Commentary Magazine


Sovietology

To the Editor:

Of course I fully agree with Arch Puddington when he says in his splendid article, “The Anti-Cold War Brigade” [August], that Reagan’s policies greatly contributed to the favorable evolution of the Soviet Union—and pretty well every Soviet I’ve met, both official and unofficial, supports that view.

But it is absurd of Mr. Puddington to say, “It would be difficult to find a Soviet authority who has been more consistently inaccurate than [Stephen F.] Cohen.” I disagree with Stephen Cohen on many points, and his political analyses are politically aligned. But his scholarship is sound; his views of the nature and extent of Stalinism are solid and sensible. It would be very easy to “find” half-a-dozen reasonably well-known Sovietologists who are guilty not merely of what we may consider to be political misjudgment but also of professional incompetence, and the distinction is an important one.

Robert Conquest
Hoover Institution
Stanford, California

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To the Editor:

Arch Puddington has given us a good and useful rundown on the “anti-cold war brigade.” But what is missing from his article are some conclusions about what motives could have led these people to cling to a set of delusions under which the Soviets were seeking only peace and justice while the U.S. was the warmonger and chief supporter of torturers and oppressors.

The explanation would not necessarily fit all cases. It would be difficult, for example, to lump together George Kennan, and Richard Barnet of the radical Institute for Policy Studies. . . . I have often wondered whether the people exemplified by those in Mr. Puddington’s article are dupes, scoundrels, or Eric Hoffer-type True Believers. It would be very interesting to see someone try to trace common threads back to some identifiable motive or set of motives. Or am I being naive in hoping to find a rational explanation for irrationality?

J. Edgar Williams
Carrboro, North Carolina

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To the Editor:

. . . Perhaps it is no coincidence that Arch Puddington does not provide direct evidence which would demonstrate that Ronald Reagan’s policies caused the collapse of Communism. Like our former President, Mr. Puddington is short on facts and long on fervent belief. . . . His attempt to vindicate Reagan and the cold warriors by attacking the anti-cold war brigade . . . is methodologically unsound . . . because the facts indicate that neither side caused the collapse of Communism. Since the “anti-cold war brigade” has never been in power, it cannot receive the credit, and neither does it seek it. The cold warriors, however, have been in power since the end of World War II. A proper critique would therefore focus on their activities. . . .

Despite Mr. Puddington’s denial, Strobe Talbott (among others) was correct when he credited Mikhail Gorbachev with unleashing “positive change in the Communist world.” The logic is very simple: when Reagan confronted Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko there was no positive change, but when he confronted Gorbachev there was. As we know, Gorbachev moved rapidly. The cold warriors who seek to credit Reagan with Communism’s collapse must therefore explain why Reagan was able to move Gorbachev when he had been unable to move Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko. I would find such an explanation quite interesting. I suspect, however, that a stronger argument could be made for asserting that it was Gorbachev who moved Reagan.

Closer examination of the collapse would reveal that Nikita Khrushchev also contributed to it, as did Marshal Ogarkov, each of whom had realized that the Stalinist system was a dead end. . . . Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents also deserve mention, though the pivotal figure, short of Gorbachev himself, was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The publication of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the Soviet Union (1962) and the publication abroad of The Gulag Archipelago (1973) did more to undermine the Stalinist system both inside and outside Russia than all the blustering and weapons of our cold warriors in the years 1945-85. Yet one searches Mr. Puddington’s essay in vain for mention of Solzhenitsyn’s role. One suspects that a willful ignorance is at work here, one which hesitates to credit Solzhenitsyn (normally the darling of the conservatives) not only for fear of minimizing Reagan’s role, but also for fear of revealing how abysmally the cold warriors failed to recognize the possibility of change under Communism.

This general tendency to ignore change in the Soviet Union, unless it is for the worse, can be attributed to the cold warriors’ ideological blinders. They learned from Merle Fainsod that “the totalitarian regime does not shed its police-state characteristics; it dies when power is wrenched [presumably by Reagan] from its hands.” These same scholars applauded Jeane J. Kirk patrick’s now thoroughly discredited distinction between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” regimes.

Finally, Mr. Puddington’s broadside against the anti-cold war brigade curiously ignores the efforts of Jerry Hough. Hough’s study, Soviet Leadership in Transition (1980), predicted a generational change which would usher in better-educated leaders with greater self-confidence, who were less ideological and more willing to take risks than the gerontocracy they replaced. I know of no cold-warrior study which approaches the prescience of Hough’s work.

To summarize: change came from within, and Hough was one member of the anti-cold war brigade who predicted it precisely; other scholars, such as George Kennan and Stephen F. Cohen, were also emphasizing the changes occurring in the Soviet Union. The cold warriors, I’m afraid, had other fish to fry. Now people like Mr. Puddington . . . seek to deflect scrutiny by claiming victory, and muddying the waters through tendentious essays. . . .

Walter C. Uhler
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Arch Puddington writes:

I find Robert Conquest’s brief on behalf of Stephen F. Cohen puzzling, since Mr. Conquest himself, at least by implication, has been a target of Cohen’s broadsides against cold warriors and scholars who employed the totalitarian model in analyzing Soviet reality. It is true that Cohen can claim scholarly achievement; his biography of Nikolai Bukharin was certainly well-received. The problem is that Cohen the scholar has existed in a state of tension with Cohen the publicist, and during the past decade, it would seem that the latter won out. Indeed, here we confront the question, raised by J. Edgar Williams, of what motivated the critics of America’s Soviet policy. Those on the Left, a relatively small category, were influenced by high hopes that the Soviets would continue to arm and support revolutionary regimes in the third world. Others, including many who should have known better, seem to have been driven by a seething hatred of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policies. Since Reagan’s policies were predicated on the (altogether accurate) assumption that the Soviet system was a colossal failure, doomed to be swept into history’s ashcan, his critics felt compelled to seek out evidence to the contrary. Thus, article after article was written to demonstrate that conditions in the Soviet Union, if not exactly prosperous, weren’t all that bad. In this regard, Stephen F. Cohen enjoyed an advantage over other critics insofar as he was personally acquainted with many of those Communist-party reformists who would later serve in high positions under Gorbachev. By their own account, these reformists felt during the Brezhnev era that the party and Soviet society generally were mired in a profound crisis. Yet they either failed to convey this message to Cohen or he neglected to pass the information on to his readers in America. Instead, Cohen reassured us that the Soviet system, if flawed, was fundamentally sound and enjoyed an impressive level of popular support. Evidence to the contrary would, of course, have posed a dilemma for Cohen, since to acknowledge the existence of a Soviet crisis would have meant supplying “ammunition” to the cold-war perspective. The problem, however, goes even deeper. Cohen has always contended that Soviet socialism as formulated by Lenin would have succeeded had it not run into the Stalinist detour. I have always found the analysis put forward by Robert Conquest, among others, that traced the evils of the Soviet system directly to the Leninist source much more persuasive.

Walter C. Uhler can rest assured that I am aware of and applaud the role of the current Soviet leadership, Gorbachev included, in setting in motion the process which appears to be leading to the dismantling of the Soviet system. Among Mr. Uhler’s many errors, however, is his statement that cold warriors “failed to recognize the possibility of change under Communism.” What is at work in the Soviet Union, as in Eastern Europe, is not change, but the absolute collapse of Communism. If anti-Communists were guilty of overestimating the Communist system’s staying power, they were quite clear in insisting on the impossibility of a changed or reformed Communism, something which Leszek Kolakowski aptly likened to a “fried snowball.”

I would also remind Mr. Uhler that Gorbachev had no intention, at the beginning of his leadership, to preside over the collapse of state socialism, as he repeatedly noted in speeches and interviews. Nor was it Gorbachev’s aim to permit the collapse of the Soviet empire. His first six months as General Secretary were highlighted by a massive effort to achieve victory for the Soviet Union’s allies in Afghanistan, Angola, and Central America. Gorbachev’s failure here was due, of course, to the American support for anti-Communist resistance groups, as embodied in the Reagan doctrine. The Reagan doctrine, the deployment of the Euromissiles, Star Wars, the refusal to deal with the Soviet Union as a “normal” country—all played important parts in persuading Gorbachev and his better-educated, more reformist, and Western-oriented colleagues of the dead end of the USSR’s foreign-policy direction.

To deal with another point raised by Mr. Uhler, I am perfectly happy to credit Solzhenitsyn for his role in undermining the Soviet system. Solzhenitsyn, of course, had a vision of the Russian future different from that of Andrei Sakharov or Andrei Amalrik, the two opposition intellectuals quoted in my article. But on one issue they were in accord: the creation of an honest, prosperous, and healthy society required the abandonment, not merely the reform, of Communism. Another characteristic of Soviet dissidents was their clear understanding of the difference between totalitarian and authoritarian systems. Before Mr. Uhler dismisses this distinction so contemptuously, he should take a careful look at the current Soviet press, where discussions of the Soviet totalitarian legacy are commonplace. He might also compare the relatively smooth return to democratic rule in, say, Chile with the pain and chaos engulfing the Soviet Union or, for that matter, Poland.

To take up one final point in Mr. Uhler’s letter, Jerry Hough’s writings on generational changes within the Soviet leadership have been clearly vindicated by developments of the past five years. Unfortunately, Hough’s controversial analyses of major changes in Soviet internal affairs have fared less well, having been shown to be greatly exaggerated not merely by the standards of Western cold warriors, but by those of Soviet commentators who, under glasnost, have repeatedly emphasized the yawning gap between Soviet governing methods and structures and those in the democratic world.

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