Aleksey N. Kosygin
(From an essay series by Daisaku Ikeda in which he reflects on his encounters with various world figures.)
Ikeda and Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin at the Kremlin (Moscow, 1974)
It was September 17, 1974, the last day of my first visit to the Soviet Union.
I was in a room in the Kremlin. Across the table from me sat the 70-year-old premier of the Soviet Union, Aleksey. N. Kosygin. I tried to read his expression, but his rugged features remained as impervious as storm-weathered stone.
I looked straight at him and said: "China is anxious about the Soviet Union's intentions. Is the Soviet Union going to attack China?"
Mr. Kosygin assured me, "The Soviet Union has no intention of either attacking or isolating China."
I am forthright by nature and believe that being direct is a sign of respect for others.
"May I convey that to China's leaders?" I asked.
"Please do," he replied.
The early 70s was a period of great tension between the two socialist countries. They were engaged in a war of words, determined, as they put it, to continue the ideological struggle, "for 10,000 years," if necessary. At the same time, China's improving relations with the United States and Japan were causing growing anxiety among the Soviet people. China and the Soviet Union each feared a military attack from the other. But, during my ten-day stay in the Soviet Union, I had felt with my entire being the people's desire for peace.
Three months earlier, I had visited China. In Beijing, I had seen the underground shelters being built as protection from possible aerial attack. The shelters, which ranged in depth from six to eleven yards, were equipped with communication centers, broadcast facilities and food. Tunnels linked every part of the city. Every home and school had a door leading down to this underground city.
I witnessed the students of a junior high school furiously digging an underground shelter beneath their schoolyard. The threat of war cast its ominous shadow even over these children. I was pained by this sight. I renewed my vow to initiate dialogue, and somehow dispel this mutual distrust.
During World War II, both countries were victims of military invasion, China by Japan and the Soviet Union by Germany. Tens of millions died. Countless more were engulfed and devastated by the senseless tragedy of war. If the next generation could not enjoy a life of peace, then all that suffering would have been in vain.
"I do not think China is pursuing a policy of aggression," I told Kosygin.
Though the Soviet premier's expression remained unreadable, a light came into his eyes when he heard these words.
Kosygin was famous for his impassive expression. In 1939, when he was 35, he had entered the Soviet leadership. He had held a succession of important posts in the party and the government. Later he revealed that during the Stalin era he was kept under constant surveillance and was never permitted to be alone. In an age when the smallest error of judgment "or even no error at all" could condemn one to summary execution, it was a miracle that he survived. Many attributed his staying power to his lack of personal ambition, his ability to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself, an extraordinary ability to get things done and, above all, amazing good luck.
Given this background, it was perhaps only natural for the premier to have acquired a profound sense of caution in all matters.
Although he worked 16-hour days, he was at heart a loving family man. In 1967, when his wife lay critically ill in a hospital bed, Kosygin was constantly at her bedside. When state duties required the premier to review the troops in Red Square, he masked his desire to be with her with a supreme force of will. He stood rigid before Lenin's tomb throughout the long ceremonies. Rushing back, he discovered his wife had already passed away.
My policy is to take the pronouncements of responsible people at face value. Unless we trust others, fruitful discussion is impossible. I intuitively believed the premier when he said that he wished for peace with China.
"All our actions are based on the fundamental position that we value peace and will not initiate hostilities. There are more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world," he said. "We don't know when another Hitler may appear and what he may do. The survival of civilization is at stake. Sooner or later, the human race will have to opt for nuclear disarmament."
His declaration was surprising, since the public position of the Soviet Union until that time was that its nuclear arsenal was necessary to preserve world peace.
"Another Hitler . . ." During our conversation, I touched upon Hitler's siege of Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg), perhaps the most bitter struggle in human history. The siege began in September 1941 and ended in January 1944, lasting nearly 900 days. According to one source, nearly half of Leningrad's three million citizens died of starvation or cold.
The worst time of the siege was the winter of 1941-42. Temperatures were below freezing. The daily ration of bread (adulterated with paper to make supplies last longer) at one point dropped to only four ounces. There was no electricity, no telecommunications, no running water. People who went to the Neva River to drink were assaulted by the smell of abandoned corpses. Earsplitting mortar fire raged day and night. Each day seemed like several months. When loved ones died, their family members, themselves weakened by starvation, often didn't have the strength to carry them to the cemetery. At night, rats came to gnaw at corpses left lying on the floor. People even ate the rats. Others sold human flesh. If there was ever a hell, this was it. Despite these horrors, the people of Leningrad continued their long struggle, until finally the siege was lifted.
I had visited Leningrad four days before my meeting with Kosygin and visited the Piskarevsky Cemetery. There I saw 200 markers over mass graves, inscribed only with the month and year. There were so many dead that the names of most were unknown.
By even the most conservative estimate, the Soviet Union lost more than 20 million of its people in World War II, around ten percent of its total population.
All of the world's peoples long for an end to war for all time. We cannot allow that universal wish for peace to be splintered by nationalism. We must unite across borders: unite in our rejection of the idea of war itself.
I told the premier of my profound sense of shock on discovering what had happened in Leningrad. "You know," he replied, "I was in Leningrad during the siege." And he said no more. Perhaps he was afraid of the emotions that might come pouring out if he dared to speak further.
While in Leningrad, I went to the City Museum of History. There I saw a little diary by a child named Tanya Savichev. The display consisted of just seven small scraps of paper--pages torn from the 11-year-old's notebook, each page set aside for the practice of a letter of the Cyrillic alphabet. The notebook's young owner had written simple entries starting with the letter on that page:
Z-Zhenya [sister] died 28 December, 12:30 in the morning, 1941.
B-Babushka [grandmother] died 25 January, 3 o'clock, 1942.
L-Leka [little brother] died 17 March, 5 o'clock in the morning, 1942.
D-Dedya Vasya [Uncle Vasya] died 13 April, 2 o'clock at night, 1942.
D-Dedya Lesha [Uncle Lesha], 10 May, 4 o'clock in the afternoon, 1942.
M-Mama, 13 May, 7:30 A.M., 1942.
S-Savichevs died. All died. Only Tanya remains.
There were innumerable Tanyas across the Soviet Union. Also in China. In Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Okinawa, all across Japan, and throughout the world, there were an uncountable number of Savichev families.
"We must abandon the very idea of war," said Kosygin. "It is meaningless. If we stop preparing for war and prepare instead for peace, we can produce food instead of armaments."
Kosygin always advocated the importance of basic needs over the requirements of the military. He opposed the way missiles ate away the bread of the Soviet people. He was a man without illusions. He disliked abstract theories and flowery speech, ritualistic meetings and ceremonies. He wanted to get to work without wasting time. The inefficiencies of the Russian system must have grated on him intensely. In a sense, he was an early proponent of perestroika.
"Mr. Ikeda, what is your basic ideology?" he asked me.
"I believe in peace, culture and education and the underlying basis of these which is humanism."
"I have a high regard for those values," Kosygin said. "We need to realize them here in the Soviet Union as well."
I spoke frankly with him about Japanese-Soviet relations as well: "The Japanese do not feel close to your people, Premier Kosygin. We know Russian literature and Russian folk songs, but most Japanese look at Soviets as people to be feared. This is unfortunate for both countries. I believe we must increase our mutual understanding. To achieve that, political and economic exchanges aren't enough. They don't build true friendship. What we need is broader exchange on the level of ordinary citizens, actively promoting wide-ranging personal and cultural exchanges."
The premier listened to my proposal with an even expression. Then, he nodded firmly and said, "I agree." And from that moment, the Soka Gakkai launched many forms of cultural and educational exchange with the Soviet Union.
My belief has always been that, when an atmosphere of warm mutual understanding is built between nations, the means can be found to solve the complicated issues that divide them.
I met Kosygin again in May 1975, on my second visit to the Soviet Union. Since our encounter the previous year, I had met with the prime minister of China, Zhou Enlai, and with the U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. I am in a privileged position because I am not constrained in the way a politician would be. I can talk to people as one human being to another. And it was in that role that I hoped, in some small way, to help bring together the will for peace on all sides and consolidate it into a global commitment.
Time passes. The Soviet Union and the world have changed radically. The tension between the Soviet Union and China has disappeared, the Cold War has ended, and the Soviet Union has chosen the road to democracy.
I recall even now the premier's hearty response when I asked him whether I might presume that the world would be a brighter place in the next century. He had declared: "That is what we desire."
At that time, a quarter of this century still remained; now the dawning of the next is just around the corner.
I hope that the new century will be an era in which we all share a deeper recognition of our common humanity. I want to believe that the world, in spite of many twists and turns, is heading toward a growing commitment to humanism.
Kosygin died at the end of 1980. He had just retired from office that October for health reasons.
The following year, in May 1981, I visited his grave. At the time, a strong anti-Soviet mood prevailed around the world in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan, which had prompted 60 nations to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Relations between Japan and the Soviet Union were also frosty. For that very reason, I decided to visit Moscow--and to bring with me a 230-member goodwill delegation.
After paying my respects at Kosygin's tomb, I stopped by to see his daughter, Lyudmila Gvishiani. I had met with the premier as a fellow human being, and it was in this same capacity that I offered my condolences to his family after his death.
Ms. Gvishiani told me that the premier had spoken happily to his family about our first meeting when he arrived home that night. "And he rarely talked of work at home," she added.
She went on to say, "I have spoken with my family, and we have decided that we would like you to accept a few keepsakes of my father. We have chosen some items which he kept close and which were of great personal significance to him." She presented me with a crystal vase that had been bestowed on the premier upon winning the Soviet honor of "Hero of Socialist Labor." She also gave me two leather-bound books, his last works, which lay in his private library up to the moment of his death.
"The warmth of my father's hands still clings to them. I offer them to you in his stead," she said, her eyes filling with tears.
[Courtesy, April 1999 SGI Quarterly]