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Why Russia Has No Allies in the World of Today

29-07-2010, 08:18


The worst kind of crashing bores are those who believe in the universality of formal logic and align their whole lives with its dictate. Sooner or later life does find a cure for most, but some manage to cling to their ways all along. In many cases, such people dive into academic careers as a form of escape  likely due to the illusion of personal success that easily comes with a scholar title. Their invasion into the spheres of history or arts creates particularly lifeless pictures which are completely detached from reality with it vibrant colors and shadows of meaning. To make things worse, oftentimes these very types tend to vindicate their narrow-mindedness by dishing out textbooks.

On quite a few issues, “Off Record” by Alexander Bogomolov and Georgiy Sannikov offers a timely antidote to the black-and-white “pictures at the exhibition” compiled by formalists who interpreted our recent history. Strictly speaking, the subject of “Off Record” is life as such rather than history. The epigraph – Goethe's “All theory is gray, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life” - is rightly placed, the subtitle of the book written by the two friends who served for years in East Germany being “Uninvented stories related by diplomat A. Bogomolov and intelligence operative G. Sannikov”.

Late Soviet diplomat Kvitsinsky stressed in the foreword that the 1950ies in Germany were marked with a largely unprecedented phenomenon – the advent to the country's political front stage of a cohort of staunch proponents of a permanent, across-the- board engagement with Soviet Russia. Indeed, the policy of friendship between Russia and Germany ran contrary to the frightening historical inertia, and the U-turn materialized at a totally unlikely moment without any groundwork for it. From the Russian perspective, Germans burdened with the legacy of fascist savagery thus restored the honor and dignity of their nation. The DDR was a country of “our” Germans whom we intended and eventually learned to trust, stressed Kvitsinsky in the foreword, adding that the above is the essence of the contribution to history made by East Germany as well as of the drama of its demise.

The book's great strength lies in the description of the epoch via the portrayal of individual characters which the authors describe with stark realism, exposing as necessary various ills like follies, incompetence, servility, and over-reliance on administrative leverage. The overall impression could be that the account is fairly ruthless to those known as the pillars of the Soviet diplomacy, but the emotional tone changes when the focus shifts to the German friends of the authors and of the USSR in general. In any case, the best pages in “Off Record” are those dedicated to the relatively obscure episodes witnessed by Bogomolov and Sannikov.

For example, we discover that whenever East-German leader Erich Honecker met with the USSR Communist Party Secretary General L. Brezhnev in Crimea, the latter, beaming with a friendly smile, almost shouted “Don't worry, we will help!” while walking the few steps from his car to Honecker's doorstep. Brezhnev was aware beforehand where the conversation would lead, since the German friend's asking for further economic infusions into the DDR used to be a rule without exceptions. Honecker was free to pretended every time that Brezhnev's slight irony evaded him, but, according to Bogomolov and Sannikov, explained bluntly in his inner circle: “The USSR is a huge country, and nobody in the West has any idea how the Soviet people live. Nobody cares how they do, honestly, while we are permanently in the spotlight here, at the interface between the socialist and the capitalist camps. Therefore, the USSR has to prop us up economically”. The thinly veiled attitude was not unique to Berlin – perhaps apart from Mongolia, neither of Moscow's allies shied away from siphoning resources off the Soviet Union.

The stories recalled by Bogomolov and Sannikov highlight the gap between ordinary East Germans and the DDR party and administration elite. An emergency regime was imposed on Berlin and Soviet tanks rolled into the city when unrest broke out in East Germany on June 17, 1953. “Accordions were audible and young people sang and danced as crowds gathered around the tank columns, but serious risks were looming behind the seemingly normal situation”. Soviet students were taught in colleges later that the 1953 events were triggered by the carefully planned subversive activities of the Western intelligence services and of the sinister RIAS broadcaster operating from the American sector of Berlin. The truth, though, is that the protests were  provoked by gross incompetence of the administration, and the people's demands were purely economic: the population was outraged by the unreasonable raising of mandated workloads in the name of supposed higher labor efficiency. 

Bogomolov stood by when the Socialist Unity Party chief Walter Ulbricht learned from a phone report that several hundred people, mostly drunk, smashed  windows at the Central Committee headquarters and were in the process of sneaking into the building. “I was shocked by  Ulbricht's reaction – he only muttered that it was the end and turned extremely pale”. It was an acute embarrassment to Ulbricht that Bogomolov could observe the miserable performance.

The Soviet army had to move the frightened and disorganized DDR elite to a secured hideout, but Sannikov mentions several episodes in which rank-and-file German activists fearlessly took the situation under control. A fragile lady delivered an enthusiastic speech to the mob at Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA), a gigantic state-owned film studio in Potsdam, causing the protesters to return to their workplaces.

Bogomolov, a fluent speaker of German, often assisted as an interpreter at top-level talks. He provides curious details of the 1955 visit of German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to Moscow, which became a prologue to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the USSR and West Germany. A contentious issue – Adenauer's request that the Soviet Union release all German prisoners of war – popped up on the agenda already on the second day of the talks. The Soviet position was that the only German prisoners still held in the USSR at the time were war criminals who were serving absolutely legitimate court sentences, and   Khrushchev therefore cited the nightmarish atrocities committed by German occupants on the Soviet territory. Bogomolov quotes Adenauer as saying that, indeed a lot of evil things had been done, but the Russian army had committed similar atrocities when it entered Germany. As a veteran, I was shocked to hear the word “atrocities” applied to our side, wrote Bogomolov. Khrushchev was outraged – he slammed his hand down on the table angrily and said: “If, as of today, our esteemed partners are unprepared to discuss the establishment of diplomatic relations, they should simply tell us that!”. It appeared that Adenauer was about to hop on a plane and fly back to Bonn, but next day social-democrat Schmidt managed to get the negotiating process back on track by admitting that “atrocities hitherto unseen in history had been perpetrated against the Russian people” and asking Russians, of whose generosity he was assured, to make a magnanimous gesture. The prisoners were sent off to Germany, and the diplomatic relations – finally established.

Curiously, Khrushchev proposed during the talks that Germany should send its pilots to the Soviet Union for training and, in a whisper, leaked a plan that was supposed to remain under wraps. “I'll tell you a secret: We will send something to fly around the globe soon,” said Khrushchev to Adenauer in a reference to the Sputnik, but it is unlikely that the German leader was able to grasp what he had heard. The launch of a space satellite by the Soviet Union caused a global sensation two years later.

It is noteworthy, in the light of the historical destiny of the DDR, that Khrushchev, along with Soviet defense minister N. Bulganin and foreign minister V. Molotov, made it clear during the talks that the establishment of diplomatic ties between West Germany and the USSR would possibly open a path towards the German unification. The trio also stated that “the German unification would not take place before both Germanies jointly tackle the problem”. I assumed then that it was a tribute to the diplomatic protocol, with nothing serious behind it, commented Bogomolov, but four decades later the above sounds almost mystical.    

In Sannikov's view, it was the bridge-building and rapprochement policy adopted by German social-democrats - Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr – that eventually made it possible to bring down the DDR. The seasoned intelligence operative with many years of work in Germany on record suspects that even the Western strategists and policy architects could not foresee that the developments would follow at such pace. Sannikov holds that the Soviet betrayal - the backstabbing conduct pursued by those of the USSR leaders who lacked professionalism and political intuition – helped the West achieve its goals.

Former Soviet ambassador to Germany Abrasimov interprets Brandt's eastern policy as a plan for the German unification to be made possible in a distant future by centrifugal tendencies which were to arise within the socialist camp under the tentative influence of the social-democratic ideology. The creed constantly aired by Egon Bahr, the closest associate of Brandt, was that communists and social democrats actually shared the goal of building communism, the real difference being that the former were terribly impatient and, due to the reason, prone to  drastic measures and violence, and the latter were gradualists  believing in parliamentary debates and reforms.

By the way, Sannikov notes that the older-generation German communists gravitated towards social democracy since the epoch when Hitler made his first attempts to seize power. Old communist Friedrich Wolf could not accept it till the end of his life that the Comintern, on Stalin's order, mounted obstacles in the way of forming a broad leftist coalition against Hitler in 1933. Wolf considered the approach mandated by Stalin – to treat social democrats as bourgeois agents perpetually creeping into the working class movement – a terrible mistake. Sannikov tells a series of tragic stories of the Germans who sought shelter from Nazism in the USSR but, depending on whether or not they had switched to the Soviet citizenship, faced deportation or repressions – arrests, exile, or executions - in the wake of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

The conclusion stemming from the above is that, in some regards, the disloyalty to “our” Germans dates back to the time before the DDR came into being. As for the days of the collapse of East Germany, Sannikov claims that the DDR leaders were simply unable to accept Gorbachev's and Shevardnadze's betrayal as an accomplished fact. Moreover, Sannikov writes that initially even the West German leadership was unsure of Moscow's motivation behind the consent for the absorption of the crumbling DDR. Sannikov stresses that, in the case, the Soviet leaders both stepped over the international law and neglected to secure  properly documented guarantees of personal safety and equal rights for all former East German citizens without exclusions. It should be also borne in mind in the context that, similarly, no guarantees from German chancellor H. Kohl and US President G. Bush were put on paper that, as a sign of gratitude for the concessions made by Moscow, NATO would refrain from expanding  east.   

The case of East German spymaster Markus Wolf, to whom the Soviet intelligence and counterespionage agencies were deeply indebted on many occasions, epitomizes the irresponsibility with which the Soviets handled the DDR problem. Wolf's friend and Soviet head of foreign intelligence L. Shebarshin was stonewalled by Gorbachev when trying to convince him to make real efforts to ensure immunity from prosecution for Wolf, and KGB chief V. Kryuchkov declined to meet with Wolf and only sent to his colleague “greetings and the advice not to return to Germany under any circumstances”. Sannikov asserts that Wolf's decision to repatriate was largely prompted by the deportation of Honecker from Russia – Wolf had reasons to expect to be similarly turned in to the German authorities.

Even the BND, the West German agency with a vast prehistory of dueling with the organization which Wolf formerly chaired, had strong reservations concerning the prosecution. Wolf who could count on “living in California as in paradise, in a posh villa and with fresh savings in a US bank” in reward for supplying to the CIA the information he possessed, did not betray Moscow which had betrayed him. The US, says Sannikov, hoped in vain for years that Wolf would change his mind.

Sannikov had to hear a lot of disturbing but absolutely fair things from the German friends of Markus Wolf. Their point was: “You obviously betrayed us, and even sold us at a ridiculously cheap price – for the meager DM 19bn. The money was probably stolen, and the officers from the Soviet army group which had been deployed in Germany never got the promised housing in Russia. You abandoned billions of Marks worth of assets and the infrastructures that it took you years to build, and moved your troops literally to the middle of nowhere. The swift withdrawal looked as if they fled in a preplanned manner. The promise that the Soviet government did fulfill was the one given to the West – to pull out the troops fast”.

<!--[if gte mso 9]> <!--[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false RU JA X-NONE <!--[if gte mso 9]> <!--[if gte mso 10]> /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Обычная таблица"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman";} <!--StartFragment--> Nevertheless, the five decades of friendship with East Germans did not evaporate without a trace. In Germany, I routinely felt that the attitudes towards Russians among those from the West and from the East were far from being same. Even the acts of undisguised betrayal committed by top decisions-makers in the recent past did not erase the legacy that belongs to people, not to abstract history. As for the betrayal, it almost always boomerangs. A German friend once said to one of the authors of “Off Record” that she fell asleep in her own bed one night as a DDR citizen to wake up as a citizen of West Germany, without being asked if that was OK with her. In a short time, the Soviet citizens were to wake up in a world transformed beyond recognition. We have spent the 1990ies out of touch with the country we lived in, without friends or allies, and even without compassion from those who had been “our” people not long before, but do we have any moral right to complain, after all?<!--EndFragment-->

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