'They Kicked Me Out. I Am Glad. So Are They.'
The Making of a Soviet Dissident
Lost in a corner of the Russian Research Center, Kirill Uspensky is working on a dictionary. His tiny office, reserved for visiting scholars, is a veritable library--lined with books, littered with maps and scribbled notes and piled high with file boxes and dictionaries of every conceivable kind. A cyrillic typewriter sits to one side of his cluttered desk. An American flag stands in the pencil pot.
But the difference between Uspensky and other academicians goes far below the surface. The small, soft-spoken, gray-bearded man is not like other lexicographers. Trained in military academies and army barracks, Uspensky is a writer, and many of the 30,000 notecards that surround him list words he first heard as a prisoner in a Soviet forced-labor camp. Uspensky's story is the story of the making of a dissident.
Uspensky was not always disenchanted with Soviet politics. Born and raised in a staunchly Bolshevik family, he started life with all the making of a happy member of socialist society. Both his parents belonged to the Communist party and his father, a prominent judge, presided over a special court that tried counter-revolutionaries. In 1931, at the age of 14, Uspensky joined the Young Communist League, and 11 years later, became a member of the Communist Party. At 18 he joined the army, attended military school, and then military academy.
It was in the military school that Uspensky first ran afoul of authority. In the spring of 1935, he asked a political commissar at the school about some minor disagreements he had with Soviet ideology. "Lenin said that we should pay any price for a communist who takes all dogmas without any thinking or discussion," Uspensky says. "I disagreed with that. I felt that every communist has a right to weigh all the postulates and doubt or disagree up to the point when a decision is taken." Twenty years later, when talking to a government interrogator, Uspensky learned that the party's dossier on him begins with this incident in 1935.
Although the encounter with the political commissar was noted, it was also forgiven. But nine years later the party was not so lenient. In 1944, Uspensky, who had risen quickly in the Soviet Army, took part in a seminar on the post-war tactics of the Communist Party. Although he still considered himself a loyal Bolshevik, he felt that some of the party's actions were incompatible with Communist ideology, and used the opportunity to aim masked criticism at Stalin. "I was clandestine and hoped I could get away with it," Uspensky says. "I said things which are now considered quite right, but then were rather premature." A week later, the party expelled him.
Following his dismissal from the party, the army kicked Uspensky out of the intelligence service, but because he was intelligent and capable, the army gave him command of an infantry regiment. Uspensky grins at the memory. "The funny thing about it was that on the intelligence staff all I did was sit with maps analyzing information. As a commander, I was in a position to open the front to the Germans.
When the war ended, a general who had not carefully examined Uspensky's file suggested that he apply for admission to a top diplomatic/military school. But at that point, the lieutenant-colonel was already "sick and tired" of the military and dreamed of launching a career as a writer. As soon as he received his demobilization orders, Uspensky returned to Leningrad to begin a new civilian life.
Uspensky's first few stories were immediately published in the Soviet press and for a while he gained prominence as a writer. He managed to cover up his expulsion from the party, and joined a writer's union. Then, he recalls, "I became a little brazen and began writing stories which were more and more outspoken. I decided to tell about the war I had seen, instead of about victories and roses covering our military road." His stories began to be censored and rejected; Uspensky shifted into translating foreign works.
Even here there were problems, he notes, for it is very difficult to find authors whom Soviet authorities consider acceptable. What is "correct" one day may be banned the next. For a long time, for example, John Steinbeck was one of the most popular American writers in the Soviet Union. But when he went to Vietnam and wrote about his experiences there, the Soviet press criticized him severely. Publication of all of his works was stopped in 1968, and did not resume for another ten years.
During this period, when Uspensky was both translating and trying to get his stories published, a group of young writers and artists began gathering in his apartment. These gatherings soon grew into an unofficial literary salon. Alexander Ginsberg often joined the discussions and at these sessions Uspensky first met and became friends with many of the men who later led the dissident movement. Sometimes the Russians brought along American students who were studying at the University of Leningrad. Among these was an expert in medieval Russian history--Edward L. Keenan, professor of History and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
These students were not the only American Uspensky met. In the fall of 1959, the New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein, came to Russia for the American Exhibition in Moscow. A cousin of Bernstein's knew Uspensky and when the conductor mentioned that he wanted to meet someone not connected with officialdom, a meeting between the two men was arranged. During their discussions, Uspensky spoke freely about the place of art and literature in Soviet society and about other things which the Soviet government did not wish known. Ironically, a KGB official repeated these conversations to Uspensky nearly verbatim the following year; Bernstein's translator was a KGB informer.
In 1960, the KGB arrested Uspensky, charging him with disseminating anti-Soviet propaganda. Although interrogators could produce no evidence of this in his written or printed works, they mentioned his notebooks and war diaries and frequently referred to conversations he had had with foreigners. From these scraps of information, Uspensky learned that his apartment had been bugged for more than three years.
Tried after three months of solitary confinement, Uspensky was sentenced to five years in a Moldavian labor camp. At the camp he was assigned to help perform autopsies on dead convicts. "This was supposed to help reeducate me in an ideological way," he remembers sardonically.
Uspensky bitterly recalls life at the camp. The inmates included scientists and high school teachers, agronomists and doctors. One of the friends he made there, a nuclear physicist, received a Nobel nomination three years ago. "They were splendid people who did marvelous work--people who deserved to be honored by their government, not punished by it," he says. The wardens were hard to distinguish from common criminals.
"Your everyday life consists of trying to defend yourself from abuse," Uspensky recalls. "Most of the people there are highly educated, and have high moral values, yet defending your moral self-esteem becomes an everyday struggle. You are considered a kind of animal."
In the labor camp, Uspensky's dictionary was born. "On the way to the camp, I encountered some convicts who were using a sort of prison jargon," he remembers. "In the camp, people were talking in a Russian so rich in slang terms and thieves' cant that at first I couldn't understand it."
The language, he soon discovered, was filled with political connotations, embodying a bitterness, and an irony, found nowhere else in Russian society. "Censorship there looks attentively, not only at every book, but at every poem, every postcard, even at music," he explains. "Language used in an ironical or satirical form is the single means of expressing protest. In its very savageness it makes for an understanding of the hypocrisy of the situation."
Some of the words poke fun at party leaders, others at the political situation itself. In camp jargon, the word for the Soviet Union means "big zone." "The prison camps are usually called zones, since if you try to go on or off them, you are usually shot at," Uspensky explains. "This word just means that the whole country is a big prison."
Marxistka, a terms that literally means a woman who embraces Marxist political beliefs, has come to mean, in the Moscow vernacular, a prostitute who walks Marx Avenue in Moscow. Another phrase which originally meant 'to change views to keep in line with the party line,' has taken on a new connotation. It now refers to a conformist who adheres to the party line, fluctuating even as the party line shifts.
While at the camp, Uspensky compiled an elaborate index file and filled 15 notebooks with catchwords and slang phrases. And when he left the camp--at the insistence of a group of prominent writers and friends, he was released a year early--he carried with him 7000 notecards written in a code that only he could understand.
For two years after his release from the camp, Uspensky lived in self-imposed exile outside of Leningrad. But after Ginsberg's arrest his friends in the dissident movement induced him to begin acting. He started by gathering money to defend the arrested and support their families. Gradually, he became more and more involved in protests, signing letters to the government, and even holding press conferences with foreign journalists. Eventually he participated in the dissident movement at the highest level, working with men like Andrei Sakharov and General Greronko.
Throughout this period, Uspensky continued his work on the dictionary, expanding the book to include the language of over 200 social groups within the Soviet Union. Twenty years after he made the first note, Uspensky (whose work is now funded by a federal grant), has collected more than 30,000 words. Seventyfive per cent of them have never been registered in any dictionary despite the fact that they are in everyday usage. He hopes to publish his work next year. "The authorities want to purify the language, to make it like distilled water," he says. "But no language can exist on that principle."
The dictionary eventually led to Uspensky's flight from Russia. His involvement in the dissident movement was accompanied by an ever-increasing danger--to both himself and his work. The KGB summoned Uspensky as an eyewitness when his friends were arrested, bugged his flat and searched his apartment, going through his card file and scattering his notes. A month before Uspensky left the Soviet Union, a group of thugs attacked him. "They were apparently drunk hoodlums, but I could tell they were working for the KGB," Uspensky says, explaining, "They were too well informed, They called me an anti-Soviet, and there is no way they could have known that."
Fearing that his near-finished card file would be confiscated in the next search--or that something would happen to him before it was completed--Uspensky decided to leave his country. The government was only too happy to see him go. Two weeks after he applied to emigrate, his papers came through.
"So I left," he says. "I went out of the country I had defended, the country I love, the country that is my country. They kicked me out. I am glad. So are they."