Arkady N. Shevchenko begins his narrative with a brief but dramatic account of his decision to defect. Following a section which traces his development from “a kind of clockwork mechanism” in support of Soviet policies to an angry, embittered opponent of the Communist system, his book ends with a detailed account of his escape from his Soviet colleagues at the United Nations and his reflections about the future of the Soviet Union.
Although he was steadily promoted to various responsible positions in the diplomatic corps and gave few overt signs of doubting Soviet ideology, Shevchenko describes several incidents when his compulsion to be critical almost cost him a career. As a very young man, he criticized Joseph Stalin’s leadership during World War II. Shevchenko recalls that one of his mother’s friends circumspectly tried to warn him not to venture rash opinions, and he gradually learned to hide his true feelings rather than risk the certain retribution of a totalitarian system.
The terror of Stalinism in the 1940’s, the brief period of liberalization under Nikita Khrushchev, the Cuban missile crisis, the personalities of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Andrei Gromyko, and other prominent Soviet officials, and the various international issues (the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, arms control, Third World conflicts) debated in the United Nations during the postwar period, are covered in a frank, colorful, and analytic manner.
The portrait of an unpredictable, impulsive Khrushchev is particularly striking. On the one hand, the Soviet leader favored some relaxation of Party discipline; on the other hand, he became cautious and conservative when critics of his political reforms threatened his own base of power. Brezhnev is pictured as an intellectual weakling, but a wily politician, who learned from Khrushchev’s mistakes. Brezhnev made certain that the ruling Politburo was fully informed and supportive of his major policy thrusts. In other words, unlike Khrushchev, he closely monitored and catered to Soviet bureaucracy, relying not on individual brilliance or originality but on collective decision making.
Soviet diplomats Anatoly Dobrynin and Gromyko are accorded considerable respect from Shevchenko, who served under both of them. The dour Gromyko, a hard bargainer, evidently makes it a practice never to concede anything to the Americans until the last moment. He admired Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for their toughness and was able to makes deals with them, but he seems to have had a contempt for Jimmy Carter’s contradictory attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Dobrynin, a much more outgoing person, has an impressive understanding of the United States and enjoys cordial relationships with his American counterparts. Yet, no less than Gromyko, Dobrynin makes full use of his position in the United Nations to take advantage of American weaknesses.
Shevchenko’s many years at the United Nations put him in a position to witness Soviet duplicity. Although he was employed by the United Nations as an under secretary general, he was under unremitting pressure to use his job to further Soviet policies. State Security Committee (KGB) operatives on his diplomatic staff constantly pestered him for information and for privileges that led him to abuse his United Nations office. Indeed, one of the recurrent themes in this memoir is the increasing influence of the KGB in the foreign service as well as in the Soviet Union itself. As part of the Soviet staff, KGB agents refused nearly all assignments that did not involve spying on American officials.
In working at the United Nations, Shevchenko was exposed to what he calls “the incredible openness of American society.” For his part, he had to construct a mask, suppress his individuality, and serve in a Soviet system that discouraged initiative. He repeatedly cites instances of Soviet officials who were afraid to take responsibility for the slightest deviation or change in...