De Gaulle in the u.s.s.r

SHORTLY before President de Gaulle set out on His long-anticipated visit to the Soviet Union, the irreverently enterprising Paris satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaine, dug back into the official Soviet Encyclopedia of Stalin’s day in 1952 and reprinted for French readers the following entry:

“Charles de Gaulle (Born 1890): French reactionary politician and general, graduate of Jesuit college, monarchist and clerical. In 1920 participated in the Soviet-Polish war on side of Poland. After 1921 served for a long time at the headquarters of Marshal Petain, head of French reactionaries. During Soviet-Finnish war of 1939-40 he was one of the authors of the criminal plot of the British-French attack against the U.S.S.R. . . .

“In 1940 De Gaulle escaped to London and on the instructions of Churchill he created the organization called ‘Free French,’ consisting mainly of reactionaries and intended to place French colonial forces at the service of British imperialism and to hinder the development of an anti-fascist movement in occupied France. After defeat of the forces of Hitlerite Germany, De Gaulle had to conclude a Franco-Soviet treaty of friendship under pressure of the broad masses of the French people. De Gaulle sought to use this treaty as a shield of his anti-people foreign policy. . . .

“After the occupation of the territory of France by troops of the U.S.A. and Britain, the AngloAmerican imperialists played a decisive role in extending the power of De Gaulle’s government over all of France. His endeavors to establish a dictatorial regime were met with decisive resistance of democratic forces headed by the Communist Party. He was forced by circumstances to leave the government in 1946. After this he openly developed widespread subversive activity against the French people. In 1947 he created the ‘Rally of the French People,’ a fascist party acting under the direction of Anglo-French-American imperialists and subsidized by the biggest French and American banks. De Gaulle openly calls for the establishment of a fascist dictatorship in his country, intending himself to be the dictator, and follows a war policy against the U.S.S.R. and the people’s democracies. . . ,”

But Charles de Gaulle is as hardened as any Communist to the process of political rehabilitation and the art of rewriting or retuning history to the circumstances of the limes or a particular point of view. When his gleaming and graceful presidential Caravelle jet landed in Moscow to the thunder of saluting guns and the crash of national anthems, past estimates were forgotten, all cynicism was muted, all barbs hidden behind smiles and handshakes — except for a French journalist watching the scene who murmured: “General de Gaulle’s policy is well known. It is to have only one friend at a time.”

Collaboration now

And that same evening in the Kremlin, De Gaulle himself was saying in a keynote toast to his Russian hosts: “Russia is indeed and in all respects the leading power in the part of the world where she is located. She seems to France to be an interlocutor with whom understanding and collaboration are natural to the highest degree. Until the time when all of Europe reaches the point of finding together the ways and means that would lead it to essential goals, everything in our view commits France and the Soviet Union to do so between themselves — right now.”

The last Western statesman to make a visit of comparable political importance to the Soviet Union was Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Britain, seven years ago, in February, 1959. The contrasts between the Macmillan visit and the De Gaulle visit are revealing. Macmillan went to Russia in the dead of a cold-war winter to try to break the diplomatic, ice jam with Khrushchev over Berlin. De Gaulle arrived in the warmth of the summer sun to talk in sweeping generalities about historic friendship with Russia and a common interest in European détente. Macmillan toured a country which had only painfully clawed its way up out of the terrible physical destruction of the war and was still in the shadow of the psychological and moral destruction of the Stalin era. Seven years ago the Soviet Union was a country of silent fear, with the fear of another war worst of all.

Today the oppressive sense of fear has largely gone, and the Soviet Union is a fairly relaxed and normal place. This is said with all due regard for the fact that on a journey of this kind, 120 or more journalists and 30 or 40 French officials and aides move from place to place in a kind of well-spun cocoon. And it is also said without any disregard of the fact that the Soviet Union is a police state.

Physically, the amount of building which has gone on in the Soviet Union and the signs of economic improvement everywhere are enormous. Direct comparisons with Western Europe are pretty pointless, because the Russians have a capacity for putting up block after block of hideous, ugly, stereotyped apartment buildings all the way from Leningrad to Novosibirsk, and they all look ten years old before they are finished. By the most menial standards of French provincial life, the Soviet Union is a pretty drab, dull place. But whatever the faults of the system, which, God knows, are plenty, the Soviet people today are better housed, clothed, and fed and are enjoying greater opportunities of education, vacation, a little luxury, entertainment, and modest comfort than ever before in their bleak and downtrodden existence.

This improvement has brought with it a deeper and far more important and vital change, a change in the whole psychology of the Communist system. The Soviet Union has shifted from militancy to meretriciousness, and in order to have any kind of success, the system is having to become more and more imitative of the West in every direction.

Things that were scorned in Stalin’s day and were still frowned upon or suppressed when Harold Macmillan visited the Soviet Union are today the measure and the means of a better life. The Soviet Union is openly embracing the profit motive, hard currency, tourism, window displays, short skirts, hairdressers, ladies’ underwear, and Western culture. All of this puts Communism on a treadmill. The more the standard of living is improved, the greater the demands become and the more complicated the running of the economy. The more relaxed the general atmosphere, the more the people tend to become outspoken and individualistic. The more education spreads, the more there is thought as well as questioning. The more the system does for people, the more it has to change in order to maintain itself and its success, and the more priority the Soviet government thus has to give to living standards instead of armaments, foreign policy adventures, and the fate of Fidel Castro.

“Long live Russia!”

With the China problem at its back and the domestic economic problem on its doorstep, the collective leadership of the Soviet Union has become very cautious indeed. This combination of caution and economic need in Russia is precisely what De Gaulle sought to play to in preaching the wisdom and advantages of détente and friendship embracing all of Europe.

“France had its revolution two hundred years ago. After revolution comes evolution — it cannot be avoided,” General de Gaulle remarked during a conversation with the Communist Party Secretary, Leonid Brezhnev. If the reply was anything more than a grunt, it was not recorded. De Gaulle has a way of rubbing in his own view of history, and he has long held the view that Communism is merely a passing phase for Russia, that ideologies and rulers come and go but nations and national character go on forever. To this end, everywhere he went, except Siberia and the Ukraine, he constantly repeated in Russian, “Long live Russia!”

What the “Russians,” or more precisely, the Soviet leaders, made of all this is difficult to say. Certainly they went out of their way to ensure the friendliest and most hospitable atmosphere from start to finish. Some of the gestures to De Gaulle were unprecedented. As a chief of state, he rated a suite in the Kremlin while he was in Moscow, and then as a special mark of approval on his visit he was invited to address the people of Moscow from the balcony of the city hall, where no man has appeared or spoken since Lenin in 1922. Unhappily, a torrential afternoon rain began just as De Gaulle was about to make his appearance (prompting the inevitable French remark “ Après moi le déluge”), but a few hundred drenched Muscovites bravely stuck it out below in Pushkin Square.

After that, between Novosibirsk in Siberia and Leningrad on the Baltic Sea, De Gaulle was detoured to the city of Baikanour in central Asia to watch two Russian space launchings from their equivalent of Cape Kennedy. As far as is known, he was the first foreigner ever to visit the area — on the ground, that is. Then on the last day of the visit, the Red Army put on a full-scale mock battle for De Gaulle, involving two regiments of troops and tanks, live ammunition, and a dummy tactical nuclear explosion. He was accompanied throughout the twelve days by Soviet President Podgorny and half of the time by Prime Minister Kosygin as well; so there was no lack of official approval on the visit.

Maximum hospitality

The popular receptions outside Moscow were generally warmer and more enthusiastic than the welcome in the capital. Far out in Novosibirsk, in the flat expanse of Siberia, De Gaulle was an event and not just a traffic tie-up, and there was genuine friendliness and enthusiasm, which were repeated in Leningrad, Kiev, and Volgograd.

Enormous efforts and preparation had gone into the visit. In Novosibirsk and Volgograd, hotel interiors had been completely repainted — every room — and new telephones, draperies, and bedspreads had been installed throughout. In Moscow all the houses had been repainted on the route from the French Embassy to the Kremlin.

In Leningrad, the cobblestone street in front of the little Catholic church where De Gaulle worshiped in a poignant and emotional Sunday morning service had been newly paved with asphalt, and flower beds had been installed along the sidewalks. The government provided fifteen Telex machines, with trained operators who leapfrogged around the 6000-mile route to furnish press communications in each city. Potëmkin put up his villages for Catherine the Great, but this was something different. This was maximum hospitality, the best that could possibly be done for an honored guest and those who came with him.

In the end, what did it all amount to? Was it a charade, or was it a new opening in foreign policy? The Russians got very little out of De Gaulle except an outstretched hand of friendship and a Gaullist view of how Europe ought to evolve. But De Gaulle is a landscape painter, while the Russians specialize in icons. When he talked in broad sweeping terms about improving the détente atmosphere across all of Europe, including West Germany, they replied that they wanted military security first and then détente could follow. The tone of the final FrancoSoviet declaration was definitely more French than Soviet. To the French this was, of course, encouraging, but they are realistic enough to know that a mere diplomatic declaration of this high-minded kind does not by any means constitute a policy. Brezhnev and Kosygin went on to Bucharest the week following and signed another declaration with a very different tone.

But in addition to urging the Russians face-to-face to improve their relations with West Germany, De Gaulle also alluded on two occasions to “the essential role that the United States has to play in the pacification and transformation of the world.” For what it is worth, several highly placed Russian journalists volunteered that they considered this to have been of very great importance. “Eventually we have to come to an agreement about Europe with you,” one said, “and it is very important to us that De Gaulle recognized this in his Kremlin speech. As far as we are concerned, the main thing that De Gaulle is doing is keeping the dialogue open at a time when it is impossible for us to talk to you Americans because of the Vietnam war.”

That may not have been De Gaulle’s purpose in going to Russia, but if that is one of the results, it was certainly worth the journey.