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Jon Basil Utley at 80
“He is One of Us” (Memoirs of Two Trips to Russia)
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A Tribute by W. George Krasnow at Jon’s birthday party in Washington on March 12, 2014

It is easy to say all the good things that will make Jon very happy at his Eighty. But it will take a while to describe all his achievements and qualities that combine into an outstanding personality which we celebrate today. I think America is very fortunate to have Jon on her side.

As the fate decreed, two countries, the USA and my native Russia, have been competing for the soul of this man.

Jon was born on March 12, 1934, in Moscow, the capital of the USSR. However, his mother was not Russian. Freda Utley was an outstanding Marxist theoretician and a member of the British Communist party. It was in London that she met Arcadi Berdichevsky.[1]http://www.executedtoday.com/2010/03/30/1938-arkadi...utley/ Born to Jewish parents in the Black Sea city of Odessa in the Russian Empire, now Ukraine, Arcadi was educated at a commercial college in Switzerland. His credentials were good enough to start a successful banking career in New York City in early 1920s.

However Arcadi decided that the Future of Mankind was being built under the banner of World Communist Revolution in his native Russia. Giving up a lucrative New York job, he went to Red Moscow. Freda fell in love with Arcadi in London where he served as a member of Soviet Trade Mission to the United Kingdom. Soon the young couple decided that together they will build socialist economy for the first Communist state.

Jon is the child of that love affair between a disaffected “capitalist” English woman and a bright-eyed Russian New World builder. The two worlds, the Old Capitalist and the New Communist, began competing for Jon’s soul as soon as he was born in Moscow on March 12, 1934.

In 1936 father Arcadi was arrested, charged with “counter-evolutionary Trotskyite activities” and sentenced to five years of GULAG “somewhere up North”. Receiving from him just two post cards and hearing nothing for several months, Freda concluded that she should take their son to London.

Away from NKVD’s clutches, the struggle for his soul between the Soviets and the West has just begun. Receiving no replies to her own inquiries to Soviet authorities, Freda asked her socialist friends Bertran Russell, George Bernard Shaw and Harold Laski to write to Stalin on behalf of her husband. Convinced of Arcadi’s innocence, they did. But Stalin kept silent. By now Freda has understood the inhumane nature of the USSR, quit Communist party and moved from England, where pro-Soviet illusions among intellectual elite were too strong, to—where else?—the United States.

Having experienced first-hand the brutality of Soviet regime, Freda became an ardent, passionate and deliberate anti-communist. After she published a passionately anti-Communist book, “The Dream We Lost,” Freda became “the only Western writer who had known Russia both from inside and from below, sharing some of the hardships and all the fears of the forcibly silenced Russian people.” Author Pearl Buck called it “a strongly unassailable indictment of Russian Communism. It is a strongly dramatic story and one interesting enough to make a major novel, the story of a brilliant mind, rigorously truthful in its working…” Still, as Paul Hollander, among others, has shown, there was no shortage of intellectual “Pilgrims” from the West[2]Paul Hollander http://www.amazon.com/Political-Pilgrims-Western-In...009543 to travel to Moscow to bow before the Moloch of Communism. The young Jon grew up among them, knowing full well that her mother was a courageous exception.

I met Jon in late 1990s during informal once-a-month meetings of a group of his conservative friends at an Arlington restaurant. They met in memory of Phil Nicolaides, late deputy director of the Voice of America and Reagan appointee. Several of them were former government officials who felt that the Republican Party ceased to be the carrier of true conservative Reagan-style persuasions. Although I was rather non-political, I was attracted by the fact they admired Reagan whom I had valued for his strong anti-Communist stance and encouragements he gave to Soviet dissidents.

 

Jon’s mother has been gone since 1978, but so was the USSR that she had predicted would not last. Judging by Ronald Reagan’s memoirs, Freda’s books, such as The Dream We Lost, later published as Lost Illusions, left a strong impression on him. Describing the defeatist mood of U.S. establishment during the Cold War, which became even worse after the Vietnam fiasco, Reagan wrote about Freda: “…many of the intellectuals didn’t want to hear what she had to say. She had impressive academic credentials when she came to the U.S. but publishers and the academy closed doors against her. She understood all too well. She had tried communism and learned its falseness.”[3]Ronald Reagan and Annelise Anderson (authors), Martin Anderson (editor), Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America, Free Press, February 6, 2001.

It was reassuring to hear from a man who had played a key role in Communism’s defeat that Freda Utley’s writings, as well as those of Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents, strengthened his determination to resist Communism that was eventually thrown out into the dust bin of history.

At the turn of the millennium, Jon was at the height of his powers. Well educated, broad-shouldered former price boxer now was an accomplished businessman, journalist and antiwar activist. He lacked for nothing. But he knew that his dear mother passed away without having learned the full story of her husband, except that he “died” in late 1930s somewhere in Komi Republic, the autonomous region the size of several European countries. He also learned from Soviet Embassy in Washington that his father was posthumously rehabilitated. It was a little consolation, and Jon decided to find the truth about his father that eluded his mother.

Having learned of my defector background and that I frequently visit post-Soviet Russia, Jon approached me asking if I could not help him to find out what exactly happened to his father. After all he was sentenced ONLY to five years of “corrective labor.” Where exactly did he die? How? When? Why was he condemned for no fault, as his mother told him? What does rehabilitation mean?

Both as the founder of Russia & America Good Will Association (RAGA) and as a personal friend, I gladly undertook the assignment. His father’s and mother’s story intrigued me. My only misgiving was the lack of my own status in post-Soviet Russia. Sure, I had visited my native country many times since my first visit in late April-early May 1991 when I was invited to the Novosibirsk State University to speak at the first-ever conference on the topic of “Russian Spiritual Rebirth”. But as a defector and the author of the book Soviet Defectors: The KGB Wanted List, I was sure there was an arrest warrant on me. However, with the collapse of the Soviet state, who would care to execute an old warrant? I also felt protected by US citizenship.

By Fall of 2003 during my brief visit to Moscow I made some preliminary research and phone calls to human rights associations and activists. It took several days before someone suggested that I go to the FSB Library and Archives on Kuznetsky Most street. I went there, and the guards at the door allowed me to submit a hand-written inquiry stating my case and my credentials to undertake it. In a couple of days I learned that I needed the power of attorney from Jon. It took me another trip to Moscow until my application could be properly submitted and duly processed. In a couple of month I got the reply, mailed to my Washington address, that Arcadi Berdichevsky’s file was found and will be made accessible to me upon my visit to the library.

I reported about this breakthrough to Jon, and he gave his blessings for my next trip. Upon my arrival to Moscow, I dialed the number provided in the letter, and the young man told me I could see him, and the file, at appointed time. When I came, Boris (not a true name) greeted me politely and explained the rules of engagement. I could not see the whole file as parts of it were sealed. “This is for the protection of privacy of witnesses,” he explained pointing toward sealed segments of the file. I could stay in the library as long as I wanted as long as the library was open. I was also allowed to copy about one third of all unsealed pages, “and, according to our law, you can do it free of charge”, he reassured me with a wink of pride. “After all, Berdichevsky was rehabilitated”.

I did as I was told. Soon I brought the copied pages back to Washington and gave them to Jon. Jon asked me to translate them into English, which I did. It is up to Jon to disclose what we found. But I can say only with assurance that his father was an innocent man. He was charged with the “counter-revolutionary Trotskyite activities,” but there was not a shred of evidence that could be admitted in a court of justice. He did not confess any “activities” or belonging to any “counter-revolutionary group”. He did not dispute interrogators when they alleged that sometimes among Freda’s and his guests were people who expressed views similar to those of Lev Trotsky. If he was guilty of anything, it was the failure to report his guests to the police. Tragically, the failure to spy on one’s neighbor or guest was a punishable offence, and there were hundreds of thousand people who were hauled to the GULAG and often to death for just that.

His wife being British, Arcadi probably had many occasions to entertain people who felt more open to speak in the presence of a witness protected by a foreign passport. It is quite possible that Freda herself had expressed some criticism of Stalin’s rule. Since Soviet authorities did not want to antagonize foreigners by arresting a British citizen, it is likely that Arcadi paid the price for free-thinking ways of his foreign wife.

While the file contained a lot of information about arrest, interrogation and sentencing of Arcadi to Five Years of Corrective labor, it said nothing of his later fate. I asked Boris about it. He told me that he could contact on my behalf another FSB archive, the one in the town of Ukhta in the Komi Republic. Ukhta was a sort of a capital for the north-European section of the GULAG system. It took several months, and another flight from Washington to Moscow, before I was able to peruse the new file only to find out that while serving in a coal mining camp beyond the arctic circle near Vorkuta, Arcadi was charged with organizing a hunger strike of political prisoners and sentenced to death by the infamous TROYKA, a three men panel that was attached to the GULAG administration.

As it was still not clear WHERE, WHEN and HOW Arcadi was executed, Jon and I embarked on a ten-day trip to Vorkuta in August 2005. There was no direct flight from Moscow to Vorkuta. First, we had to fly to Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi region. Then we took a flight to Vorkuta. The plane was rickety, the weather not the best, so only on second try our plane landed in a heavy fog. We were grweeted by two activists from the local association of Memorial, a nation-wide human right association. The two were Evgenia Khaidarova and Aleksandr Kalmykov, both retired teachers. They had known from my emails about Jon’s quest. We became friends at once.

It soon transpired, however, that the task of finding the grave was unrealistic. Based on circumstantial evidence, we concluded that the best way to honor the dead was to visit a notorious place of execution, the so called brick foundry. In early 1938, after a certain Kashketin was appointed a camp commander, mass executions took place near a former foundry. Arcadi was ordered to march among some two hundred “trotskyites” into an uphill bank of a local river. All of them were mowed down by machine gun fire. It is not known whether the guards drowned the corpses in the nearby river or disposed of them by other means. According to some reports, during early months of 1938 more than 2900 people were executed at this place alone. This mass execution of alleged Trotskyites at the former brick foundry near Lekh-Vorkuta River went down in history as “The Vorkuta tragedy”. The majority of the condemned Trotskyites were Jewish, but many were not. Arcadi, for instance, was listed in the archival records among a dozen of other people, among whom at least five do not bear distinct Jewish names.[4]One of the first to report about this “Vorkuta tragedy at brick foundry” was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his The GULAG Archipelago”. Later Anton Antonov-Ovsienko and Rogovin wrote more detailed accounts

One way or another, there was no discussion of Arcadi’s Jewishness among us. On the way to the suspected grave Evgenia and Aleksandr took along a memorial wreath. Then they lay down on the tundra green lawn a white table cloth which was soon filled with a bottle of vodka, some pirozhki and other aux d’ouvres. As we sat down on the soft tundra lawn, Aleksandr pronounced an eloquent toast to both the dead man and his worthy son who overcame years of uncertainty and thousands of miles dividing Washington and Vorkuta to honor his father.

In his return toast, Jon said that he was relieved to finally have kept the promise he gave to his mother to find out what happened to his father. The fact that there were no identifiable remains of his father was no problem. On the contrary, it was symbolic of the fact that his father was part of Russian history and went back to the soil from which he was born. In his later interview to a local newspaper Jon emphasized again that he feels no enmity toward Russian people. In fact, the tragedy of the Russian people which started under the banner of liberation of working people from the “yoke” of capitalism is but a reflection of the 19th century Marxist illusion which had deep roots in Western civilization.

Jon and I left Vorkuta on a train in the direction to St. Petersburg. As we passed the expanses of tundra, we saw again the sinister place of execution from afar. In fact, the train track itself was built by forced labor. It was finished just before WWII so that during the blockade of St. Petersburg by the Germans, the city was supplied by the coal of Vorkuta mines. “You see, Jon, after all you dad did contribute if not to the Soviets, then to Russia’s rise as an economic power,” I said. Jon felt proud of his father. He was especially proud that his father did not confess at the first trial and that he was charged later with organizing the hunger strike. When we left the train at Ukhta station, we went downtown to the local FSB office to verify our data about his father in its archive. Jon was impressed that the records of the GULAG system were still kept, even though public did not have an easy access. Of all people, the stature of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the brutal founder of Cheka, was still gracing a square in front of the FSB office.

“Why should we go to St. Petersburg or Moscow? There you can go any time. But, since we have seen the vestiges of GULAG in Vorkuta, why don’t we go to Perm, my native town, which is just as important on the map of GULAG?”, I suggested to Jon. “You have a real chance to see with your own eyes a GULAG camp turned Museum Perm-36, the only such museum that is listed among a hundred world monuments that need protection,” I went on. Jon agreed, and next day we joined a group of professors from the University of Ukhta who were about to go to the capital city of Syktyvkar.

In Syktyvkar we visited a human rights activist who was involved in publishing a multi-volume series where all GULAG prisoners were listed. Sure enough, Mikhail Rogachev pulled from his shelf a volume about the “Vorkuta tragedy”, in which Arcadi was listed along those executed on March 30. Mikhail was a school teacher. On his free time and without government support, he devoted himself to preserving the memory of the worst times in the history of Russia.

In order to get to Perm, the gateway to the Urals and Siberia, we had to take a taxi cab from Syktyvkar to Kirov where we took an overnight train to Perm. Once there, and after a breakfast at my sister’s apartment, I took Jon for a long walk to the Kama River that flows to the Volga River that empties into the Caspian Sea. As Perm was the main passage to Siberia I took Jon to its main street called Sibirskaya. Under the tsars, this was the main passage to hard labor prisoners from Central Russia to Siberian mines. Under the Soviets, the street was renamed Karl Marx Street. To be sure, in the secretive Soviet system no one could see prisoners openly marching to Siberia, but overall prisoner traffic increased manifold.

As we were walking along Sibirskaya Street down to the bank of Kama, I also showed Jon the building known as Korolevskie nomera, a former hotel, from which Michael Romanov, the last legal ruler of Russia from the Romanov dynasty, was abducted, along with his secretary Brian Johnson on the night of June 12, 1918 by a group of local Chekists. Both were executed without a trial in the outskirts of the city.

“This was the REAL turning point in the history of the 20th century”, I told Jon. He looked at me in disbelief that something so vitally important could have happened so far away from Europe. “Well, five weeks later former tsar Nicholas and his family were massacred in Yekaterinburg. On November 11, 1918, Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg dynasty fell. On the same day William II, Kaiser of Germany of Hohenzollern dynasty, went to exile to Netherland never to return, and the Weimar Republic succeeded him. The Ottoman Empire in Turkey outlasted its rivals only by few years as it fell in 1922 to be replaced by the Turkish Republic of Ataturk. The Old World Order was gone never to return. But did the world become better?”

Certainly not for my parents”, replied Jon. “Not just for them personally. Judging by the books of my mother among many other observers, the old autocratic despots were replaced not by vibrant humane democratic leaders, but by new totalitarian tyrants who were much more skilled in demagogic populist and nationalistic tactics, and more ruthless. They unleashed WWII which was even more brutal than WWI. So where is the world going? Is it from flames to a frying pan?”

It seems so. The story of Gavrila Myasnikov, the principal organizer of Michael’s murder is a case at point. He soon came to disagree with the Kremlin and formed “workers’ opposition” to Lenin with whom he had a heated correspondence. Soon he was, first, exiled to Berlin, then lured back to Moscow and imprisoned for several years. However, exiled to Erevan, Armenia, in 1928 he defected across the Iranian border, and eventually landed in Paris. There he boastfully wrote his memoirs “The Philosophy of murder: how and why I killed Michael Romanov”[5]Г.Мясников, «ФИЛОСОФИЯ УБИЙСТВА, ИЛИ ПОЧЕМУ И КАК Я УБИЛ МИХАИЛА РОМАНОВА» and allegedly mailed a copy to Stalin. He never thought about the consequences of his evil deed. After quarrelling with Russian émigrés in Paris, he decided to return (or was lured) to the USSR during the war. In 1945 he was secretly tried in the Lubyanka and executed.

Such is the story of a man who, by a wink of fate, set in motion a whole cascade of dynastic downfalls in Europe.

But why not visit Museum Perm-36? I called up Viktor Shmyrov, the director, and he offered to drive us about a hundred miles east of Perm to the location. I have known Viktor since 1992 when we first met during one of my visits to Perm. Then he was a professor of history and did research on how the GULAG system came about. He invited me to join a group of local journalist and academics to visit a GULAG camp “that was fully intact but does not hold any prisoners since the collapse of the USSR.”

The purpose of the trip was to convince the camp’s commander to allow the use of “one barrack or just a part of it” for display of all sorts of memorabilia, books, manuscripts and photographs as “a sort of museum” about the recent Soviet past. The commander was amenable to the idea, but it was not clear who was going to pay for it. In fact, Viktor wanted me to join on the assumption that as a “friend of Solzhenitsyn” I could exert some influence on him to come up with the initial fund. This was the time when the old Soviet financing collapsed and there were not yet any oligarchs who had enough cash for the undertaking. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, was known to be a generous person who personified the GULAG and was wealthy as a best-selling author.

After several such trips and numerous calls, the camp commander relented and gave the whole camp to Shmyrov to be used as a museum of the GULAG. Later, the Perm regional government saw the usefulness of Shmyrov’s idea and gave it some funds. Museum of Political Repressions Perm-36 was on the map as the only former prisoners camp preserved for the edification of posterity. (The number refers to the camp notorious for holding many outstanding Soviet dissidents). As to Solzhenitsyn, there was no need for his financial assistance. However, Viktor ask me to take to the States a collection of founding documents and a letter asking the writer to join its board of trustees. I mailed the collection to Solzhenitsyn’s Vermont address. The writer declined joining the board, but gave his blessing for the project.

After a fast tour of the facilities—we visited several former barracks now converted for display – Viktor invited us to sit down at a table because he was about to tell the story of how this unique museum was created. For about an hour, Viktor described numerous difficulties and bureaucratic obstacles that he had to overcome before his idea turned into a reality. At the end Jon became the Museum’s donor.

Next year Jon wrote an article “Vorkuta to Perm: Russia’s Concentration Camp and My Father’s Story” that was published by The Freeman/Ideas on Liberty magazine in July of 2005. His story was so compelling that someone conceived of an idea of making a documentary film based on it. Boston College’s Film Department volunteered to send its crew to the same places Jon and I went. Jon promptly engaged me as an interpreter and consultant, and there we went in August 2006. The result was a 28 minute DVD film “Return to the GULAG”, directed by John J. Michalczik of Boston College. It is available on Reason site. Jon dedicated it to his mother and copyrighted it to The Freda Utley Foundation.

I was happy to assist Jon in his noble task of honoring the memory of his British mother and his Russian father. Everywhere Jon and I travelled in Russia, people showed interest for Jon. He gave several interviews for Russian papers. He always stressed that he was proud of his Russian/Jewish father, that his tragedy was not an ethnic, but national tragedy. “I see the Russian people becoming stronger for having survived so many adversities in the 20th century”, Jon said. Based on my own friendship with Jon, as well as remembering what Russians told me about him, I think it would be fair to say on behalf of all new Russians that “Jon is one of us”. By saying so we do not detract even an iota from Jon, a proud American peace-loving patriot ( http://www.againstbombing.org/ ) and a great guy to have around.

 

By W. George Krasnow (aka Vladislav Krasnov), the founder and president of RAGA.org

Jon Basil Utley was born in Moscow, Russia, and emigrated to America in 1939. He is Publisher of The American Conservative, the Robert A. Taft Fellow for International and Constitutional Studies at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and a writer for Antiwar.com and Reason.com. He has written widely on third-world development economics, foreign policy, terrorism and civil defense. In the Nineties he worked with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation on promoting the transition to free markets in Russia and Eastern Europe. He is a graduate of Georgetown University‘s School of Foreign Service, with language studies in Germany and France.

Notes

[1] http://www.executedtoday.com/2010/03/30/1938-arkadi-berdichevsky-jon-freda-utley/

[2] Paul Hollander http://www.amazon.com/Political-Pilgrims-Western-Intellectuals-Society/dp/1560009543

[3] Ronald Reagan and Annelise Anderson (authors), Martin Anderson (editor), Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan That Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America, Free Press, February 6, 2001.

[4] One of the first to report about this “Vorkuta tragedy at brick foundry” was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his The GULAG Archipelago”. Later Anton Antonov-Ovsienko and Rogovin wrote more detailed accounts

[5] Г.Мясников, «ФИЛОСОФИЯ УБИЙСТВА, ИЛИ ПОЧЕМУ И КАК Я УБИЛ МИХАИЛА РОМАНОВА»

 
• Category: History • Tags: Bolshevik Russia, Soviet Union 
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