Commentary Magazine


‘I Can Say No!’

Roads to the Temple:
Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987
1991
By Leon Aron
Yale University Press, 496 pages

Two aspects of the fall of the Soviet Union mark it for distinction among major revolutions: its speed and its bloodlessness. How and why did the Soviet Union—a nuclear superpower and ideological linchpin of a global movement—disappear so quickly? For Leon Aron, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and one of this country’s most respected experts on Russian culture and politics, the conventional answers about the parlous straits of the Soviet economy and the challenge posed by the Reagan-era military buildup have obscured the most consequential cause. In his new book, Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 19871991, Aron writes:

The “life-giving liquid of glasnost and freedom of speech slacked the enslaved society’s thirst for truth,” recalled Alexandr Yakovlev, the Politburo member second only to Mikhail Gorbachev in his responsibility for launching and sustaining the liberalization. The “first gulps of freedom,” Yakovlev continued, “the ability to speak freely, to think freely without the fear of denunciations or camps…exhilarated” and “intoxicated.” The society began to “learn the truth about itself,” rejoiced the literary critic Igor Vinogradov, and this process was becoming uncontrollable!

In other words, this was a moral revolution. While the structural weaknesses of the Soviet Union were very real, Aron believes they served as the kindling, not the spark. Yes, Aron says, the Soviet Union in 1985 was experiencing food shortages, rationing, and poverty. But these conditions were no worse than they had been throughout the previous half century, and in many cases things were improving. Therefore, Aron writes, the factors that are usually cited to explain the Soviet Union’s collapse are insufficient. We must instead consider “the enormous and enormously subversive influence of ideas.”

In this extraordinary work, Aron offers a fully rounded portrait of the moment when the Russian people, for the first time in nearly a century, were directed by their own modernizing regime to look in the mirror of glasnost. Mikhail Gorbachev’s administration said there was no way the country could move forward with the restructuring Gorbachev sought without first understanding its past. The problem was that “the road to self-discovery, now deemed vital to the country’s revival—indeed, her survival—was found to be full of vast gaps.” Censorship had been locked in place since 1921; secrecy had been the foundational doctrine of the empire. The deputy director of the country’s statistical body admitted in 1988 that state statisticians concealed their data even from the relevant ministries. “But the true picture of the Soviet people’s world,” Aron writes, “was obscured not only—and perhaps not even so much—by the concealment of specific facts but by the hourly construction and maintenance of a ‘parallel,’ ‘brilliant’ reality.”

Reality had been subverted in every way. Soviet citizens were like amnesiacs who didn’t know their own height or weight, or their own interests, skills, or temperament. A false, collective identity is no identity at all. It is easier, of course, to manipulate those without memories to begin with, which is why propaganda designed to mold the minds of children was so important to the regime. Yuri Afanasiev, rector of the Moscow Institute of History and Archives, reviewed a history textbook of the Soviet Union. There was not “a single unfalsified page,” he found. “The entire textbook is a lie.”

And so, all of a sudden, the people who lived under the Soviet yoke learned the truth—the truth about the Great Terror, the mass execution sites uncovered between 1987 and 1989, the 12 million lost during Stalin’s dictatorship (many of them children; after a 1935 edict, children aged 12 and older were tried as adults). They learned of the “peasant hecatomb”—the vast countryside that became a mass grave to an estimated 10 million peasants, whom Stalin would “liquidate as a class.” They learned about the evil that was done and the good for which the government claimed credit but in fact never happened.

Aron devotes three chapters to the “unraveling legitimizing myths” of the Soviet state. Citizens had been exposed to a poverty of housing, food, and health care, but were shocked to find they weren’t the exception but rather the rule: “It was the suddenly bared systemic nature of these ills that they found outrageous. The state had failed not only them, their village, or their town; it had let down an entire great country.”

Hospitals lacked basic necessities such as disinfectants, rubber gloves, and clean syringes. Infant deaths were more than twice as common as in the West. Perhaps most damning for the cold, calculating Socialist state, “131 million people, or 46 percent of Soviet citizens, were now defined as poor.” What of the fabled industrialization? It led to a “massive environmental crisis” that put one-fifth of the country’s population in nightmarishly polluted “disaster areas.” On top of that, the state wasn’t actually producing much. Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov admitted his devastation upon discovering in 1985 that his beloved industrial superpower “imported everything: from grain and pantyhose, to industrial machinery and equipment.” The factories were laughably inefficient, the technology outdated.

None of that could compare, however, with the final chapter of part two: the “disintegration of souls.” Soviet citizens, face to face with that damned mirror, had to ask themselves: What have I become? Aron is withering: 

Homo Sovieticus had “forgotten” what it meant to be responsible for the results of his labor. The daily ruination of his kolkhoz or factory, where more was consumed and paid in salaries than produced, did not trouble him. He may be bored out of his mind, “suffocating from idleness,” but he would not work hard—and he resented others who did. With “earning” far less important to the betterment of one’s living than the ability to “extract” (dobyvat’) through connections or by political preferment, the prospect of higher pay for better, harder work appealed to few….The squalor of the Soviet village, concluded a leading economic essayist, was “retribution” for over five decades of “violating common sense, violating everything that urges man to a normal, conscientious labor.”

What Soviet citizens found when they plumbed the depths of their individual characters was not evil but, more accurately, a chasm. They had been “de-individualized.” They had, in fact, achieved the consummate Socialist state: They were all spare parts. Gorbachev failed to replace Communism with “human Socialism” because there is no such thing. 

In the wake of these discoveries, Russians had to shed their fear, Aron writes: “A new Russia was impossible without those who, hearing a loud knock on the door in the middle of the night, would not ‘freeze with horror’ but would only wonder who had the gall to bother them at this hour.” This is freedom at the molecular level—the freedom to take peace of mind for granted. Soviet citizens were a long way from that. First they had to learn the most important word in the language of freedom: nyet.

“Don’t say: they are guilty who coerce you, you are a slave, you are not guilty because you are not free,” says the Russian man in a Nazi camp in Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, as he explains why he refuses to follow orders to build a gas chamber. He may be a prisoner, but he is free, he says. Why? “I can say ‘no!’” 

Here, as elsewhere, Aron uses the fiction of the Soviet era to reveal the deepest truths of Soviet life. This blending of history and literature can be disorienting at first, yet the reader begins to understand why it is not only useful, but appropriate. The suppressed creative output of the Soviet era was a running commentary on the daily indignities of Stalinism—but it was also a beating heart that could be muffled but not extinguished. Lies, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his 1970 Nobel lecture, are the oxygen of violence, and so the defeat of the terror state will come when its citizens refuse to serve as a vehicle for the state’s deceits: 

A writer, an artist could do more still: he can vanquish the lie! For in its struggle with the lie, art has always won and continues to win….For the lie can hold out against all sorts of things in this world—but not against art. And no sooner has the lie been dispersed and violence is seen in all its revolting nakedness than the decrepit violence will fall.

Yet in the uplifting moment when Soviet citizens became post-Soviet citizens, as they attempted to claw their way to freedom, their reach exceeded their grasp, as Aron writes. It took less than a decade for the intellectual consensus in favor of Western-style economic and political liberty to be buried by Vladimir Putin in the wake of the myriad scandals of the Boris Yeltsin era. The independent judiciary, the unfiltered media—they were all visible for a moment, dangled then snatched away. Under Putin, he notes, the Russian government has promised a restoration of the old monument to Bolshevik secret police director Felix Dzerzhinsky, and it similarly honored former KGB head Yuri Andropov, while using state-controlled television to justify the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Worse, the government attempted to put the truth of the Katyn Massacre of Polish citizens by Soviet officials—revealed and exposed by Gorbachev—back behind a curtain of silence. This is the opposite of de-Stalinization, Aron writes, and it is grossly impeding the moral recovery and redevelopment of Russian society.

Impeding, but not reversing, he claims. “Still, already permanently among the glorious episodes of Russian history, the ‘noble disquiet’ of the moral revolution of 1987–91 will forever remain an unimpeachable proof of Russia’s capacity for self-betterment.”

And in the last six months, Russians seemed to be showing that capacity once again. After camera-phone-wielding voters documented widespread fraud in December’s parliamentary elections, tens of thousands flooded the streets of Moscow in what the BBC accurately headlined “Biggest protests since fall of USSR.” Three months later, Putin returned to the presidency in another election widely considered a sham, and the protests greeting his May inauguration swelled to 70,000 and lasted for the better part of a week.

But as the heavy-handed and swift crackdown in response to the protests demonstrated, the Russian public is on its own this time, with no Gorbachev or Yeltsin at the top to push the change along. Roads to the Temple is an inspiring account, and Aron is correct that events are pitting a rebellious and spirited Russian public against Vladmir Putin. But unlike 20 years ago, it is unclear which of the two will prove to be the indomitable force.

About the Author

Seth Mandel is assistant editor of Commentary.




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