Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Soviet Politicians Speak out but Gromyko, Pozner, and Yeltsin Rely on Cold-War Cliches in Their Respective Autobiographies

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Soviet Politicians Speak out but Gromyko, Pozner, and Yeltsin Rely on Cold-War Cliches in Their Respective Autobiographies

Article excerpt

MEMOIRS by Andrei Gromyko, Foreword by Henry Kissinger, New York: Doubleday, 414 pp., $24.95 PARTING WITH ILLUSIONS by Vladimir Pozner, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 324 pp., $19.95 AGAINST THE GRAIN: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Boris Yeltsin, New York: Summit Books, 263 pp., $19.95

AMERICANS too often overlook their history; Soviets are constantly - and painfully - reminded of theirs.

Consider these autobiographies. All are very different (so much for cold-war stereotypes about "faceless," "monolithic" Soviets), with thinly disguised, yet distinctive personal agendas. Over each book, however, hovers the same question: How can dictatorship be avoided, legitimacy provided, and dynamism encouraged, in a reformed Soviet state?

Andrei Gromyko, that quintessential Czarist/Soviet bureaucrat, here performs a last service to the state he served until his death last July, by offering a cold-war view of a righteous Soviet Union, constantly besieged by the capitalist world.

Vladimir Pozner, the personification for American television of a reasonable, humanistic Soviet spokesman, simultaneously defends and criticizes the Soviet system, while also hinting at the painful shifts and expedients it demanded of this ambitious outsider from New York.

Boris Yeltsin, that tough-talking Siberian cowboy and would-be successor to Gorbachev, denounces the elite, the privileged, and Gorbachev himself, in populist language that may delight ordinary Soviets.

Though evocative and occasionally informative, these are burdensome books for the general reader. Gromyko is dull, defensive, disdainful of the West; Pozner is evasive and meandering; and Yeltsin is simplistic, egocentric, without insight or subtlety.

But let's face it. Many public figures are flat and dreary as writers: witness Paul Nitze's recent memoirs. Truly interesting memoirs, a la Acheson, Kissinger, or de Gaulle, require introspection, literary grace, the long view; these are rarities, especially among public personages who usually live for the here and now.

The peculiar publishing circumstances of these books impose further difficulties. Gromyko's memoirs first appeared in Russian in two fat volumes, far too much for an American audience. The American publisher then required much cut-and-paste work, plus new material on various personalities - especially Stalin - who might interest American readers. The result is too superficial for scholars, yet too stiff for the general public.

Pozner and Yeltsin, by contrast, apparently are writing for the American market; there is no sign that either book will appear in Russian. Both seem to have been compiled hastily, at odd moments in busy lives. Neither author displays the insight or skill needed to go beyond thumbnail accounts of Soviet political or cultural shenanigans; outsiders may feel adrift.

There are doubtless useful tidbits for specialists who track Pozner and the increasingly important Yeltsin, but this hardly compensates for the absence of depth and coherence, and for pages that move as fitfully as balky cars on a bumpy road.

Andrei Gromyko's Memoirs are more predictable, less pretentious. His is the authentic voice of the foreign policy apparatchik, rooted in the geopolitical conceptions of 19th-century czardom, with an admixture of Marxist dogma and anti-German trauma.

Gromyko proudly labels himself "a Communist to the marrow of my bones." Yet his is a profoundly conservative, defensive Communism, always fearful lest terrible forces - NATO? the Pentagon? Muslim extremism? - will rip the world asunder.

West Germany is of course his greatest fear. Gromyko was eight years old in 1918 when the "Germans arrived like an enslaving force" in his Byelorussian village; he was 31, and soon to become ambassador in Washington, when the Germans struck in 1941.

Hence his suspicions about NATO, the American bases circling the Soviet Union, and even Helmut Schmidt, whose wartime service in Russia is not forgotten: "he had not fully freed himself from the outlook of an officer in the German Wehrmacht. …

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