On April 6, 1978, Arkady Shevchenko, undersecretary-general of the United Nations and former assistant to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, became the highest-ranking Soviet official to defect to the West. In exchange for a promise of eventual asylum, he had served as a reluctant spy for the United States during the 32 months that preceded his defection. In Breaking with Moscow, a hybrid
of thriller, autobiography and political analysis, Shevchenko traces both his diplomatic and his spying career. Sandwiched between the retelling of his decision to defect and the actual event almost three years later is an account that covers the entire sweep of postwar Soviet history. It is a gripping story, compelling in its detail and overwhelming in its condemnation of a vicious system.
Born in the Ukraine in 1930, Shevchenko himself was well treated by the Soviet system. At the age of 19 he was one of the few scholars chosen to attend the esteemed Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Joining the foreign ministry in 1956, he rose through its ranks quickly. In 1963 he was appointed chief of the Security Council and Political Affairs Division for the Soviet UN mission. By 1970 he had become personal adviser to Gromyko and three years later he was named the top Soviet official at the UN as undersecretary-general.
Despite his rapid advance, Shevchenko grew increasingly disenchanted with the system he served and disgusted by its relentless hypocrisy and cynicism. He underlines the fact that every Soviet representative who takes the oath of the UN’s permanent secretariat commits perjury. While UN officials are supposed to act as international civil servants, Soviet citizens are expected to further the interests of the U.S.S.R. without regard to international concerns. Indeed, the KGB regards the UN as its best
watchtower in the West, with more than half the 700 Soviets in New York working as either fullor part-time spies, according to Shevchenko. As Gromyko remarked to Shevchenko on his appointment: “You’re a Soviet ambassador first, not an international bureaucrat.” Shevchenko paints Gromyko and the rest of the ruling elite as a group completely isolated from the people. Control and secrecy are paramount, with power concentrated in the hands of two dozen men at the top. Intrigues within the Politburo are largely bids for increased personal power and are unrelated to
political purposes or to the state’s ultimate objectives. According to Shevchenko, the Western media’s distinction between hawks and doves is simplistic. He writes, “Soviet leaders are all aggressive, all hawks with respect to the final goals of their policy.” But the book portrays Gromyko and Brezhnev as advocates of cautious conciliation with the United States. A high point in Gromyko’s career, Shevchenko believes, was the climate of détente that emerged during the Nixon/Ford/ Kissinger years, when the two superpowers constructed an uneasy partnership and strategic parity became more than a catchphrase.
As well as offering a
glimpse into the corridors of power, Shevchenko provides his own analysis of the Kremlin’s long-term strategy. He insists that the Soviet leadership does not intend to launch a nuclear war to win a worldwide victory for its brand of socialism, which it believes can be achieved by other means. That would be a last resort, he claims, initiated only if no alternatives were available and if the survival of the nation was at stake. Shevchenko’s ultimate conclusion is that the West must keep the channels of communication open to the Soviet Union. To avoid disaster, he says that it is imperative “to seek reasonable and practical accommodation, even co-operation where our interests are in alignment.” It is a sober judgment on a precarious world, coming from a man who has seen both sides.
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