Hedrick Smith, the co-author of The Pentagon Papers, won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Soviet Union as the Moscow Bureau Chief for The New York Times. In his latest book, The Russians, Smith has put the essence of that coverage into a revealing and absorbing account of contemporary Soviet life and institutions. Smith’s purpose in writing the book is to convey to his American readers those details of the life of the Russians which illuminate their character as a people and which define the society and times in which they live. Beyond simply recording his impressions, Smith has attempted to analyze the meaning of his experiences and of what the Russians told him about themselves and their way of life.
The author divides his study into three areas of concentration: “The People,” “The System,” and “Issues.” In Part One, “The People,” Smith explores the status of women, the nature of the educational system, the restlessness of Russian youth, the privileged position of the Soviet leaders, and the personality traits of the Russian people as a whole. Part Two, “The System,” provides an analysis of rural and industrial life in the U.S.S.R., the Soviet leadership, and the character of Soviet patriotism. Part Three, “Issues,” deals with cultural, intellectual, and religious life and examines, among other things, the nature of dissent in present-day Russia.
In the lengthy Introduction to his book, Smith related a number of stories and anecdotes which illustrate the nature of the relationship between Russians and foreigners and the untiring, and frequently ludicrous, efforts of the Soviet authorities to keep them from making any contacts not authorized by the state. Foreigners who travel to Russia for brief visits are usually escorted about in tour groups or delegations by guides and interpreters who keep a watchful eye on them from the time they enter the country until the time they depart. Smith observes that when he went to Russia, he was skeptical of such tales until an Intourist guide confided to him that all guides are required to report to the KGB. Ordinary Soviet citizens, unless they had official clearance for some reason, did not venture into the foreigners’ living compounds. Those who did, such as a twelve-year-old girl who Smith’s daughter managed to befriend, were subject to a rigorous interrogation. When Smith protested this interrogation of his daughter’s friend, the guards lamely insisted that their function was solely that of protecting foreign residents from what they called “hooligans.” Because of this and countless other barriers which the Soviet authorities literally erect, very few foreigners, the author points out, make a serious and sustained effort to meet and befriend Russians other than through their designated official contacts. Smith, as his book amply demonstrates, was more successful than most foreigners in getting close to the Russians and in making friends among them.
His ability, despite all the barriers, to develop a closeness to and understanding of the Russians is particularly illustrated throughout the first part of his book, “The People,” in which he discusses the Russians by socioeconomic standing, sex, age group, and as a people sui generis . In examining Soviet society, Smith brings out the wide socioeconomic gulf which exists in a supposedly classless society between the privileged ruling class and the broad masses of the population. This contrast is especially evident in the shopping habits and in the dwellings of the two classes. Thus, members of the Communist Party Central Committee staff and their families are conveyed in chauffeur-driven polished black Volga sedans to a building in Moscow identified as “The Bureau of Passes.” Here and at other similar sites, the party elite, or what one Soviet journalist acidly called “our Communist nobility,” can shop for quality merchandise or food delicacies without having to encounter the usual...
(The entire section is 3,563 words.)