The air was close in the lavish dining room of a private London home, and the women were perspiring under their heavy jewelry. Just outside the circle of 40 guests at the table, the five bodyguards to Yehuda Avner, the Israeli ambassador to Britain, shifted uneasily on their feet. One of the several British cabinet ministers present put a finger under the collar of his shirt vainly in search of a breeze. It was July 13, an unexpectedly hot summer’s night in the land of the chill. In the warmest part of the room, though, at the centre of the long table, sat Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, the guest of honor—his jacket off, no tie—talking animatedly to Malcolm Rifkind, British secretary of state for Scotland.
“Can perestroika succeed, then?” Rifkind was asking Sharansky about the much-vaunted Soviet restructuring espoused by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “Not unless the Soviets will give up [their idea of] empire,” replied Sharansky, now living in Israel after nine years in Soviet prisons. He was in good spirits: the company was agreeable and intelligent, and his new book, Fear No Evil, had just been published to generally favorable reviews.
At the end of the table sat celebrated Soviet novelist Andrei Bitov, 51, a thin, impressive man in a grey synthetic jacket and a black round-collared shirt. His face showed no emotion, his eyes were unblinking behind owlish steel spectacles. When Sharansky got to his feet and made a short speech, he sat stiffly through it, applauding politely under the table. “Have you spoken to Sharansky?” I asked him. He paused. “I prefer not to in public,” he said. “But perhaps later tonight.. .. ”
What was so intriguing about the evening was the fact that Sharansky and Bitov were sitting at the same table in London in the summer of 1988. “I don’t know how to express what is going on in the Soviet Union in our newspaper headlines,” said editor Andreas Whittam-Smith of the daily Independent, sitting opposite Bitov. “But on June 29, we simply put ‘Gorbachev’s vision of a new socialist revolution’ across the front page. It is historic.”
Bitov shrugged and pulled out another cigarette. It was the first day of his first visit to London—his most recent novel, Pushkin House, was published in English last spring. Bitov has been described by Sharansky as the most “in-
tellectual and important” writer the Soviets have. “He was always on the verge of the dissidents,” said Sharansky, “but he was so withdrawn into his work. I would like very much to speak to him, but it’s a problem for him, and I understand. He makes excuses and postpones. His situation is difficult.”
The difficulty is no mystery, of course. Glasnost may be in flower, but in the Soviet Union Sharansky is still considered a weed, whereas Bitov, who was allowed to travel outside the U.S.S.R. for the first time in 1986, still lives there. For me, however, there was no such impediment. Bitov answered questions with an engaging combination of circumlocution and penetration.
“One of the things about freedom I noticed right away,” said Bitov, “is the number of left-handed people in the West. We are not allowed to be lefthanded [in school]. But I can predict arithmetically the next steps from the Po-
The celebrated Soviet novelist applauded politely under the table when the dissident Sharansky spoke
litburo, you know, because there is a pattern in everything. For example, you can predict what writers will be published next in the Soviet Union. It starts with Russian writers who are dead but published in the West during their life.” He went on to sketch out a list of categories—at the bottom were the émigrés alive and living in the West, such as Sharansky. It made perfect sense. “But,” added Bitov, “there is always something that changes the order. For example, one day, suddenly, on Moscow television, we had someone doing those hand signals for the deaf. And we understood that someone in the Politburo must have a family member who is deaf. So, if there are a lot of left-handers in the Politburo, they will make freedom to write with the left hand a new priority, and one day it will just happen.”
Bitov was not optimistic about the chances of success for Gorbachev, although his support for the leader seemed strong. “When I come back from Western Europe, people come running up to me and say: ‘Andrei, so much has changed. Vladimir was elected and Sergei was not.... ’ They don’t understand
that this is not change. Change is what I see happening in the West all the time. Whether or not I like the systems, you respond right away to situations. We Russians now are sitting debating and talking about change. But there is no other way. We have never had these freedoms and we must develop these muscles for intellectual freedom by talking and using them. So we talk and talk and are doing nothing.”
How much support does Gorbachev have in the Soviet Union? “He thought he would have a great deal at the beginning and would just turn everything over. He was wrong. The people have waited. They didn’t know what to do and what was expected. They have heard things before. Now they are slowly beginning to see that they have some power and they are coming forward. But a great deal will depend on agriculture and how the food supplies work.”
I asked him about Pamyat, which means memory, the name of the ultranationalist group that is said to have about 10,000 members and, with tacit recognition by Moscow, advocates a return to the Russian culture. “Although they are strong anti-Semites, it is wrong to equate them with the fascists. They have not the sophistication of ideas nor the youth. These are very simple people who long for stability and need to understand why everything has gone wrong. They need something to blame for the fact that the economy doesn’t work and there is nothing in the shops and their lives are so hard. They blame the Jews for the shortages. The Jews are useful. Pamyat has only become important because the attention paid to it has made it so.”
What about the political prison camps, I asked. Were the laws changing? “It doesn’t matter if one law is changed or this or that is no longer a crime. Because either you understand that the whole country is a camp and that it is very hard to say who is a political prisoner, or else the whole system must be changed so that the laws mean something.”
I asked Bitov if he planned to speak to Sharansky that night. He looked at the cigarette in his hand. “For Sharansky, this is all now a profession. I would like to talk to him, though, perhaps after dinner.” But when the guests got up to gó and chat over coffee and liqueurs, I looked for the two of them and saw that Bitov was gone. I wonder if, in the turmoil of perestroika, he will survive.
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