Harrison E. Salisbury: A Journey for Our Times: A Memoir; Harper & Row; New York.

A Journey for Our Times is a frustrating, almost schizophrenic book. One approaches it with anticipation if only because the author is an experienced journalist with a unique fund of knowledge about the Soviet Union. But ultimately, Salisbury manages to defeat and dispirit the most favorably disposed reader in exactly the same way that the editorial laxity of the New York Times, Salisbury’s longtime employer, ultimately overcomes one’s initial admiration for its journalistic competence. Much as a dog and its mater are said to grow more alike as the years pass, Salisbury has become a faithful reflection of the New York Times.


Like the New York Times, Salisbury is gorged with vanity; hist title is apparently intended to let us know that the journey “for our times” is the life of Harrison E. Salisbury as written by Harrison E. Salisbury In the course of his account, Salisbury refers to himself far more frequently than even Julius Caesar did; his model in this regard seems to have been Benvenuto Cellini. His writing improves when he is not discussing himself; unfortunately, vast stretches of his book are crammed with tedious personal minutiae.

But as Boswell’s Life of Johnson proved, a vain man is not precluded from writing an extraordinary book. Thus, any claims for A Journey for Our Times must ultimately rest on its descriptions of the Soviet Union; if Salisbury cannot satisfy here, he assuredly will not do so anywhere else. During his coverage of the Soviet Union for United Press and, later, for the New York Times, he became more or less intimately acquainted with a considerable number of important personalities in Soviet politics and culture. In addition, he has written both history (The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad and Black Night, White Snow) and fiction (The Northern Palmyra Affair and The Gates of Hell) with skill and sympathy for Russia and the Russians.

Yet in his descriptions of the Soviet Union Salisbury again displays both the strengths and weaknesses of journalism in general and the New York Times in particular. The strengths include his ability to convey detail (his preservation of C. L. Sulzberger’s description of a Soviet functionary as a “mechanized cockroach” is in itself almost worth the price of the book), as well as his grasp of Soviet political infighting (it has been remarked that in following Soviet politics a familiarity with the Cosa Nostra is far more useful than a graduate degree in Slavic studies; Salisbury’s facility in this field may owe something to the fact that he was a UP reporter in Chicago in Al Capone’s time). And, in stark contrast to Walter Duranty, one of his predecessor correspondents for the New York Times, Salisbury quickly recognized the ‘dark shadow of Stalin’s evil.”

Yet Salisbury’s weaknesses ultimately outweigh his strengths at any level of discourse beyond the most specific and particular. His grasp of political theory, for example, is shaky. As Salisbury expresses it:

I have always had a hard time trying to understand the principles of the Republican party, to which I belong.

The same is true of economics and Marxism. Salisbury goes out of his way to pour contempt on anyone who thinks that  understanding the Soviet Union might be facilitated by studying:

Marxism, whatever that is, and the ‘philosophy’ of the Soviet government, its political jargon and all that.

Ignorance of Marxism, economics, and political science is not an ideal quality to bring to a country maniacally obsessed by all three; thus, Salisbury’s condescension frequently leads him into extraordinary blunders. He tells us, for instance, that a counselor at the United States embassy:

approached Russia via Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. His posture was not unlike that of John Foster Dulles, who used to boast of keeping a copy of Stalin’s Problems of Leninism on his desk, s though that were a key to what was happening in Moscow. I must confess that I have never read Problems of Leninism and never expect to.

If Salisbury has bothered to read Problems of Leninism, he would have found that it contains 28 articles and speeches written and delivered by Stalin between 1924 and 1939. Some of these materials are absolutely essential as a “key to what is happening in Moscow.” For example, Stalin reported to the Seventeenth Party Congress that during the agricultural “reorganization” period between 1929 and 1933 (i.e., the collectivization war against the peasantry), the number of horses declined from 34.0 million to 16.6 million head, “large cattle” from 68.1 million to 38.6 million, sheep and goats from 147.2 million to 50.5 million, and pigs from 20.9 million to 12.2 million. Anyone reading these figures, and realizing that the cause of the decline was wholesale livestock slaughter by desperate peasants (“intense kulak agitation for the slaughter of livestock”), could not possibly have denied the existence of the famine that swept the Soviet Union in the early 1930’s (as Salisbury’s predecessor, Duranty, and other foreign observers did). Many of the materials in Problems of Leninism were not just a “key” to what was happening in Moscow, but were important events in their own right. In his December 1929 speech “Concerning Questions of Agrarian Policy in the U.S.S.R.,” for example, Stalin announced: “We have passed from the policy of restricting the exploiting tendencies of the kulaks to the policy of terminating the kulaks as a class.” Geller and Nekrich, in their history of the Soviet Union, describe the cataclysmic human consequences as follows:

The following sixty-five days shook the country to a far greater degree than the ten days in October, 1917 which ‘shook the world.’ In nine weeks, the foundations of existence for more than 130 million Soviet peasants were devastated, the character of the state’s economy was altered — utterly demolished — and the character of the state itself was changed. (M. Geller & A. Nekrich, Utopia u Vlasti [Utopia in Power], London: 1982, Vol. I, p. 247.)

Problems of Leninism not only reeks with the ghastly qualities of Stalinism (a characteristic also of History of the C.P.S.U. (B) Short Course), but also embodies the abiding characteristics pf Bolshevik rhetoric. A loyal Soviet citizen even today, if reproached about the lack of opposition parties in the U.S.S.R., would undoubtedly say the same thing that Stalin did in his speech “On the Draft Constitution”:

As to freedom for various political parties, we adhere to somewhat different views. A party is part of a class, its most advanced part. Several parties, and consequently, freedom for parties, can exist only in a society in which there are antagonistic classes whose interests are mutually hostile and irreconcilable. . . . But in the U.S.S.R. there are no longer such classes. . . . In the U.S.S.R. there are only two classes, workers and peasants, whose interests — far from being mutually hostile — are of the contrary, friendly. Hence, there is no ground in the U.S.S.R. for the existence of several parties, and, consequently, for freedom for these parties. In the U.S.S.R. only one party can exist, the Communist Party, which courageously defends the interests of the workers and the peasants to the very end. And that it defends the interests of these classes not at all badly, of that there can hardly be any doubt. (Loud applause.)

There speaks the perpetual Bolshevik. By ignoring such material (and boasting of his ignorance, to boot), Salisbury is in the position of a tennis player who ties his racket firmly to one foot before striding onto the court; he should not be surprised if he has trouble returning the ball. And in fact Salisbury repeatedly admits that in analyzing Soviet affairs he “missed the point entirely,” “did not read” premonitory signs “correctly,” never discovered the reason for the arrival of a Chinese delegation in August 1952, and “failed to draw what seems to me now the obvious conclusion” that just before his death Stalin was moving to destroy Beria. He even records that until as late as mid-January 1953 he “felt pretty certain” that Stalin was not planning a “new purge” despite the appearance of the customary Bolshevik warning signs (“tough declarations about party discipline and tougher ones on ‘vigilance’”) and despite the apparently almost tangible sense of menace (Svetlana Alliluyeva would later recall that “during the winter of 1952-1953 the darkness thickened beyond all endurance”). Salisbury plows on. His ignorance of Bolshevik theory makes him an easy mark for what Soviet émigrés — who presumably know at least as much as Salisbury does about the U.S.S.R. — call the “primitive” notion that Soviet behavior can be explained solely in terms of Russian history. As Salisbury puts it (the emphasis is his):

I read a lot of Russian history — Russian history, not Soviet history — in those long evenings in the Metropol. This told me how closely Stalin fitted the historical pattern of the eternal Russian drive for warm water (Constantinople, the Persian Gulf), in the passion for dominating the Balkans (shared with Nicholas I and Alexander III), in a wish for far Eastern dominance (shared with Nicholas II), in a consciousness of British (now Indian) rivalry in Central Asia, in a love-hate relationship with Germany (shared with a hierarchy of Czarist rulers and foreign ministers).

Salisbury is at best only half right; a “drive for warm water” my be an element in Russian history, but it is Marxist-Leninism that drives the Soviet Union toward the “warm water” of the Caribbean (including Cienfuegos, the warm-water port long coveted by such Czars as Nikita, Leonid I, and Yuri the Terrible). The whole pseudosophisticated hypothesis (which is usually advanced to show that the proponent is familiar with a smattering of Russian history and thus superior to those who merely listen to what the Bolshevik leaders actually say) has been succinctly harpooned by Vladimir Bukovsky:

It gets worse and worse. Treaties are not observed. Soviet expansion grows stronger; more and more countries fall victim to it. But even this is no cause for alarm since the main thing, the experts tell us, is to leave the Soviets an ‘avenue of retreat’ and give them a chance to ‘save face.’ Even while the war is proceeding at full speed and the Afghan people are still fighting back, Western politicians race each other to Moscow in order to saw their own faces. It’s not so much that an entire nation has disappeared from the map that concerns them, as the possibility that détente might be undermined. Invade Afghanistan? What it’s only the ‘Russian tradition,’ the eternal drive to ‘warm water.’ And besides, they’re probably frozen, poor boys, and simply want to warm up a bit. Nobody would have gotten so upset, the specialists grumble, if only our Russian friends had sent Cubans instead. (Vladimir Bukovsky, Pis’ma Russkogo Puteshestvennika [Letters of a Russian Traveller], New York: 1981, p.248-49.)

As a memoir of a competent journalist’s daily experiences in often unusual surroundings, Salisbury’s book possesses some merit; as an attempt to analyze Soviet behavior, it is as hopelessly simplistic as the editorial page of the New York Times itself.  cc