A Kremlin memoir

Published : Dec 21, 2007 00:00 IST

How the Kremlin was run under Stalin and Khruschev.

DMITRII SHEPILOV led a charmed existence. He was a favourite of both Stalin and Khruschev, was editor of Pravda and Minister for Foreign Affairs. A grave tactical error in backing an attempted coup against Khruschev in 1957 led to his fall from grace. He died in 1995. His grandson Dmitrii Kosyrev and son-in-law Mikhail Makovkin located this memoir written in Shepilovs hand. It provides an insiders account of the happenings inside the Kremli n and reveal the writers traits of character which explain why he blundered as he did. Shepilov was well read and cultured. He noted Stalins remarkable range of reading. The man read at least 300 pages every day and had the apt quote on his fingertips.

Shepilov was an upwardly mobile lawyer, economist, and official in the Communist Party. Stalin reputedly deemed him too talented to go to waste when the secret police took an interest in him. As a disgraced and forgotten politician, he spent 25 years working in obscurity, first in Central Asia and then in Moscow. This memoir is, in part, Shepilovs attempt to rebut Khruschevs charges and restore his reputation. It is also much more than that, a personal account of high politics under Stalin and Khruschev. In the final chapters on Khruschevs trip to China, Shepilovs descriptions of Chinese history and culture reflect his own understandings as an outsider, and should not be taken as authoritative. Shepilovs skills as a scholarly writer were considerable, and he often digressed from the narrative of his own life to provide background information about the people he encountered and the places he visited. The title of this volume is very apt. He was the Kremlins scholar.

But he also had a taste for power and used methods which that pursuit required of him. He noted in detail Stalins barbarities but had no option but to remain silent. Had Stalin lived longer Molotov would have suffered a cruel fate. Shepilov admired the talented diplomat: Molotovs habitual circumspection and thoroughness in considering and preparing for any foreign-policy move grew even more pronounced after Stalins death. He increasingly consulted with academics and journalists with backgrounds in international affairs. After Molotov decided on a substantive position on a question, people gathered in his office and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to consider the various forms of implementation either an ambassadorial statement; an interview with the deputy minister or minister of foreign affairs; a statement by the ministry itself, the head of government, or the government as a whole; or an official note (in case of the last, what kind of note an aide-memoire, a note verbale, or some other kind). As experienced politicians, diplomats, and journalists (both at one time had worked for Pravda), Stalin and Molotov always attached great importance to the press as an instrument of foreign policy.

There is a useful nugget about Khruschevs first visit to China in October 1954. Everything seemed to be going brilliantly Perhaps at the very moment, however, the mysterious historical forces that underlie events were already fashioning a Pandoras box, from which the snakes of misfortune would later emerge to poison relations between the two governments, and dangerously threaten mankind with more bloody internecine wars.

What happened? Officially nothing. Yet something important occurred. Apart from the official negotiations, an informal meeting took place at that time between Khruschev and Mao Zedong. I was not present. Khruschev gave us only a brief account. But Iudin, who was there, later gave me a detailed account of this crucial encounter.

Mao Zedong made two requests of the Soviet government and Nikita Khruschev; first, that we give China the secret of the atomic bomb and help the PRC [Peoples Republic of China] set up the prduction of atomic weapons; second, that we build China a submarine fleet that was capable of protecting the interests of the PRC from American imperialism. Khruschev rejected both requests. Five years later came the beginnings of the Sino-Soviet split. Shepilov blames Khruschev for it.

Kosyrev asked Shepilov when he was in retirement: In speaking up against Khruschev, did you realise that his ouster could mean a return to Stalinism? Shepilov replied Never. I never gave any thought to it. That is unpardonable. I deserve a lashing for it. I never asked myself: whom will we get instead of Nikita? It was either naivete on my part or plain stupidity to raise the question, to go into all the gross violations of the principle of collective leadership, all the nonsensical schemes that were leading us to disaster, but not to ask myself who would be there to take Nikitas place.

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