'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."