The Russians

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

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 harassments that confront ordinary citizens, including chronic shortages, rude service, and that classic Russian institution—the queue. Smith writes that in Russia, shopping for the average person is like a year-round Christmas rush, with the Soviet housewife generally spending two hours in line, seven days a week. People queue up to buy goods that are in extremely short supply, or to register for such goods as automobiles that will take eighteen months for actual delivery. Another major difference between the lifestyle of high Communist officials and that of the masses is to be found in their dwellings. The party elite, including first party secretary Leonid Brezhnev, all have their comfortable homes or dachas outside Moscow. These generally large mansions, often with several acres of land, present a sharp contrast to the cramped, poorly constructed apartments of many Soviet citizens. Most Muscovites, Smith observes, deride the lifestyle of the Communist party bosses as a mockery of Marxist ideals.

Elsewhere in this section of the book, Smith examines some of the contradictions that surface in the character of the Russian people as a whole and in various groups of the population. Foreigners who confront Russians in public generally find them to be cold and impersonal. In their private lives, by contrast, they are extremely warm, cheerful, and very hospitable. One of the roots, Smith explains, of the dichotomy in the Russian character is to be found in the authoritarian environment in which they live from cradle to grave. The Russians are the greatest of role-players, adopting two very different codes of behavior for their public and private lives. In one, they are taciturn, careful, and hypocritical as they hold their thoughts and feelings in check, while in the other, they are honest, open, and passionate in their relationship with those whom they feel they can trust.

Smith also discovers contradictions in the status of Soviet women and youth. He points out that in spite of the declared Communist commitment to feminine equality, a strong tradition of male chauvinism in Russian life remains clearly unmitigated. Even in the 1970’s, working class women still take rough drinking and rough handling from their husbands or lovers very much for granted. Indeed, Russian women question the masculinity of those men who do not mishandle their mates. Aside from purely physical abuse, drawn basically from old traditions in Russian peasant life, women, as is frequently the case in Western countries, generally defer to men, wait on them, play more of a retiring role, and often complain that male officials treat them less seriously than they do men. Smith notes that on occasion he has seen educated men treat serious issues as matters which their wives were simply not capable of considering. He cites the case of two young husbands who had surreptitiously read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which they found to be impressive and devastating. When he asked one of the wives her opinion on this book, all she could do was shrug helplessly. Her husband, in an obvious effort to slur his spouse’s intellect, hastily explained, “Oh, we don’t give those books to our wives—we just read them ourselves.” Smith is quick to add that this husband represented only part of the story, for he did know of other couples where husband and wife shared a rich and equal intellectual life. Although the Russian husband is the real head of the household, the women, as is the case in most American families, take responsibility for managing the household budget. Ironically, in spite of the brusque treatment which they often receive from their husbands, ordinary Russian housewives exercise a tighter control of the family purse-strings than do their American counterparts.

The generally inferior role that Russian women play in most of their personal relationships with men stands in sharp and often surprising contrast with the roles which they have assumed in various public walks of Soviet life since the end of World War II. It was the lopsided feminine majority in the population in the immediate postwar period that was responsible for the influx of millions of women into the Soviet economy and professions. To prove this point, Smith cites a number of revealing statistics. Women now account for nearly one-fourth of the Soviet equivalent of Ph.D.’s, almost one-third of the 1,517 members of the Supreme Soviet (parliament), nearly one-third of the ordinary judges, approximately seventy percent of the doctors, and about 15,000 members of the professional unions of journalists, writers, artists, architects, composers, and...

(The entire section is 3526 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXIV, May 1, 1976, p. 395.

Commonweal. CIII, June 18, 1976, p. 406.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLII, March, 1976, p. 112.

New Yorker. LII, April 1, 1976, p. 141.

Newsweek. LXXXVII, January 19, 1976, p. 71.

Spectator. CCXXXVI, June 5, 1976, p. 9.

Time. CVII, May 10, 1976, p. 84.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LII, Summer, 1976, p. 88.