By Monica Alonzo
By Ray Stern
By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Robrt L. Pela
And, of course, Victor was aware of the ice-pick assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in August 1940-lending grim veracity to Trotsky's warning that "Stalin seeks to strike, not at the ideas of his opponent, but at his skull."
Even so, Victor Kravchenko appeared before the committee, speaking in rapid-fire Russian and occasionally switching to heavily accented, balky English. He told the committee that "every responsible representative of the Soviet government in the United States may be regarded as an economic or political spy," and that no Soviet citizen arrived in the U.S. without a "specific assignment" to collect secret documents. He also declared it "foolish and dangerous" to underrate the ability of the Russians to produce nuclear weapons, and said that Soviet disarmament plans were a sham, designed to "play for time."
Andrei Gromyko, then the Soviet delegate to the United Nations, reacted in characteristic Russian fashion-he penciled out a terse statement and handed it to reporters: "When a dog has nothing to do, it licks its underbelly. Sometimes this attracts spectators." The Russian embassy reiterated its view of Kravchenko as a common deserter and a traitor.
The next day, a visibly shaken Victor Kravchenko appeared before a House judiciary subcommittee. "I cannot sleep nights because of my worries," he said. 'I lose my wife. I lose my father. I lose my brother. I lose my country. I am sick and asking you to please understand my situation and help me."
On September 6, 1947, Andrew's brother Anthony-who died in 1969-was born. Cynthia Kuser, who never married Victor, had the baby in secret and made Byzantine arrangements to eventually adopt the child, bringing him home to her family estate in New Jersey.
Then, on November 13, 1947, an article headlined "How Kravchenko Was Manufactured" appeared in Les Lettres francaises, a literary journal published in Paris. The article, published under the byline "Sim Thomas," alleged that I Chose Freedom was a fake produced by the American Secret Service as propaganda. It characterized Victor as a drunken incompetent who was on the verge of being returned to Moscow to answer for his bad behavior when the Americans intervened and converted him to their own purposes. Two subsequent articles, one authored by critic Andre Wurmser and the other by Claude Morgan, the journal's editor, repeated the charges.
Kravchenko sued Les Lettres francaises for libel. Cynthia, who spoke French fluently and had contacts in Paris, helped to make arrangements for the trial. Strategy sessions were held both in Victor's Manhattan apartment and at Cynthia's family estate in New Jersey. Andrew says his mother attended the trial incognito, wearing a dark wig. The case went to trial in Paris on January 24, 1949.
Though nominally a simple libel action, the suit was sensational, brash and about much more than whether the magazine had defamed the defector. One book about the trial-really no more than an annotated transcript of the proceedings-was entitled Kravchenko Versus Moscow, and, as British legal scholar Sir Travers Humphreys wrote in the introduction to the English edition:
"Nobody troubled much about the defendant Morgan, or his paper. Kravchenko, on the other hand, was a person of somewhat unsavory reputation whose conduct, as expressed in the judgment of the court, was `reprehensible' and `rightly criticized with severity.' From the point of view of most of the spectators, the real defendant in the case was the government of the Soviet Republic."
Americans, used to the dull and rather businesslike progress of our court system, might have difficulty imagining the circus atmosphere that attended the Kravchenko trial. The French civil code makes no allowance for the common legal concept of Ôrelevance," and the parties are basically free to provide the court with whatever testimony they wish. Similarly, all parties to the suit are allowed to interject at any time; defendants, plaintiffs and witnesses, as well as their respective lawyers, could interrupt to dispute a point of fact. Victor Kravchenko was particularly disposed to challenging the defense's witnesses, mainly Soviet citizens flown to Paris for the express purpose of making Kravchenko out to be a coward, a liar, a drunk and generally a person of low morals.
DESPITE THE VALIANT efforts of Chris Beattie, an employee of the Russian airline Aeroflot who was flown from San Francisco to Phoenix to serve as Valentin's interpreter, there are problems with communication. Valentin is sulky and overblown, annoyed by the constriction of translation. It is hard for him to restrain himself to short, direct answers, and he longs to uncork the valve and let his story flow out. With silky strains of Dexter Gordon in the background, and the fireplace burnishing his face, Valentin sits encircled by American interrogators, three pale men who babble at him.
Andrew gets stern when Valentin seems to contradict himself-he makes his "time-out" sign and tells Beattie to tell his brother that he can't tell different people different stories. It must be the same story-it must be the truth-every time, Andrew says.
Valentin responds that he has already written his story in his book, Noah's Ark, a kind of nonfiction novel he wrote in prison. Though the book has been published in Scandinavia, it has not yet been translated into English.
"That's real good," Andrew says evenly. "Chris, would you ask him what good that's going to do? We don't read Russian. Ask him what good that's going to do us."
Chris is dutiful and Valentin is petulant. It is clear Andrew and Valentin are brothers-though they have been around each other for only a matter of days-and that they have reached a fraternal accommodation. Their circumstances sound like a high-concept pitch for the first post-Cold War situation comedy: "There's this American guy, see, who has this brother he doesn't know about, see, because he's a Soviet Russian! And then, like, after the fall of communism, this brother, like...well, he's penniless because they threw him in prison and took all his stuffÏhe gets out of prison and he comes to America to live with his rich American brother. And, like, these guys, they're real different, see, but they're kind of alike, too."
Having a Russian in the house can be taxing.
"Valentin is merciless," Andrew says. "He's going to wear poor Chris down; [Chris] can't keep this up."
Valentin's English is coming along, but it's not to the point where he can conduct an interview. He writes English somewhat better, but it is laborious for him. His story is squeezed out in discrete parcels, facts through an eyedropper. Eventually they collect, distilled and colorless.
In 1949, in Dnepropetrovsk, on the banks of the Dnieper River in the Ukraine, people were vaguely aware that Victor Kravchenko was on trial in Paris. There were some stories in Pravda, and at Number Seven, New Owl Street, the NKVD had paid a visit to Kravchenko's former wife, Dr. Zinaina Gorlova.
Valentin says his mother was forced to go to Paris to testify in the Kravchenko affair, that they coached her on what to say and that they threatened her family if she did not comply. Valentin was 14 at the time, and he remembers people coming up to him on the street and telling him his father was a traitor, but he has no memory of Victor, who divorced his mother soon after he was born.
It was coincidenceÏValentin says fate-that caused him to enroll in the same school his father had attended and to pursue the same course of study, metallurgy. He didn't know his father's history, only that the name "Victor Kravchenko" was the name of a traitor, carrying something of the same flavor as "Benedict Arnold" in the United States. He renounced his father and dedicated himself to Stalin.
"I loved Stalin," Valentin says in English. "I loved Stalin."
He slips back into Russian to explain he "was just a kid," innocent of the purges and brutality of Vladimir Lenin's heir.
"What did I know?" he says, shrugging in the universal acknowledgment of helpless ignorance. "I was 14 years old; I didn't know anything but what they told us in school. When Stalin died, I cried. I bawled like a baby. We didn't know what was going to happen to us."
It is difficult for Americans to comprehend the terrible uncertainty left in Stalin's wake. Even some prisoners in the gulag mourned him, some because they were convinced he was unaware of the abuses committed in his name, others simply because they were more terrified of chaos than of Stalin. Since before the Mongol invasion and the subsequent 250-year occupation, the Russian psyche had equated security with the rule of a potent prince. And no strongman was ever stronger than Stalin: He replaced all the banal worries of everyday life with one awesome fear.
"We cried because we were helpless," Ludmilla Alexeyeva, a Soviet dissident who published her memoirs in 1990, wrote. "We cried because we had no rational way of predicting what would happen to us now. We cried because, for better or for worse, an era had passed."
Valentin was a young man when, at the first post-Stalin Communist Party Congress, Khrushchev delivered a somber "secret" address-"On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences"-that exposed Stalin as a criminal. Again, the world seemed to give way beneath the feet of the Soviet people; all accepted wisdom was reversed. To a Russian, momentous events happen, but nothing ever really changes. That's why perestroika, glasnost and the fall of communism seem to matter less to Valentin Bodrov than they might to us, in our "American childhood."
"There was always the prisons," Valentin says. "Always they had political prisoners and common thieves there, all mixed together. They never let them all out; they haven't let them all out this time. If I go back there, they'll put me back in prison."
IN PRISON, VALENTIN learned about Victor. Jailhouse legends were passed on from generation to generation, and the prisoners in the gulag knew about Kravchenko; there, he was something of a hero. Though Valentin says I Chose Freedom never circulated in Russia-not even in an underground samizdat version-the book and its allegations were well-known.
And the state's institutional memory of Kravchenko might well have contributed to Valentin's own arrest and imprisonment. His story is terrible and familiar.
He renounced his father and the name "Kravchenko," and went to work as an engineer, repairing large heating and cooling systems. He became a member of the Communist party, married and led the life of an upstanding Soviet citizen. Occasionally, his remarkable resemblance to his father-Valentin has the same hooded eyes, the same brooding aspect, the same thick black hair-might raise an eyebrow, but only very rarely. His life was nondescript, and mildly privileged. He was talented and bright and a hard worker. He acquired a car, a decent apartment, a few perks.
In 1979, he left the party, more from apathy than anger. It was a decision for which he would suffer.
In 1982, Valentin was arrested, along with several co-workers. They were charged with an economic crime that in American terms might best be described as working unauthorized overtime. Valentin claims that all the work done by his crew was, in fact, authorized, but that it later became embarrassing to a party official. In any event, Valentin says that before the trial he was subjected to seven torture sessions during which agents of the NKVD attempted to extract a confession. He says the guards forced him to stare directly into a 100-watt light bulb placed inches from his face, and that they kicked him and beat him. They forced him to ingest cups filled with salt. They knocked out his teeth. By way of demonstration, he tucks his thumb into his mouth and removes an upper plate-only a few teeth remain in his mouth, and most of them are made of brass.
It is difficult for Valentin to talk about what they did to him. Several times the interview folds up; we walk around, and lighter subjects are discussed. The big Russian is shaken, and the terror is real.
They had him lay his genitals out on a table and they crushed them. They beat him unconscious. Still, he did not sign the confession.
"They made a mistake in my case," Valentin says. "They beat me too much, too soon. After a while, your body, it becomes like wood. It doesn't matter what they do to you. They made me into wood. I didn't care what they did."
The last session was the worst. They didn't touch him, but the dread made him sick. He was partially paralyzed by the torture.
He remembers that at his trial he was made a scapegoat because he wasn't a party member. And because he was "the son of Kravchenko."
"I heard that in the court, they were calling, `He is the son of Kravchenko, he is the son of Kravchenko, let him do longer.'" In June 1983, Valentin Bodrov was handed a 15-year sentence. He didn't care, for he was an invalid, barely cognizant of what was happening to him. He was sent to a prison hospital filled with the lame and those able to pay bribes to the judges in order to serve their time there.
part 2 of 3
L' AFFAIRE KRAVCHENKO THEIR FATHER DEFEC... v2-12-92
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