosion of the spirit that takes place daily is caused more by the petty tyrants of Soviet life-the rigid little bureaucrats and the self-appointed busybodies who use infinite regulations and documents to harass, humble and hound the man in the street.” (p.352)

One of the most memorable parts of “The Russians” details Smith’s “interview” with the famed dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It was forbidden for foreign journalists to meet with Solzhenitsyn, as the Soviet government was very angry about his anti-Communist novels that explored the terrors of the Stalin regime. Smith and Bob Kaiser of The Washington Post went to Solzhenitsyn’s apartment to interview him, but when they arrived they found that Solzhenitsyn had already written the interview, both question and answers, for them. Smith writes, “I was stunned. What an irony, I thought. This is the way it is done at Pravda and here is Solzhenitsyn, whose entire being reverberates with his furious battle against censorship, a man who in the great tradition of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky had dared to assert the writer’s independence, producing a prepackaged interview. How could he be so blind or so vain? I thought of walking out.” (p.562) But Kaiser convinced Smith to read the hefty 25-page “interview” that Solzhenitsyn had written, which proved difficult because Solzhenitsyn was such a Slavophile that he wrote in an archaic style of Russian that used only “pure” Russian words, and not words that were derived from other languages. Solzhenitsyn also insisted that both papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, print all of his 7,500 word “interview,” which had lengthy sections defending his ancestors from slander that Pravda was printing at the time. Smith explained that not even the U.S. President was guaranteed that his every word would be published in newspapers. Eventually a compromise was reached with Solzhenitsyn, and he agreed to answer some questions. Solzhenitsyn was eventually exiled by the Soviet government in 1974, and he settled in Vermont, despite his dislike of the West and material culture. Oddly enough, when Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994, he briefly hosted a TV talk show. 

Although parts of “The Russians” are inevitably dated, Smith’s deep insights into Russia and the Russian character make the book still very relevant today. It’s a shame that it’s out of print, it really deserves to be re-issued and enjoy wider circulation. Hedrick Smith is a great writer, and he crafts many memorable sentences throughout “The Russians.” One of my favorite passages is his spot-on comments about Soviet architecture:

“The newer subdivisions are a forest of massive prefab apartment blocks, numbing in their monotony (and duplicated in cities all across the country), pockmarked and graying with the instant aging that afflicts all Soviet architecture. They are left naked without grass or shrubbery or shutters or flower boxes, like fleets of dowdy ocean liners gone aground on some barren shore and dwarfing their passengers with their inhuman scale.” (p.140) 

Smith also uses as an epigraph for one of his chapters a very apt quote, which still does a good job of summing up Russia in the 21st century:

“Russians have gloried in the very thing foreigners criticized them for-blind and boundless devotion to the will of the monarch, even when in his most insane flights he trampled underfoot all the laws of justice and humanity.” Nikolai Karamzin, Russian historian, 1766-1826. (p.320)

If you’re interested in Soviet history, or in Russian culture, Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians” is an excellent book that I would highly recommend.


Floradora said...

Very nice review. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I took the Trans-Siberian in 1985 in the days of the Evil Empire. One day on the train I was in a conversation with our tour guide Irina, a late twenties married lady from Intourist who presumably had had KGB training like all Intourist guides. She asked if I had read "The Russians" by Hedrick Smith. When I said I had, she said "terrible book. Rubbish. Much better is 'Life in Russia' by Michael Binyon". As it turned out I had read that as well, and told her so.
I can't remember or say now whether or not her opinion is valid, but at least there you have a short review from a native.