Diplomat and Defector

Breaking With Moscow.
by Arkady N. Shevchenko.
Knopf. 378 pp. $18.95.

Breaking With Moscow has all the ingredients of an outstanding book on Soviet foreign policy. It is written by a highly-placed insider who went through an elite Soviet schooling to become a professional diplomat with twenty years of experience before defecting to the United States in 1978.

Indeed, Arkady Shevchenko is the archetype of a Soviet success story. He was born into a “normal” family that had no skeletons in its closets. In 1954, he graduated from the prestigious Moscow State University, where he later earned a Ph.D. in international relations. He joined the ranks of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1956, at the start of a meteoric career.

In 1958 Shevchenko visited the U.S. as a member of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations, and again in 1959 as a member of Khrushchev's entourage. From 1963 through 1970 he served in New York as chief of the Security Council and Political Affairs Division of the Soviet Mission to the UN. During the next three years he worked in Moscow, with the rank of full ambassador, as personal adviser to Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, a position which brought him to the pinnacle of the Soviet political leadership. In this position he had access to all highly classified cables to Gromyko, including from KGB agents, and was intimately familiar with all Foreign Ministry proposals to the Politburo. His final post was again at the United Nations where he served not at the Soviet Mission but as Under Secretary General for Political and Security Council Affairs (1973 through April 1978).

Breaking With Moscow is divided into three uneven parts. The first part, titled “The Reluctant Spy,” describes Shevchenko's decision to break with the Soviet regime and the events that led him, starting in 1974, to provide Washington with inside information concerning the functioning of the Soviet Foreign Ministry in general and Soviet moves in the sphere of arms control in particular. The second and by far the largest part, “The Education of the Soviet Diplomat,” covers the author's childhood and university education before moving on to discuss the making of Soviet foreign policy. The book ends with a short chapter describing the actual leap of the defection and the beginning of a new life in the United States.

Breaking With Moscow contains an abundance of unique material and intimate details about the functioning of Soviet foreign policy. Perhaps never before have we been able to see so clearly into that process, its goals, and the political culture that forms them. By providing an inside Soviet view of such major political developments as détente, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), and SALT, Shevchenko substantially increases our knowledge both of Soviet decision-making and of Soviet global strategy.

Shevchenko fully documents, for example, what some in the West long suspected about Soviet intentions in pursuing détente. As he tells it, the Soviets understood very well that the existing world political order rested upon American military superiority; in order to gain a position from which to exert political pressure, they had to overtake the U.S. and then attain strategic superiority. Détente was the framework for pursuing this goal, and “parity” was its stepping-stone.

For the Soviet leaders, the linking of military and political status was natural; consequently, they saw in American acquiescence in détente an acceptance of the Soviet Union as a superpower. It is quite puzzling that many prominent American political scientists still refuse to see this, despite the utter candor of the Soviet leaders, who stated on numerous occasions that détente did not mean abolishing the continuing struggle between the two political systems.

A similar train of thought lay behind Soviet calculations in the promotion of the European Security Conference, known by its final document, the Helsinki Accords, with their three “baskets.” Shevchenko points out that Brezhnev decided to gamble on this path in order to obtain a legitimation of Soviet political and military control over the states of Eastern Europe. The process began with a careful courting of France in 1966 and West Germany in 1970, and went forward successfully despite the brutal suppression of Dubček's regime in Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

Originally the Soviets thought to limit this conference to military and political issues. However, eventually, under pressure from the West, two additional categories were included: trade/economy and human rights. Anatoly Kovaliov, the Soviet representative at the conference, was punished for this unforgivable mismanagement of Soviet aims by being denied selection to the Central Committee at the 25th and 26th party congresses. His place was given instead to Yuli Vorontsov, who had directed the campaign against including the “basket” on human rights and who, at the follow-up conference in Belgrade, pressed the Soviet line denying noncompliance with its provisions.


One of the most interesting points in Breaking With Moscow has to do with the so-called “factionalization” within the Soviet leadership between “doves” and “hawks.” Once and for all Shevchenko refutes the idea that such a configuration of forces exists, at least in the sense accepted by numerous Western politicians who self-consciously adopt a posture intended to assist the Kremlin “doves” in their putative struggle with the “hawks.” When it comes to the final goals of their policy, Shevchenko demonstrates, all Soviet leaders are aggressive and all are hawks. Shades of disagreement are perceptible only when it comes to the means for achieving these goals, with the Foreign Ministry and the economic sector naturally preferring to use political and economic means, and the military preferring military means.

In delving into the psychology of the Soviet leaders with whom he came into contact, Shevchenko provides numerous insights as well into their perceptions of other political leaders. Thus, according to him, Khrushchev was enticed into the Cuban missile affair by his belief that President Kennedy was indecisive and lacked backbone. Andrei Gromyko's characterization of Jimmy Carter, as given by Shevchenko, illuminates the entire drift of Soviet policy toward the U.S. during the Carter administration: “. . . unsophisticated in many matters, painfully naive about the Soviet Union, . . . but eventually we could probably get him to agree to a lot of things we want.”

This cynical note, incidentally, is characteristic of Soviet evaluations of Western leaders and organizations in general. It is by operating within what might be called an entire culture of cynicism that the KGB has been able to achieve such a free hand within the ranks of the Soviet diplomatic service, and incidentally to turn the UN Secretariat, the theoretically “neutral” ground of international civil service where Shevchenko worked, into a fertile source of information and influence. Indeed, one of the open secrets confirmed by Shevchenko is that all Soviet personnel working in the Secretariat supposedly as international civil servants take their orders (in violation of their oath of office) from Moscow, not from the UN Secretary General; and many of them are KGB agents.

One important matter which is left insufficiently explained in this book is the personal one: the process of Shevchenko's own alienation and detachment from the Soviet system. The only unusual element in his biography is that he entered the party very late, two years after his graduation from the university and just prior to his first visit to the U.S. (party membership being a standard precondition of travel abroad). No doubt the decision to break was not a sudden one but rather the result of a cumulative process that left only slight traces rather than bold and dramatic impressions. A recent work by V. Lefebvre, Algebra of Conscience, suggests that the Soviet system, being ethically closed, places nonconformists in a state of permanent tension which can finally become unbearable. This may well have been the case with Arkady Shevchenko, a successful man who in the end threw away his success and the social and political status that went with it for the sake of one thing—his peace of mind and soul.


History is rich with examples of Soviet defectors who landed on our shores only to be confronted with a lack of understanding, insurmountable difficulties, suspiciousness, or complete neglect. It is therefore highly gratifying that Shevchenko's own defection has prompted the establishment of a special private foundation, Jamestown, to assist these daring people in the most crucial moments of their lives. One hopes it will have many opportunities to do so.

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