The first American I met outside was a professor of sociology with whom I struck up a conversation on a Roman streetcar—we lived in Rome while waiting for our American visas. “What country are you going to now?” he asked. I told him. “But I don't understand,” he said very softly, as a gentleman should, so as to show that his interlocutor's opinion or action is not necessarily absurd but only seems so, or at any rate that he fails to understand it. “I don't understand. Out of Russia into the United States. Out of the frying pan into the fire, so to speak.”

A few days ago I was riding in the New York subway and when it emerged from underground I saw a group of old red-brick houses. When one is very young and happy, or happily drunk, the scene he contemplates can blur and quiver like a landscape on a hot summer morning: between the scene and his eye there seems to hover a certain transparent tremulous liquid of joy. This is how I saw those apartment houses. Then suddenly I had a flicker of sobriety: I saw ordinary apartment buildings. Perhaps ordinary people lived there. Perhaps they were bored, despondent, miserable. There may have been dust on the window sills. But it was just a flicker. This was the United States. I know that life is tragic. But on the whole this was the United States, and those apartment houses were part of the United States. I saw them again through the transparent liquid of joy.

This was just a few days ago, when I had already become relatively calm and sedate in my marriage to freedom. While in Rome I was in the first raptures of bliss, and the professor of sociology was my first live American. Even if he had started metallically reciting The Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf, I would have found it only another iridescent sparkle of the many-faceted diamond of freedom, and him an entirely charming scholar and gentleman of the Western world. Besides, I felt that I was to blame. I had made a tactless error. He was a political refugee, fleeing the U.S., and here I blurted out that I was bound for the U.S. (True, if the U.S. was so bad, it was not quite clear why Italy was so much better.) Yet at his words I evidently could not control my facial muscles, because he muttered, rather hurriedly, with a little smile, partly compassionate, partly whimsical: “Excuse me, of course. . . .” He was a wizened savant with a kind, sensitive, delicate face.

Not that I was altogether unprepared, intellectually. In the latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica I had seen in Russia, the entry under “Torture” was devoted almost exclusively to Western Europe; for modern developments in the field it referred the reader to the article “Third Degree,” devoted, predictably, to the United States. Perhaps it was an act of generous tolerance on the part of the professor of sociology to concede even the frying-pan-fire symmetry of the situation. At any rate, according to the 1970 Britannica the professor of sociology was the one escaping from a society of torture or at least third degree, while I had simply had the faddish desire to leave (again according to the relevant Britannica articles) a well-organized and well-run welfare state.

“Nothing seems to have changed in twenty-five centuries,” I said “Plato received at birth the right to live on what was a rare, miraculous, and transient island of light, as compared with the dark millennia of ruthless gang war before that island appeared and after it was engulfed again in night all around. He took the comparative brightness of Athens for granted, his eyes were so accommodated to the light he did not even notice it—he was perhaps bored with it as one is bored with inherited wealth. Instead he constructed in his mind a society that was crude, absurd, inhuman, and anyway impracticable, but which seemed to him the purest realization of the highest intelligence on earth. The most lasting tragic impression of his life was the death of Socrates. Socrates might easily have evaded the death sentence but he would not; he might have fled but would not hear of it, preferring to drink the hemlock—in front of his admirers, a month after being sentenced, and hence with a lot of publicity, to use a modern word. Obviously, Plato (or Socrates) could not have imagined, even if he had wanted to, that the whole point of this tragedy would be lost in, say, China where four hundred thousand anonymous humans who did not want to be heroes or stoics or saints or suicides were anyway beheaded one fine day in a scarcely recorded little mishap (which the 1970 Britannica and some American histories do not even mention in their description of the wonderful achievements of the age of Ch'in—evidently in order not to revive the cold war). And perhaps those four hundred thousand thought themselves lucky to have died so pleasantly, without any torture to speak of.”

As I got off, stepping into Europe, into Rome, into a cathedral square shaded by ancient trees, the scholar said with a kind of elation: “We talked about Plato on an Italian streetcar!”


But why, indeed, the United States? I had received from my environment several anti-American biases. One was imparted by Soviet propaganda, and was the easiest of all to overcome. “Crime—gangsters—all Americans are either criminals or victims, while in our country there is practically no crime though our country is even bigger than the U.S.” No crime at all? “Well, there is only one case of murder in a whole week for a whole district!” a district prosecutor told me confidentially with pride in 1956. I multiplied his “only one case” by the number of weeks and districts, and the figure turned out to be only 25 times as high as the number of all cases of murder and non-negligent manslaughter for the U.S. as of 1956. The omnipotence of the superstate which can kill off any number of its subjects with impunity does not exclude a fantastically high if secret rate of “private” crime as well, compared with a democracy. This was just my first attempt at comparative research, entirely within the realm of elementary-school arithmetic; I wish intellectuals, statesmen, and experts of all kinds would similarly make use of the multiplication tables before they speak of the “virtual absence” of crime or unemployment or other statistical evils in non-democracies.

The anti-American bias of Soviet propaganda was an easy target to demolish. But what lay under Soviet propaganda was the anti-American bias, really a double bias, inherited from pre-1917 Russian culture. One fold of the double bias a biased Russian shares with biased West Europeans, the other is the old Russian phobia of the “soulless West.” In other words, a biased Russian dislikes America just as a biased Western European does, and dislikes both Western Europe and America because both represent the West, America more so than Europe. There is no way to overcome this double bias (or any such bias) completely. For over twenty years now I have studied the English-speaking civilization. And yet I will never be able to understand one English word—say, the word “life”—as I understand its supposed equivalent in Russian. One cannot bridge the gap. One's own “life” and the “life” of his cultural group will always seem to him more “lifelike” than the “life” of another group. One can only realize that the fault lies with one's own limited imagination and sympathy, not with the reality on the other side of the gap. As soon as I realized that, the double bias was as good as overcome.

Meanwhile, something else had been brewing in the privacy of my mind. The word “democracy,” which in its modern meaning went into wide circulation only in the past century, seemed to me a misnomer for what it described. In 19th-century England the problem was political: how to extend the vote to the “demos,” and hence the entire social fabric came to be called a “democracy”; such longstanding features of English society as trial by jury, habeas corpus, etc. were not at issue, and were therefore somehow taken for granted, assumed to be not so much a part of what was meant by democracy as intrinsic to “civilization” itself and as originating spontaneously in any society like hygienic habits or the ability to read and write. The vestiges of this attitude are very much alive today, as for instance when it is said that the Allende government in Chile was established “by due democratic process,” the implication being that the result was a democratic society. It is discreetly forgotten that the Hitler government was established in Germany in a similarly democratic way, by an even larger proportion of the voting “demos.”

Naturally, as soon as the whole population of a country receives the right to vote, the majority may elect a government which will fleece (and why not kill?) a given minority, for surely a majority voter is entitled to do whatever he pleases to a minority voter: is not democracy the rule of a majority? In other words, one recent aspect of democracy, its majoritarian principle of political power, destroys in such cases the whole fabric of democracy as a civic system for the defense of individual liberties, a system that took England about a thousand years to develop. In the United States, on the other hand, it seemed to me that a society had emerged in which (for the first time in history) the principle of majority rule did not clash so drastically with the need to protect individual rights, because the majority wanted, as I saw it, to make values, not to obtain them by fleecing a minority.

Another weakness of democracy to my mind was its inability to defend itself against war machines like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. The growing military strength of such a machine was independent of the wills of its constituent human cogs, while in a democracy the citizens themselves had to give away, for their defense, their money and blood, of their own free will. In the 30's the Continental European democracies demonstrated that they were not viable when confronted with a war machine. The case of England was less clear, owing to the Channel, while the safety of the United States was not directly involved at all, owing to the Atlantic.

However, I developed a purely theoretical concept in which each democracy (or, indeed, each social group) had a certain “average civic index.” Thus, Russia between February and October of 1917 had all the democratic freedoms the U.S. has today, but the average civic index of the former was low, while that of the latter was high and is still higher today; other societies were grouped between these two points on my civic-index scale.

Indeed, the survival of democracy became a kind of religion with me. Life inside a regime like post-1917 Russia has led some people to complete social detachment, mystic and/or cynical, and others to the worship of “Old Russia” in the mid-19th-century spirit; me it led, after the Hungarian revolt of 1956, to an inner need to believe in the survival of democracy, and the United States incarnated for me the hope of such a survival.


Soon after my arrival in New York (my private Mecca) it became clear that my chance meeting with the professor of sociology in Rome had somehow been significant. I found, strangely admixed with the intoxicating oxygen of freedom, something which I may call “innocence.”

Dostoevsky once wondered why a convict at hard labor who was considered the most dangerous man in the prison camp seemed so deeply devoted to him. The criminal told him: “You are so simple that one cannot help feeling sorry for you. . . .” This hardened man of the underworld, for whom Dostoevsky, the product of a safe, prosperous, humane milieu, was so “simple,” undertook to shelter him against the devious, cunning, evil world. I felt somewhat like that criminal, that man of the underworld. I saw innocence everywhere. I was in a society made up mostly of children, an experience at once moving and pleasant and pathetic and frightening and amusing. Some seemed to me childlike in their forthrightness, candor, honesty, beaming good will; but at the other end of the spectrum there was a childish (rather than childlike) ignorance of other modes of life, an egocentric and often petulant preoccupation with the self and with the sheltered, safe, cozy ambience of daily life, a preoccupation that betrayed itself whenever that ambience was the least bit threatened. A debate over whether a neighborhood vacant lot should be a children's playground or a dog-run, for instance, became a global cataclysm: according to the New York Times the dog-run advocates broke up a meeting of the playground champions with a rousing battle cry: “Fascists!” This, I thought, is how children play at war; for them World War II is only a distant, insignificant, boring abstraction, while the all-important reality is their play in which they shout “Fascist!” or “Commie!” at one another.

Quite a few Americans evidently believe that some local happening in which they are engaged to the exclusion of everything else is of absorbing interest and crucial importance to all mankind, while the rest of the world exists simply to provide symbols for these local happenings. When in the spring of 1972 the price of meat in New York increased by as much as six cents a week, the Times published an article (April 27, 1973) describing how Soviet Russia reacted to news of this catastrophe and of the resulting nationwide boycott of meat. To give the local background the article showed that meat prices in the Soviet Union are about the same as in the U.S. Now, no Times correspondent or any other foreign correspondent active today has ever been “in the Soviet Union”: he has only been at special foreign exhibitions like the one labeled “Moscow” (the sociology of such “live exhibitions” is beyond my scope here). If a foreign correspondent had ever been “in the Soviet Union,” he would know that “meat departments” at stores for the common or non-exhibitory population have been out of existence for about forty-five years. Not to mention the fact that Moscow “prices,” usually reported by the Times correspondent in dollars, are purely imaginary, since the exchange rate itself has been purely imaginary since the early 30's. Actually, quite an ordinary doctor or lawyer in the U.S. can afford up to one hundred times more meat than his “counterpart” at the foreign exhibition called Moscow. (Evidently, the Times expected a Muscovite, privileged enough to live at an exhibition, to forget this trifling ratio, while appreciating that a six-cent rise in meat prices in the U.S. was a global disaster that was nevertheless being bravely met by an all-out national campaign.)

Not that the regime I left is exceptionally evil. On the contrary, it is quite ordinary: this is how mankind has mainly lived for as long as recorded history goes, with some little and often secret mishaps like the Great Burning of Books, Collectivization, or the Purification of the German Race. Mankind has lived mainly in the underworld, and its history is mostly one of gang war: conquests from within or from without, exterminations, creedal persecutions, etc. It is the civilization in which I arrived that constitutes the rare exception, a bold pioneer effort, a thrilling and precarious experiment. Democracy is by definition vulnerable, on account of its humanism. To be sure, given a high “average civic index,” a democracy like the U.S. has its strong points in the global struggle for survival, while war machines like Russia have their weaknesses. But as I came into actual contact with the U.S., it was the aspect of vulnerability that smote me with immediacy, and it is on this I wish to concentrate here. Democracy is a sheltered, humane, prosperous family. Can its children defend it against the underworld?


An outsider like myself soon finds that many Americans who received democracy by right of birth do not realize that their inheritance has originated “just now,” if measured on the scale of history, and has survived so far owing perhaps to a fortuitous concurrence of circumstances, one of which is the Atlantic Ocean. Rather, like Plato about twenty-five centuries ago, they take their society for granted. To some it is a perfectly ordinary society, which always existed and always will exist, like the air they breathe. (Actually, some of them are gravely concerned with the air; a young neighbor of ours, aged eleven, asked how we could have left pollution-free Russia for pollution-ridden America.) To others, the society into which they were born is worse than ordinary, it may even be so far worse as to be “fascist.” When I hear the word “fascism” in this context I beg to recall that even in Italy between 1922 and 1943 there were three periods of fascism, all different and all incomparably milder than even the blessed period of 1922 to 1926 in Russia. Which fascism do they have specifically in mind? Perhaps that situation in which a children's playground is planned on a vacant lot instead of a dog-run.

The controlling attitude seems to be one of make-believe. No matter how fervently Americans and West Europeans toyed between 1936 and 1956 with the idea that the Soviet Union was the “world's only genuine democracy,” they never exposed themselves to the happy privilege of becoming its citizens, and even when (like Anna Louise Strong) they lived of their free will within it, they secretly clung to their American passports anent the day of real, not make-believe, danger (for it was her secretly-cherished American passport that finally saved Mrs. Strong-Shubin).

True, the populace of post-1917 Russia is even worse informed about the U.S. than the American populace is about post-1917 Russia. But the populace of post-1917 Russia is supposed to be as ignorant in this respect as possible. What is translated in the West by the word “newspaper” (such as Pravda) is not a newspaper. Only the upper castes are to read real newspapers like the Blue Tass, each successive higher caste reading its own, more complete, and more secret newspaper, so that only those at the very top are omniscient, for they make all the decisions, while the common populace is fed on daily, monthly, or sporadic myths, since the function of the common populace is to comply with the decisions of the omniscient center no matter what that is.

The populace of a democracy (to repeat a truism) elects its decision-makers and hence participates in the decision-making, apart from watching it, criticizing, protesting, etc. Naturally, there are more sophisticated students of mankind in the West than in Russia today: creative freedom, even as it existed in pre-1861 Russia for the nobility, is a stimulating ambience. Besides, vast-scale education undertaken in a free society for the first time in human history is a powerful quantitative and hence qualitative factor in the development of intellect. Certainly, one might permit oneself to hope, intellect can rise above sheer empirical experience. A gentle, kind, polite criminologist can know the criminal world better than its most experienced denizen. Dostoevsky, the childlike, understood and predicted the destiny of all those hard, cunning, ruthless “greats” in Russia of 1917 to 1938. A mild, sensitive, compassionate man like George Orwell understood the psychology of certain societies in which he never lived better than the “creators” of those societies. But the Englishman George Orwell was not an adviser to the President of the United States, as he ought to have been: he was an author who had difficulties even in publishing his books after 1937. Instead, the President of the world's strongest democracy between 1933 and 1945 had Joseph Davies as his adviser. As ambassador in Moscow Davies noticed in 1937 that he was being shadowed by the Soviet secret police, and in his confidential reports to the President and his diary excerpts he expressed his delight with these people—they were taking such pains for the sake of his safety! This is the innocence of a baby: even a sheltered child is usually shrewder than this.

A free, sheltered, prosperous society enables Orwells to develop to their full intellectual stature; but it also reduces the less endowed to a kind of babyhood in everything outside their professional occupation (Joseph Davies was a lawyer). Unfortunately it is mostly the Davieses rather than the Orwells who have been appointed by democratic electorates to shape the behavior of their countries toward the underworld.


In the 19th century, it may be, electorates could afford the luxury of not knowing societies different from their own and of electing statesmen who hardly knew anything about them either. A statesman was to be creative and useful inside the democracy, not globally. Today such a condition can be fatal. The U.S. occupies less than 1/50 of the global surface: the other 49/50, including the oceans, are war zones or may be converted into such; likewise the space above the U.S. Of course, the electorate can pretend that these war zones and the vast war civilizations reclaiming them do not exist as autonomous realities, that this is still the 19th century, and can keep electing statesmen who will bring low meat (or gasoline) prices on their cozy little island while remaining as innocent of the outside world as their electorate is or as their predecessors were. But this attitude will one day exact its price.

American innocence seems to spring from a variety of motives, some of them willed. Soon after my arrival an American friend invited me to meet at his home the editor of an influential magazine. To ask my host beforehand whether it was a “left-wing” or “right-wing” magazine seemed to me as absurd as to ask whether his guest was a Monophysite or a Dyophysite so that in conversation I might avoid saying Homoiousian instead of Homoousian. After all, I had upheld my inward intellectual freedom under the ubiquitous pressure of Stalin's regime; surely I would not be inhibited, swayed, or censored in the U.S. by what some “wing” might think of what I said. Vietnam was the topic. I proposed to the editor an article on the “macro-sociology” of North Vietnam: for example, torture as a modern industry like dry cleaning or army field medicine. I had met the North Vietnamese and elicited from them quite a lot; they had told me things they would not tell a Westerner. Besides, my life in a not altogether dissimilar regime had sharpened certain sensibilities a Westerner might be lacking. The educational television station in New York had just broadcast several programs on Vietnam. A youngish American named Tom Hayden had posed as an old Vietnamese and explained “Vietnamese culture.” Newspaper and magazine articles on North Vietnam and the Vietcong seemed to me for the most part as naive, phony, and smug as the worst “reports from Soviet Russia” that appeared in the U.S. between 1918 and 1956. I felt I could contribute something better.

I did not notice the ice in his voice when he said, “There are few people in the U.S. who think the way you think.” I mistook this for a highly encouraging compliment: surely he did not want me to think the way his readers think and tell them what they already knew. I continued to explain how new, informative, or at least intellectually refreshing such an article might be, giving a fresh angle to a topic bogged in clichés.

“The American involvement in Vietnam is immoral,” he said, and with an I-have-never-been-so-insulted-in-my-life expression on his face.

“The American involvement as it has been conducted shows an ignorance of how societies like North Vietnam can wage wars of conquest that a democracy cannot repulse,” I rejoined. “But who is to blame? If you refuse to know more about societies like North Vietnam even now, in the 70's, whom can you blame for ignorance in the 60's? And how can you presume to judge what is moral or immoral in a conflict if you do not know—indeed, refuse to know—its protagonists? If you have practically lost a war against North Vietnam through your ignorance of the country, how will you defend yourselves against the other and larger North Vietnams all over the globe?”

The climax was reached when the editor said: “If you start like this in this country, I am afraid you won't sell one copy of your book.”

“When Stalin was alive,” I said, “I had the impression sometimes that I was in a minority of one against mankind. Perhaps it will be the same now. Perhaps I'm just that way. But surely democracy is for minorities, too, not only for majorities. And some of my friends will certainly buy my book if only to please me.”

He laughed—very good-naturedly, I had evidently inscribed myself into the right niche in his inner world.


Resistance to knowledge of the outside world has formed itself into a cozy idea of cultural multipolarity according to which democracy is part of American or West European (or Japanese?) culture, but no part of, for example, Russian or South Vietnamese culture. It is therefore silly to expect or to defend democracy in South Vietnam (or wherever) because that would mean imposing American culture on an entirely different environment. (One wonders if those who advance this argument would also apply it retroactively to the American Civil War, when it was believed that former Africans were as capable of democratic development as the Founding Fathers.) Aiding South Vietnam was not only useless but indeed harmful: those South Vietnamese would never understand what democracy is even for.

Those who live in bright sunlight often perceive twilight as uniform unrelieved darkness. A New York Times correspondent in South Vietnam, en route to showing that it would be all the same to the people of South Vietnam if a Communist regime were imposed, pointed out the abject poverty of the country: “Long lines form at the gas stations daily” (December 29, 1973). In a Soviet reader, this Times dispatch would evoke the same sort of laughter as the story about the English duchess who exclaimed upon hearing of a family in which the butler served the same napkins at breakfast and dinner: “I never knew such poverty existed.” Similarly, an article about the lack of freedom in South Vietnam (September 15, 1973) would dumbfound the average Soviet reader, who on the contrary would be impressed with the civic progress of South Vietnam as compared with his own regime. Those who have lived all their lives in utter darkness can distinguish very well among degrees of twilight.

A professor of political science at a prestigious New York college whom I met the other day developed the idea of cultural multipolarity to a high degree of art. Speaking in perfectly rounded, sonorous sentences, he defined me as a fascist before I had said anything, and then explained that I could not be anything else because I was from Russia and hence brought with me, consciously or unconsciously, the totalitarian mentality. In other words, democracy comes only from democracy, and fascism from fascism—just as true culture was once thought by Germans to emanate only from Germans. In line with this way of thinking, a strong campaign has been waged in the U.S. to stop the operation of an American radio station broadcasting to Russia since, according to the logic of cultural multipolarity, it is useless and even harmful to propound or explain democracy to “Russians” (that is, to more than a hundred nations of Russia, including Jews), for it amounts to imposing on them an alien American culture. This kind of racism, under the cover of broadminded tolerance, easily combines with the view that there is no democracy in the U.S. either—only fascism. The fusion between the two views was summed up for me by a post-graduate student in this way: “If there is no democracy here, what can you expect from the Vietnamese?” Tactfully, he did not say: “the Russians.”


Wilfully or spontaneously ignorant of societies different from their own, the peoples of democracies have been electing statesmen who, together with the experts and subordinates they choose, have been helpless in dealing with outside societies they do not understand and indeed are not expected to understand. Even Winston Churchill, one of the few exceptions, rather proves the rule. Here is Churchill speaking in the House of Commons in 1945 as Stalin was preparing to grab half of Europe:

Marshal Stalin and the Soviet leaders wish to live in honorable friendship and equity with the Western democracies. . . . I feel also that their word is their bond. I know of no government which stands to its obligations, even in its own despite, more solidly than the Russian Soviet government. I decline absolutely to embark here on a discussion about Russian good faith.

It may be said that Churchill's speech was just a piece of diplomatic flattery intended to preserve the “détente” of that time. But a eulogy to Stalin is also included in The Hinge of Fate, Churchill's memoirs, published in 1950 when there was hardly a need for further diplomatic pretense.

Even so tough-minded and unblinkered a figure as Golda Meir may be cited as a particularly painful instance of this rule. Mrs. Meir, then her country's ambassador to the Soviet Union, was asked by Stalin in 1948-49 to draw up a list of all those Soviet Jews who wished to volunteer to serve in the Israeli War of Independence. A Soviet-Jewish volunteer army, so to speak. Mrs. Meir complied, and Stalin duly handed the lists over to his secret police, who arrested the proposed volunteer army and sent the volunteers off to concentration camps for extermination by hunger, labor, and frost.

Many Western statesmen, diplomats, and experts are lawyers, and they actually imagine that societies inside which not a single law has ever been observed behave like parties to a legal dispute. Let us sign agreements with them, they propose. True, the rulers of post-1917 Russia have broken a thousand such agreements already, but why not sign another thousand? Other statesmen, cannier perhaps, are aware of the worthlessness of such documents but go along with them anyway, in order to impress the American electorate. Thus, when in 1933 a certain segment of the American public insisted that the “détente” of that time, in particular U.S. diplomatic recognition of post-1917 Russia, should be accompanied by a show of good will by the other side as well—that Soviet society should become more open and that in particular the Soviets should cease arresting Americans who tried to learn something about the country—President Roosevelt asked the Soviet Foreign Minister, Maxim Litvinov, to sign “assurances” of the “legal protection of Americans in Russia,” their “right to seek information on economic conditions in Russia,” etc. Litvinov complied with gusto, since he knew that the “assurances” were so much paper. Mr. George F. Kennan, one of the few alert and mature young State Department officials of the time—at least according to his memoirs—warned the President as much:

FDR nevertheless recognized that these clauses had all the outward aspects of carefully worked-out technical-legal documents, and he correctly calculated that in a country where foreign affairs are customarily the province of lawyers, people would be impressed and reassured by them. He was interested only in their momentary psychological effect on the American public, not in their effectiveness in practice.

If there is a tendency to project a legal imagery on the Soviet Union and on other totalitarian powers, there is another tendency to visualize them as “trade partners” who will become friendly to the West through the exercise of normal economic relations. This tendency was eloquently epitomized by Lloyd George in Parliament on February 10, 1922:

I believe we can save her [Russia] by trade. Commerce has a sobering influence. . . . Trade, in my opinion, will bring an end to the ferocity, the rapine, and the crudity of Bolshevism surer than any other method.

And a third tendency is to project an image of the totalitarian powers as “neighbors,” on the good old American premise that if you are a good, smiling, friendly person, your neighbor, even if he is an unknown war machine extending from Cuba to Vietnam, is sure to respond in kind and join with you in building a “permanent structure of peace.”

All these images fuse admirably in the image of détente. The first détente with Soviet Russia was achieved by Lloyd George in 1921-22, and since then Western statesmen have repeated the feat many times. It is indeed none too difficult to pull off. A statesman has only to make concessions to the sovereigns of unknown civilizations in exchange for “momentary psychological effects” meant to impress his own electorate. Then if grace suddenly turns into displeasure (cold war), a new statesman makes a round of new concessions, and the cycle starts all over again. But this is not mere repetition. Even a cursory glance at the détente-cold-war cycles since 1921 will show that the concessions the democracies make each time to buy new “psychological effects” are more and more vital. In 1921 the democracies insisted on trade only with private firms in Soviet Russia and could have won the point, given a minimum of stamina and solidarity, because the majority of the Politburo, including Stalin, was all for this concession. In 1974 such a condition would sound monstrously aggressive, an attempt to “change the Soviet regime.” Now the point at issue is whether the Western democracies may explain democracy (say, by radio) to the populace of closed societies, for, though this practice is in keeping with all kinds of international agreements, nothing more greatly displeases the rulers of such societies.

The “new” superautocracies are as closed as their ancient predecessors. Radio, however, is a magical means of breaking through all their defenses and contraptions—the borders, the elaborate internal passport system, the ubiquitous secret-police control—right into the brains of the populace. Yet democratic electorates and their statesmen do not even want to see inside the totalitarian countries. They want to be good neighbors. They want 19th-century diplomacy because they want to believe that they still live in the safe and sensible world of the 19th century. Thus, more and more Western radio stations are broadcasting into Soviet Russia material that conforms more and more fully with Soviet propaganda—to the pleasure of everyone concerned except the mute Soviet populace.


On our arrival, an American friend took us for a tour of New York. He and his wife exemplified for us an amazing facet of the United States, and I recalled that even the vitriolic Dickens admired it more than a hundred years ago. We had met this American just by chance when he was a tourist in Moscow. Since then he and his wife had helped us as they might their next of kin, though we were perfect strangers, and they had several children of their own. They took us first to see the apartment they had rented for us and stocked with everything that might conceivably contribute to our comfort and pleasure (including three kinds of mustard in the refrigerator). Then they took us to see New York. Including the skyscrapers, of course. To me in Moscow the skyscrapers symbolized the strength of democracy—its sweep of free creativity which compensated, in my passionate dream for its survival, for its intrinsic human weakness.

We got out of the car. Here they were. The new ones were very good architecture. And they were high. But not as high as it had seemed from Moscow; here they seemed like Handel's music—majestic, but touched with a familiar, chamber-like quality. Their human features were enhanced by a skating-rink we saw, straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen tale. A girl of six or seven, holding a kitten, came up to us with a gesture women make when they mean, “Oh, I'm simply desperate.” She extended the kitten, evidently a stray, to me: “Can you take this kitten?” I said: “My dear: can your kitten take us?” Everyone laughed, but the little girl said: “You shouldn't make fun of such things.”

No, I shouldn't. But I am from the underworld of history, where a kitten's life is not so valuable. I looked up again: so those skyscrapers were also human, what with the skating-rink and the kitten. How vulnerably human and like chamber music it seemed, but what was going to happen to that kitten and everything? Perhaps I was arriving in the U.S. as one might have arrived in France in the 1930's. The “average civic index” that I had foreseen in my studies was purely theoretical: life, perhaps, would not confirm it. If so, unlike the case of France, this would mean the end of democracy. But at least I could publish my books (a contract rustled soothingly in my pocket), and hope that the words I wrote would be read some day as I now read the words written once in Athens.

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