The structure of Soviet history

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In his book “the structure of Soviet history” Ronald Grigor Suny, an eminent historian from the University of Chicago, brings together the huge assortment of historical sources that should help us in our journey through the main points of Soviet and post-Soviet time period, asking a hidden question: what is the right understanding of history? It’s easy to see that throughout the very existence of USSR , its history, according to the western scientists’ point of view was, for the most part, just another but nevertheless important aspect of that interesting and highly political game played between the superpowers. In contrast, Soviet and, lately, Russian historians used to view history as somewhat like a science of simply describing the people’s reaction to received set of historical tasks and tests, denoting an essential inevitable process in accordance with a socialist perception of Darwinian evolution theory.
Instead of taking one of the viewpoints listed above, autor tries to execute the unbiased summary of historical events of the mentioned period from the documental sources ( about 80 official papers and diaries, and twenty essays by outstanding historians and experts), covering the entire period from February revolution of 19-17 and to the emergence of Vladimir Putin’s hegemony.

Professor implies that “Political science practitioners of kremlinology dealt with state actors… and a few treated social actors as anything but victims, collaborators or dupes”. He buries the very idea of an October Bol’shevik rebellion at this time, sequentially depicting a great widespread pressure on the Petrogradskiy Soviet with the goal to grasp a power. The following termination of the constituent assembly is another deal, but Ronald Suny however seems to “downsize” this act in the light of a general disfavor for the so called ‘bourgeoisie’ in the beginning of world war I, for which they were widely believed to be responsible by the masses. From this point of view, shutting down the presence of the Assembly could be easily evaluated just as nothing-more-than-usual anti-terrorist operation though.

According to the research done by Boris Kolonitsky, pretty famous Russian historian, the word “burzhui” acquired its negative meaning only in 1917, the same scientific work shows how easy mentioned term was included by the people in the Russian “ mat” (dirty) lexicon; Thus, for example, an outraged military commander was abusing his soldiers for not executing an order properly, calling them “bourgeoiss”. An growing level of hatred by the society seems to take its origin from the basic assumptions: “if they are up then we are down”, “ they are appropriating our wealth for nothing!” and so on…Following the same logic, it’s not a big surprise than that the predominance of a Marxist-Communist political regime was caused, ironically, by the war exhaustion. Due to the collapse of Communism in the beginning of 1990’s this “zero-sum” approach became crucial once again, as it is stated by Lilia Shevt’sova in her dissertation on Russian post-communist politics, when she actually compares the provocative sociological and economical “dead end” approach that led to the downfall of the Soviet system, with the more democratized and compromise-seeking attitude of elites in other countries of ex “Eastern Bloc” such as Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Considering the period of Russian civil war professor Suny claims that it ‘was undoubtedly foundational for what became the Soviet system’. In fact, the embryonic directive structures were already present in the military-revolutionary committee of 1917, even if tested and made durable in the life or death situation of bitter civil conflict. The surveillance state is traced back in an essay by Peter Holquist, to a pan-European concern with military security and censorship during WWI. The ‘opinion poll’ aspect of this apparatus too arose in war: ‘what are the troops thinking?’ Holquist shows that the Whites also conducted such intelligence operations, even in areas that had never known a Red presence. The great paradox is that those regimes most in need of ‘public opinion’ dare not unfetter it and have to obtain feed-back through a sort of central nervous system – an NKVD or a STASI.

The code on family law of 1926, drafted by liberal minded jurists, had as Suny puts it, a far from positive effect. The twenties were the twenties in the Soviet Union too. By the end of the decade and through the thirties and early forties, it was ‘back to basics’ with Uncle Joe.
Much is devoted, rightly, to the Stalin period. Suny makes the de rigeur comparison of the Soviet leader with Hitler. It’s almost as if a tacit compact had been made in ‘respectable’ western intellectual circles after WWII, whereby if Hitler, on the Right, has to be out of court, so too, as a Left equivalent, does Stalin. Hitler’s texts weren’t easily obtained in university libraries, nor were Stalin’s. But does this neat, supposed symmetry of evil, bear close scrutiny? Suny, it seems, thinks not. ‘Nazism’, he says, ‘was based on the glorification of inequality of people and the right of designated races or supermen to rule over (and exterminate) their social and racial inferiors’(sic). ‘Stalinism inherited (and perverted) a secular humanist doctrine of human liberation based on equality and the empowerment of the working class. While Soviet socialism failed to live up to its ideology, Nazism lived up to its only too well.’
Among the number of excellent sociological and historical essays on the ‘Stalin Revolution’, Sheila Fitzpatrick notes that whilst much statistical analysis went into determining who was of what class and who was to be initially disfranchised (the key factor being one’s status in October 1917), class had to be virtually constructed after the civil war. In reality, in many sectors of the industrial economy the majority of workers were peasants. Fitzpatrick claims that there really were acts of sabotage carried out, typically, by young peasants from ‘de-kulakised’ families with a considerable grudge. This fueled the sport of ‘hunting class enemies’which, as Fitzpatrick says, was more fun for lower level cadres than doing the admin.
Fitzpatrick has interesting observations on fashion in young people’s speech: two streams of cool, as we might say today, blatnoy yazyk and party/class speak, or perhaps, thieves’ cant and sovdep cant.
What is implicit in these texts is at least a two stage Stalinism: initially, from the mid-twenties, as an ongoing ‘affirmative action empire’, in Terry Martin’s phrase, metamorphosing in the wake of the Nazi accession in Germany, into its own species of meritocracy, based on equal access to opportunity regardless of background, with an emphasis on stability over class warfare. Pavlik Morozov and the heroes of Tsement were out as family values were re-asserted to reduce labour turnover. And the term Rodina was re-introduced as a way of conceptualising a Soviet homeland to be defended. All this is presumably what Trotsky despised as petit bourgeois philistinism. In fact, as Vera S. Dunham makes clear, a ‘New Deal’ was being done with the emergent Stalinist middle class: upward mobility for the able in exchange for loyalty, but at the expense of further peasant mobility. The Soviet Union was emerging as a two-and-a-half estate society. One is tempted to ask: did these ‘distortions’ amount to Nazi Germany’s defeat of Communism in the thirties?
James van Gelden perceives a ‘passive spectator role’ emerging as the ideal for the Soviet citizen’s political participation. Certainly, elites always fear over-participation by the ruled. Whereas prior to the Soviet collapse the West championed democracy, since 1991 it has sought to champion liberty at the expense of democracy.
Stalin’s Dizzy with Success is included, in which he tries to rein in the over enthusiasm of party workers in the collectivisation drive. (For not obtaining permission to publish this text, Stalin was rapped over the knuckles by his colleagues – so much, at this stage, for the Great Soviet Dictator!) A memoir by Lev Kopelev, who seems to have run the full gamut of Soviet experience, gives some indication of the mind-set that compounded the tragedy in the Ukraine: one embittered old fool observing the children of a ‘kulak’ becoming fat-bellied with starvation, knows he is witnessing the extremes to which these evil people will go in order to avoid sharing. The endless demands for the concealed grain have about them the resonance of similar demands for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction...
More than adequate space is devoted to Bukharin, both in the Stalin section and the chapter on the Soviet Union’s terminal convulsions. Contrary to received (or propagated) wisdom in the West, the case against Bukharin was based on evidence, as were the cases against Tukhachevsky, Yakir, Uborevich et al. It seems unlikely that Khrushchev was in the loop, even in 1956, or hadn’t taken the trouble to review all the documentation in the Kirov case. Curious, that it never seems to have entered anyone’s head that Kirov might have been over-familiar with his assassin’s lady friend.
The appalling Mekhlis makes an appearance in a memo to Stalin and Yezhov, seeking permission to kill five times more people out east than had been planned for. This type of enthusiasm for murder in exchange for red flags of commendation finds its present day equivalent in China’s family planning policy, where provincial officials have vied with one another for the number of abortions carried out – even on mothers at full term. (The West, with its lingering ‘Yellow Peril’ anxieties has been, for the most part, mute.) Likewise Beria, seeking permission to murder 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals, the first crack at removing all political resistance prior to the imposition of what would become the post-war status quo. Also included is Shelepin’s note to Khrushchev nearly twenty years later suggesting the case notes, if such they can be called, on the individual victims, be destroyed, lest they cause any embarrassment...
Particularly inspired is Suny’s inclusion of the minutes of a meeting of Soviet composers with Andrey Zhdanov in 1948. Routinely caricatured in the West, what is revealed here is a genuine, principled debate, with the tacit subtext of a deal, according to Vera Dunham, with working people, to take care of their spiritual (cultural) needs in exchange for supporting the regime. It was ever thus: true democracy in an aesthetically innocent social context invariably leads to a dumbing down in the arts. Zhdanov was in the uncomfortable position of having to procure new music for farm boys...
David Holloway’s essay, Stalin and the Bomb, relates how Stalin and Molotov, confronted with nuclear blackmail from the world’s first nuclear terror superstate, which had used weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations, and which constituted a threat more real and terrible than the Al Qa’ida gang would subsequently become, faced it down. Holloway traces the cold war back to a conversation in 1943 between Pavel Litvinov, by then an official at the Ministry of Foreign affairs, and Edgar Snow. Remarkably, Litvinov was already advocating a policy of peaceful co-existence. Meanwhile Stalin, ‘having shown Ivan to Europe, and Europe to Ivan’, was watchful for Decembrist tendencies.
Ambassador Novikov’s analysis from 1946, indicates presciently, that only the Soviet Union stood in the way of total U.S. world domination. Suny is surely wrong in dismissing Novikov’s anticipation of U.S. – U.K. rivalry in the Middle East: U.S. officials at all levels took every opportunity to weaken the U.K.’s position in that area in the forties and fifties, even if much of it was done sotto voce...
The minutes of meetings between Stalin and Mao in 1949-50, obtained from the Russian Federation Presidential Archive in recent years, reveal the now elderly Soviet leader as very much on the ball, in contrast to the Chinese delegation, who, having come to discuss, inter alia, economic aid, had prepared no detailed list of their requirements. Stalin is prepared to meet the Chinese requirements at one per cent, while Eastern Europe had to pay two. (China is probably alone in having made considerable grants in aid – railway construction in Tanzania and grain and equipment supplies to Albania.) Some might see evidence of the future Sino-Soviet rift in these documents – Stalin professes to have no interest in keeping Soviet troops in Man zhou lei, but is wary of ‘unpicking‘ the Yalta agreement, under the terms of which the troops are there. Mao’s irony is incisive: he hadn’t anticipated having to consider the views of Britain and the U.S. Stalin proposes an Eden type solution to the Hong Kong question – foment trouble between the colony and Guandong and then intercede. The translator of the Russian text can be forgiven for not knowing that the ‘...Kailan [?] mines’ are the Kai luan Mei kuong enterprise in Liaoning - iron mines set up by a resource-hungry Japan early in the 20th century. It might have made sense to include the talks between Khrushchev and Mao at the famous ‘swimming pool’ session, but it would need corroboration from the Chinese records: this reviewer believes, on the basis of Chinese sources, that the final rift was down to a misconstruction of one of Mao’s utterances by the Russian interpreter, who was working in difficult circumstances, and Khrushchev’s over-reaction.
In the chapter From Autocracy to Oligarchy, Deborah A. Field, considers Khrushchev’s failure to have been not only the disaffection of elites along with agricultural and planning problems, but also ‘the determination of Soviet citizens’ to defend private life’. Presumably she is referring to the disruption to cosiness entailed in being moved around the country on a regular basis, the so called ‘rotation of cadres’. A consequence of Khrushchev’s 1956 XXth Congress speech was a limit to his feedom of action in enforcing such disciplines. That speech Suny sees as the beginning of international communist fragmentation, what Leonard Shapiro had termed ‘polycentrism’.
John Bushnell’s essay on the new Soviet man cites statistical data elicited from emigrants to trace a decline from the optimism of the mid-fifties to the pessimism of the mid-seventies. Whereas during the sixties, backdoor methods and rule bending were exceptional, by the mid-seventies they were the norm, a necessity for survival in an environment of growing shortages. A serious shortcoming in Suny’s otherwise excellent choice of texts is that they don’t do enough to show how the arms race distorted the Soviet economy much more than the American, consuming all the best resources in raw mateials and skills.
Fedor Burlatsky disputes the idea of a pre and post-stroke Brezhnev. His Brezhnev is a ‘consensus politician’ with an attractive style of leadership, but his ending of the rotation of cadres led to cosy local situations and corruption. Burlatsky comes up with the usual red herring that in the U.S. the three percent of the population in agriculture feeds the whole population and exports a very considerable surplus, while in the Soviet Union, 25% of the population couldn’t feed the rest. Location, location, location, and its attendant climate? The frequently made comparison with Canada is, surely, spurious. Canada’s agriculture has to feed a population significantly less than that of Poland. Furthermore, in the absence of appropriate industrial work and the inadmissability of old fashioned labour intensive warfare, is it might be deemed appropriate to ‘conceal’ the ‘unemployed’ status of one’s surplus agricultural population.
Three participants in the invasion of Czechoslovakia interviewed by Izvestia in 1988 are of the consensual view that it was the correct and only possible decision at the time, notwithstanding the universal unpopularity to which it gave rise. ‘Extremist elements’ were ‘trying to disrupt the socialist commonwealth’ and the prospect of ‘Germans and Americans at the Soviet border’ was anathema.
The case of Boris Kochubiyevsky, arraigned in 1968 for claiming publicly that the ’67 war was not an Israeli aggression, highlights the changing perception of Israel after the six day war. Many Soviet Jews began to see it as a better destination than, say, Birobidzhan, even if only as a staging post for America. This placed the Soviets between the rock of a well orchestrated western campaign for liberalising emigration and the hard place of their Arab allies, who perceived a cuckoo state in their midst being supplied with Soviet manpower.
In his introduction to Reform and Revolution, Suny rightly identifies the removal of the CPSU’s leading role as critical. On the other hand, like most commentators, Suny misses the vital economic point that having been given freedom to hold their own hard currency accounts, Soviet enterprises, suborned by certain new ‘bankers’, or sometimes getting up their own ‘banks’, were increasingly converting their freedom of economic action into foreign currency and generating inflation and even worse shortages in the process. This had a similar effect to the inter-war inflation on Weimar Germany and created the extremely dangerous set of preconditions that might well have led to the Russians electing themselves a Nazi type regime. All this came on top of the fact that the Soviet Union had lost the cold war as soon as Reagan, like any good three-card brag player, said, in effect: ‘I’ll see you for a missile defence system!..’
A nice epitaph for Gorbachev’s presidency is offered by an erstwhile loyal colleague, Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, in the wake of the illegal treaty set up at Belovezhskaya Pushcha: ‘Gorbachev talked and talked and talked, but never listened’...
Another defining moment is Yeltsin’s resignation from the CPSU at the 28th congress. As he was also Chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, from this point on, the Soviet Union would be a two-headed monster. Loss of prestige in Eastern Europe, a growing sense of being discredited at home – doubtless exacerbated by the ‘revelations’ in, for example, Ogonyok, which were like sand thrown into the eyes of those who might have moved to stop the rot as ‘fat boy’ carried on his plunder, led to a state of political drift, social bewilderment and despair. In fact, what was unfolding was a terrible tragedy of two rival groupings, nominally ‘democrat’ and ‘communist’, each blaming the other for a state of affairs they neither understood nor were able to control, while the real culprits, assuming they were aware at all, were sniggering in the wings, passports at the ready...
The August coup, Gorbachev’s political demise and all the major post-Soviet events are well documented. Suny, in his introduction to Yeltsin’s retirement speech, is somewhat bedazzled by his own abstractions. He says: ‘Yeltsin presided over and guided the democratic movement through times of peril...’ Peril for whom? ‘He (Yeltsin) launched a radical transition from a Soviet Empire to the C.I.S.’ But what is the C.I.S.? Let us do Suny the service of decoding his observations: Yeltsin merely completed the destruction of the Soviet Union and made Russia a safe place for megathieves – a kleptocracy, and a sub-subsistence wasteland for almost everyone else. He also transferred management of endemic scarcity to a new private sector, with catastrophic consequences for the bulk of the population. But, it has to be said that Yeltsin’s is a moving speech.
Included in the final chapter, Summing Up, is Martin Malia’s occasionally wrong headed, but brilliantly provocative ’89 analysis, To the Stalin Mausoleum. He takes a swipe at western sovietology, ‘so assiduously fostered... ‘which has done nothing to prepare us for... ‘the end of a historical epoch’. And he adds, presciently: ‘it is hardly so clear that we are entering a simpler, serener age...’ Malia’s essay is unexpectedly evocative of Nina Andreyeva’s ’88 epistle, I cannot give up my principles. Although less clear headed than Malia, Andreyeva, a Leningrad chemistry teacher, is a still small voice of calm amidst the mayhem of self destruction which Gorbachev had unwittingly brought about. The scientific education, chemistry in particular, gives rise to no-nonsense thought. There’s not much room for ‘opinion’ as to the ratio of combination of, say, hydrogen and oxygen in water or, for that matter, the structure of DNA. In attempting to characterise the essence of what Bolshevism brought about, as opposed to its aspiration, Malia describes it as the world’s first version of non-capitalism. It might more accurately be described as the world’s first example of premature post-capitalism. Malia also quotes the Polish dissident, Adam Michnik, who styled the Soviet Union as ‘a bad mistake by Columbus’. But Malia is surely right to find the roots of Gosplan in War Communism and interesting in rooting that expedient in Ludendorff’s model for militarising Germany’s economy during WWI.
The collection ends with an important contribution from the political philosopher, Stephen Holmes, What Russia Teaches Us Now: How Weak States Threaten Freedom. He claims that ‘cold war dominated thought’ did not allow us to fully absorb the fact that ‘classical liberal theory deemed political authority necessary because individuals are partial to themselves... ‘the strong and the deceitful have an irresistible proclivity to exempt themselves from generally valid laws’. Elsewhere a Hobbesian subtext emerges: ‘unless a society is politically well organised there will be no individual liberties and no civil society.’ Debunking libertarian conceptions of independence, he declares: ‘an autonomous individual cannot create the conditions of his autonomy autonomously’. As he turns to the specific case of Russia he says, ‘you can’t have Capitalism where everything is planned and you can’t have Capitalism where everything is for sale (including employees at the Public Registry of Titles and Deeds)’. ‘Many Russian officials see no reason to act [as agents of society]. ‘They live in a secretive bubble supported – and here I exaggerate to make a point (sic) – by stolen assets, the IMF and various criminal affiliations.’ It is difficult to find any exaggeration in this brilliant essay. Holmes should be invited to head a department at Moscow University!
In his intro to the final chapter Suny declares: ‘the premise of this collection is that there is no definitive history of the Soviet Union. Rather, there are and there will be different narratives... ‘...but a fair minded interpretation has to be constrained by evidence’. Suny has marshalled the best collection of evidence, in the form of primary documents, yet available, even if a future edition will benefit from an insider’s take on what the ‘new bankers’ were up to, as offered, say, by Olga Krysztanovskaya, and, if available, some primary military source concerning the ABM program.

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