Commentary Magazine


What We Know About the Soviet Union

The present transition period in Moscow, the third in three decades, has left Western observers more uncertain than its two predecessors. Both in 1953, after the death of Stalin, and in 1964, after the ouster of Khrushchev, Washington read the signs from Moscow more or less correctly, even though there were fewer guideposts in those days and Soviet policy was then shrouded in greater secrecy. By contrast, Secretary of State George Shultz recently said that the experts on the Soviet Union apparently did not know any more than he did about what was going to happen in Moscow.

One could see what he meant. Some experts were telling us that there was now a unique opportunity for rapprochement and reconciliation which, if allowed to slip, would never recur. Others were saying that we were on the eve of momentous changes, either because the Soviet Union had made so much progress, or on the contrary because it was facing such terrible difficulties. Many argued that the Soviet Union was a colossus with feet of clay which might collapse at almost any moment; these, more often than not, were opponents of defense spending.

The nonexpert, confronted with all these differences, was bound to reach Shultz’s conclusion. It seemed an obvious conclusion, and it was quite wrong.

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What do we know about the Soviet Union? Three decades ago the interpretation of Soviet policies was largely the preserve of old Mensheviks, former Trotskyites, former Communists, or at least fellow-travelers—people steeped in Marxism-Leninism who had over many years closely followed the development of Soviet and world Communism. They did not necessarily agree with one another, nor were they always right. But they had acquired an intuitive understanding which helped them grasp the essentials of developments inside the Soviet Union, of Stalin’s motives and those of his disciples, and to guess how they were likely to react. These older experts obviously had axes to grind, and they were often heavily biased. But their prejudices, far from being an impediment, actually sharpened their perceptions, just as Burke’s bias had helped him in 1790 to predict the future of the French Revolution more accurately than all the objective and detached students of contemporary France.

The theoretical model on which this generation of “Kremlinologists” relied was totalitarianism, with its emphasis on the inexorable spread and consolidation of state power. But as Stalinism gave way to (partial) de-Stalinization, the old totalitarianism model was (partially) discredited, and a new generation of Soviet experts moved into the front rank of the profession with a new key to the understanding of post-Stalinist Russia: political modernization. True, the theorists (like Karl Deutsch and Gabriel Almond) who inspired this school were not Soviet specialists, but what they said about the “automatic” (or “inevitable”) trend in modern society toward pluralism, toward economic and political decentralization, toward the demand not only for consumer goods but also for “spiritual consumer goods”—all this had a considerable impact on the profession of Kremlinology.

It took about a decade to realize (although some do not realize it to this day) that the modernization model was of little help in explaining, and of no assistance in predicting, Soviet political behavior. For however hard one looked for these trends in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, one simply could not find them there. Thus disappointed with the modernization theory, many political scientists were led to give a second chance to another model—one which emphasized the rules, written and unwritten, of bureaucratic politics. This theory, first formulated around 1960, interpreted the Soviet Union as a giant bureaucracy, subject to the laws governing all bureaucracies, including our own: functional divisions are all-important, institutional interests play a great role, performance and affiliation to a group are more decisive than ideology, legal procedure becomes significant, and passivity is the general result.

On the basis of the bureaucracy model, no less than the modernization theory, one was likely to reach the conclusion that West and East were “converging.” But again, the hypothesis could not survive a closer look. In this case, the attempts to find common denominators between the Soviet system and ours have, by and large, turned out to be a waste of time. There are similarities, but they do not concern the essential character of the Soviet regime, in which the Communist party controls the bureaucracy and ideology also plays a role.

Still other Soviet experts concentrated on a comparative approach, more often than not based on quantitative techniques. The basic idea underlying this approach—to vary Kipling, “What do you know of Russia, who only Russia know?”—was perfectly healthy. But it soon emerged that comparisons between the Soviet Union and, say, Poland were of limited validity, and with Albania even more so. In the end inveterate quantifiers were forced to admit that (to use for a moment their professional jargon) once the number of variables—small letter n—became too large, the problem was no longer manageable.

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Some Sovietologists also developed a sudden interest in cognitive psychology, a profession which had not been too successful in sorting out its own problems, but which was believed to contain the clue to many of the riddles in the field of Soviet studies. This new preoccupation with perception and misperception in foreign politics in general, and specifically in the field of Soviet studies, on the whole had unfortunate consequences. It led to the belief that since we construct the reality in which we operate, the study of our perceptions about reality is as important as the study of reality (if not more so). It implied, in practical terms, that most of the world’s major conflicts were caused by wrong inferences drawn from ambiguous evidence. Hence the conclusion that one ought to make a special effort to understand the antagonist’s mentality and perspectives.

As applied to the Soviet-American conflict in particular, cognitive psychology taught that Russians and Americans, despite their different mentalities, were closer than generally believed: their common interests outweighed their divisions. Indeed, but for the fact that the hard-liners on both sides had constituted an “objective alliance” validating each others’ expectations (invariably of the worst-case type), they would be even closer.

This mixture of the obvious and the nonsensical was bound to have a more harmful effect in America than in almost any other country. For nowhere has there been so little understanding of how a dictatorship works or so little appreciation of the importance of ideology (or religion or nationalism) in politics. In no other country has there been so much good will—which is to say willingness to ignore or at least belittle the existence of genuine conflicts among nations, ideologies, and political systems. Americans have always been reluctant to admit that certain conflicts are fundamental and irreconcilable. This reluctance was now given scientific standing. What had begun as sensible, if somewhat obvious, advice—that in politics as in private life one should always try to understand the other fellow’s view—led to the assumption, “scientifically” formulated, that if only the viewpoint of the other side were better understood, most conflicts could be resolved or avoided.

There can be no doubt that behind the rise of these new approaches was a revolt against an “outdated cold-war mentality,” against an American policy which, motivated by “blind anti-Communism,” had led the country into Vietnam. But it is also true that many members of this third generation of Soviet experts were genuinely intrigued by the new “scientific” approaches which promised to put the study of Soviet affairs on a secure, objective basis, far in advance of the subjective, instinctive, prejudiced (“folkloristic”) approach of the early Sovietologists.

This was one side of the coin, but there was, as usual, another. The new Sovietologists no longer had that instinctive empathy for Soviet policy which the Mensheviks and the ex-Communists had possessed. As academic scholars who had never been active in politics, moreover, they lacked a sense of power, and their interest in ideology was also limited. In fact, their heavy preoccupation with methodology sometimes left them only limited time to follow events in the real world.

Nevertheless their ideas, suitably simplified, found their way into the media: that far-reaching changes were about to take place in the Soviet Union with the rise of a young, more liberal generation; that the rise of these forces was in the best interest of America and world peace; and that it was the chief task of U.S. foreign policy to support Soviet doves against the Kremlin hawks.

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Even more important than the academic Sovietologists in shaping the image of the Soviet Union both among the intelligentsia and in the media has been the work of George F. Kennan. In his most recent book, The Nuclear Delusion,1 Kennan expresses the belief that he has failed to influence the public. But in fact he has been more influential than any other single writer on Soviet affairs. Kennan’s influence is partly due to his background as a scholar-diplomat and partly to the fact that he writes in a language which is always intelligible and at times powerful.

To Kennan the seemingly inexorable advance of what he calls anti-Soviet hysteria in America is more sinister than mere intellectual error; it derives, he believes, from an unconscious need for an external enemy. It is simply not true, he says, that, like the Nazis, the Soviets have intensive and relentless plans for military conquest in every direction. In fact, they never even wanted to invade Western Europe. Nor, according to Kennan, is it true that the Kremlin might be inclined to resort to war as a means of resolving its internal difficulties. Those who speak of Soviet adventurism and Finlandization, he asserts, mistake Moscow’s concern for military security, its obsession with secrecy, and its quest for prestige and influence for something more ambitious and wicked.

Now, it is a little irritating to read about “anti-Soviet hysteria” and about the psychological need for an external enemy just when all the papers and the television stations are competing with one another to find attractive traits of character in Messrs. Andropov, Aliev, and other KGB stalwarts; at the very time when most Americans seem to agree that the defense budget should be cut; and when President Reagan is offering the Russians more grain than they actually want to buy. But Kennan does have some good points, I believe, in what he says about the militarization of American policy. There has been a tendency in U.S. foreign policy since World War II to interpret the Soviet danger mainly in military terms and to give absolute priority to strategic answers. It has always been either peace or war, with little in between. Early on during the Carter Presidency, for example, it was decided that the conflict was more or less over, and done with. When it appeared that this was premature, there was the usual fallback on a strategic build-up. Such a build-up might have been overdue in any case, but how could it affect the activities of the Cubans and the East Germans in the Third World?

Kennan is right: the main danger since World War II has not been a Soviet military invasion of Western Europe. But this is because the West decided not to lead the Russians into temptation by creating a power vacuum and created NATO instead. No such effective answer has been found, however, to deal with the real challenge of Soviet foreign policy, which has amounted to war by other means: secret diplomacy, propaganda, covert action, subversion, the use of proxy forces, and so on.

Yet neither is there an answer to any of this in Kennan’s book. Indeed, as he sees it, such activities are anyway unrewarding, and if the Soviet Union is foolish enough to continue putting pressure on small countries, it will be frustrated by the forces of nationalism. Unfortunately the record in countries as diverse as Vietnam, Cuba, Yemen, and Angola fails to bear him out on this point.

Nor does the record bear him out on the issue of Soviet nuclear strategy. Kennan, like Robert McNamara and many others, argued for years that the Soviet leaders would not be so stupid as to go beyond parity or equivalence in building up their nuclear arsenal, and in any case could not afford to do so. One sincerely wishes these analysts had been right, but they were not. On this point, it was Richard Pipes and his colleagues in the Committee on the Present Danger who were right in insisting that the Soviets were driving toward nuclear superiority. On the other hand, Pipes was wrong in claiming that the purpose was to fight and win a nuclear war.2 As Adam Ulam writes in his new book, Dangerous Relations: The Soviet Union in World Politics, 1970-1982:3

Were Brezhnev and his colleagues to speak frankly when asked why they were seeking a margin of nuclear superiority and honing up their civil defenses if they were not planning to start a war, they would have answered that the reasons were obvious: it was of good practical and psychological importance to the regime.

Richard Lowenthal put it even more explicitly three years ago:

With all respect to [Richard] Pipes, I do not regard morale-building Red Army literature that such a war could be “won” as evidence that the present Soviet leaders believe in a holocaust as a means of policy. . . . The real political purpose of a Soviet effort for nuclear superiority is clearly to deprive the threat of American nuclear retaliation against a conventional Soviet attack of all credibility—a goal the Soviets have long pursued by many other means, such as their propaganda for an agreement against “first use” of nuclear weapons. Nuclear superiority would thus be a means to secure the political fronts of Soviet conventional superiority where it exists—be it by conventional military action or by political blackmail.

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Some of Kennan’s writings, and those of the new Sovietologists, not to mention much of the material published under their influence in the media, have been a matter of great bewilderment to the emigrants from the Soviet Union. Both intellectuals like Solzhenitsyn and the great majority of new arrivals, people from all sections of Soviet society, have reached the conclusion that most Westerners do not have the faintest idea about conditions in the Soviet Union or about the true intentions of the Soviet rulers. A recent (unpublished) field survey shows that of those Soviet émigrés asked, a mere 9 percent think that Americans understand the essence of Soviet foreign policy, only 4 percent think that Americans are familiar with living conditions in the Soviet Union, and over 76 percent grade the competence of U.S. Soviet experts poorly.4

Emigrés, let it be readily admitted, are not always the best judges of their country of origin. They tend to lack detachment, and there is often an element of hyperbole in their comments. In the case of the Russians in particular, some have a tendency to believe that one has to have spent a few years in the Gulag to understand what the Soviet Union is like. Some of them also tend to exaggerate the importance of their own position in their native land and, consequently, their information about more than a specific sector of Soviet society. Lastly, their knowledge of the world outside the Soviet Union is usually quite limited. They are not in a position to compare, and they fail to see that world politics is not just what the Soviet leaders want to happen but the interplay among various actors on the world stage. Be all that as it may, Soviet émigrés have almost unanimously reached the conclusion that in view of the West’s inability to recognize the danger facing it, its chances for survival cannot be rated high.

Some émigrés attribute this to blindness, others to a softening of the brain or backbone. Aleksandr Zinoviev writes in his preface to a new book by Kyrill Henkin5 that

the deepest secrets of social life are usually found on the surface. One has to be totally blind in order not to see the general position of the Soviet Union vis-à-vis the West: by every means to penetrate the West, to use the West for its own ends, to sow disunity, to provoke destabilization, to demoralize, to deceive, to confuse, to threaten, in brief to prepare the West for utter military defeat.

These are blunt and unqualified words, the “terminology of the cold war,” and therefore not acceptable in academic (or diplomatic) discussions of Soviet politics. This may be why the recent emigration has had so little impact on the American conception of Soviet affairs, and why on their side the émigrés dismiss the Sovietologists as (at best) “purely academic.”

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II

What then is the real state of affairs? As Andropov takes over in the Kremlin the domestic situation, while far from rosy, is not remotely as critical as the media would have us believe. To be sure, some of the problems are insoluble within the framework of the Soviet system. But a modern dictatorship has powerful instruments with which to assuage, to suppress protest, to postpone the day of reckoning for a very long time. A sizable part of the population has a vested interest in the perpetuation of the system. The majority, whatever its discontents, is apathetic and incapable of organizing.

Among the acute domestic crises which allegedly are pushing the Soviet empire to the brink of disaster, the economic situation is usually listed in first place. The series of bad harvests is invoked, as are the shortages, the long queues in front of the shops, the stagnating living standards, the decaying infrastructures (transportation, etc.), the great waste, the decreasing productivity, the growing need to support the ailing economies of Eastern Europe, and so on.

All this is true, but politically it is not very significant, certainly not in the short run. The Soviet economy has never functioned well, there have always been shortages and queues, and Soviet citizens have learned to live with them. Even if there have been several bad harvests, enough grain has been imported to provide bread for everyone. (Since the size of the harvest tends to vary cyclically, there is always a chance that the next harvest will be satisfactory, which would be a boost to the regime and a blow to American farmers for whom the misfortunes of Soviet agriculture have become a support system.) The growth rates in Soviet industry have steadily gone down—the anticipated rise in GNP for next year is 2 percent—but they are still higher than in most Western countries. The coal industry is not in good shape, petroleum and steel pose difficulties, and the less said about most consumer-goods industries, the better. But modern technologies are imported from Silicon Valley, more often than not free of charge. There are difficulties in assimilating Western techniques, but these are eventually overcome. The long and short of it is that the Soviet economy will muddle through.

Some Western experts have argued that muddling through is no longer enough at a time when such great emphasis is put on modern arms. How, they ask, can the Soviet leadership insure high-quality weapons if industry is on the whole weak and inefficient? But the civilian and the military sectors of the Soviet economy are to a considerable extent insulated from each other. This is difficult to accept for Westerners who fail to understand how an economy far more backward than today’s could have produced Sputnik before America did. In similar fashion, the Soviet Union can still outproduce the U.S. in the military field provided sufficient priority is given to this task.

The real problem facing the Soviet economy is declining productivity. Because of this there is reason to believe that the income of Soviet citizens will not merely stagnate, as it has done in recent years, but may actually fall. Indeed, some foreign observers in Moscow report that Soviet living standards are now back to 1965. This being the case, we are told, just about anything might happen. Not, of course, the emergence of a Solidarity-type independent union, but more absenteeism, strikes of sorts, local labor unrest, and other manifestations of discontent. Yet the idea that this could bring down the regime still seems exceedingly far-fetched. Such problems can be tackled by a mixture of reform, propaganda, and the threat or use of terror.

As to reform, most Western experts agree that much could be improved through relatively modest changes within the system. Curiously, successive Soviet leaders, while permitting such changes elsewhere (e.g., Hungary), and while encouraging an opening up to the West of such client states as Angola, Mozambique, and even Cuba, have been most reluctant to take similar steps at home. Some Western observers believe that the Soviet economy is so closely tied up with the political system that even minor changes are impossible without shaking the foundations of Soviet political power. I do not share this belief: economic experimentation can go hand in hand with political repression. The conservatism of the Soviet leaders is largely rooted in their psychology; sooner or later there will be some reforms. If Andropov does not take the necessary steps, the generation of younger leaders, succeeding him, will. These reforms will be palliatives, unlikely to affect the deeper sources of the evil. But they may suffice for getting through yet another decade.

Meanwhile propaganda will be stepped up. Already every newscast on Soviet television opens or concludes with some horror story from the West: the Soviet citizen may not be well off, but compare his lot with the miserable downtrodden fate of workers in the West and the growing army of unemployed! While the intellectuals do not entirely depend on the Soviet media for their information, the average Soviet citizen is influenced by the endless, systematic repetition of distortions and lies.

If propaganda fails, there remains the repressive machinery. The Polish police managed to deal with the Polish workers, and the task of the KGB in similar circumstances is likely to be much easier. Violence may not even have to be used because the knowledge that the state has overwhelming means of repression at its disposal usually suffices as a deterrent. There are at present in the Soviet Union relatively few political prisoners, fewer than in many old-fashioned dictatorships in the Third World. This is not because the Soviet Union is a less repressive regime, but on the contrary, because it is repressive and effective. Opposition to such a regime seems really hopeless, and few will even try it. The apparent paradox that a totalitarian regime may be able to manage with less violence than an authoritarian state has been a cause of endless confusion to some Westerners who have had the good fortune never to be exposed either to the one or to the other.

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In addition to the economy, the other factors that are said to be bringing the Soviet Union to the point of collapse are the rising unrest among the nationalities, the change in the demographic balance, the intellectual dissent, the growing lack of belief in Communist doctrine, the cynicism among the younger generation. All this is indeed there, but as with the economy, the party leadership should be able to contain it.

Thus, while there does exist tension among the nationalities, for the time being it is more under control than similar problems in the U.S. and in Western Europe. The Uzbeks are now the third largest ethnic group, but they do not like the Tajiks any more than they do the Russians; the enmity among the Caucasian minorities is proverbial. Organized intellectual dissent has effectively been stamped out, Helsinki or no Helsinki; for the rest, it does not greatly concern the KGB that members of the intelligentsia listen to foreign radio stations, read books which are on the index of censorship, or admire decadent avant-garde Western art. Alcoholism is a problem, and so is absenteeism and the crime rate. But alcoholism also has its uses in a political regime which once came to power with the ardent desire to mobilize the masses and which now survives partly owing to their demobilization.

As for loss of faith in Communism and the concomitant loss of the regime’s legitimacy, thought to be the indispensable basis of all authority, the rulers can always point to the need to defend the country against its outside enemies—the yellow peril, American imperialism, and so on. In any case, when Max Weber and Pareto were dealing with the question of authority, they did not know about the Soviet Union. Moreover, if unstable regimes like that of the Czars and the Ottoman empire could survive a loss of legitimacy for long periods, an efficient modern totalitarian regime is all the more able to do so.

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III

Nevertheless, things could still go wrong for the Soviet regime. If they do, or if there should be persistent splits in the leadership, resulting in paralysis, there are safety nets. One is Bonapartism. Marx, it will be recalled, made a notable contribution to the discussion of this subject. Trotsky was attacked for Bonapartism, so was Lenin, and so, of course, was Stalin. But Soviet Bonapartism in the 1980’s means something quite different: it refers to the systematic militarization of Soviet society.6

All knowledgeable observers agree that during the last fifteen years the Soviet military has gained influence. Whereas Khrushchev had stood up to the marshals and generals and their exaggerated demands, Brezhnev went out of his way to appease them. Soviet propaganda began to devote more space, time, and prominence to military themes, such as the army as the embodiment of patriotism and as a means of inculcating order and discipline and other essential values in the young generation. An unending stream of books and articles praised the glorious role of the armed forces in the Great Patriotic War.

There is no denying, however, that the direct political impact so far has been modest. The army had 18 representatives in the Central Committee of the party in 1971, their number grew to 20 five years later, and reached 24 at the 26th Party Congress in 1981—out of a total of 319. And on the Central Committee Secretariat, which is the real seat of power, the army is only indirectly represented—by Epishev, the general in charge of political indoctrination.

Nor is it certain that the term “representation” is correct in this context, for the armed forces are not a monolithic bloc standing for a clear, well-defined group interest. They do, of course, have certain interests in common, but there is no reason to assume that relations among Soviet army, navy, air-force, and missile forces are notably more cordial than in other countries.

On two past occasions army officers were called in for help by the supreme party leaders: in 1953 to liquidate Beria because they could not trust the KGB, and again by Khrushchev who needed Marshal Zhukov’s help to prevail over his rivals. But these were exceptions, and Zhukov was soon after demoted by Khrushchev. Today the defense minister is a civilian even if he carries the title of a marshal; the KGB keeps a watchful eye on the marshals and generals as on everyone else in Soviet society. Furthermore, there are several departments in the Central Committee Secretariat which take an active interest in appointments, party work, propaganda, etc. in the armed forces. Almost 95 percent of the officer corps belongs to the party or the Komsomol.

The army, in short, seems to be under firm party control. If Soviet society has been militarized, it is equally true that the armed forces have been politicized, and that there has been a great deal of congruence and interpenetration. If all goes well, the hold of the party bureaucracy will be in no danger. On the other hand, if the party bureaucracy can no longer cope with the challenges facing it, if there is a prolonged stalemate in the struggle for power, or if the army has to be called in to support one faction or another in the contest, or to suppress challenges to the party’s power, the armed forces would no longer be a mere tool and might develop a political will of their own. Paradoxically, the Jaruzelski solution, which was adopted reluctantly and as a last resort, could one day become a new paradigm.

Fifteen years ago Soviet observers of the Third World discovered the important political role of the army as a carrier of revolutionary ideas (or of modernization), and some of them wrote glowingly about generals as revolutionaries with epaulettes (revolutioneri v pogonakh). What irony if the Soviet Union were to draw its inspiration one day from Third World experience. The Soviet army is not exactly a revolutionary force, but its record as a manager and innovator has been reasonably good; it was, for instance, the first (together with the KGB) to use computers on a large scale. Could it teach the bureaucrats a lesson or two? In the Third World army officers are substitutes for the proletariat; in Poland—and perhaps in the Soviet Union tomorrow—they may have to act as surrogates for the party secretaries.

Today all this is no more than possibility, but it certainly seems more probable than the emergence—such as was envisaged by some students of Soviet affairs only a few years ago—of a new managerial and state elite pushing back the influence of the party bureaucrats. But could the army run the country? If the party apparatus has become too unwieldy and ossified, the military complex is also very big and lacks political and economic know-how. The armed forces may provide the foot soldiers, but there is no new charismatic military leader in the Soviet Union at the present time. There has been no war in recent years in which young (or middle-aged) men of talent could have distinguished themselves and acquired a national following.

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But if the party bureaucracy should no longer be able to cope, there is yet another possibility. Those who have maintained that the Soviet Union faces in the long run the choice between petrification and pluralism (or at least “peripherization”) may well have stumbled on a real insight which can be of help in predicting future developments in the Soviet Union. But one has to treat this insight as Marx treated Hegel, by standing it on its head. The new pluralism will be based not on managers, regional state officials, and other “liberal” or quasi-liberal technocrats—these may come in on the margins—but on a coalition of party secretaries, the KGB, and the army.

The “organs” of state security, as they are commonly called in the Soviet Union, have been kept on a short leash ever since Stalin’s death and Beria’s execution. The party bureaucracy suffered more than anyone else from the terror and the purges, and the last thing it wanted was a repeat performance. From 1953 on, state security was held strictly under party control, and the heads of the KGB were second-raters. But then, almost imperceptibly, KGB influence increased. In 1973 Andropov became a full member of the Politburo; even the great Dzherzhinski, Lenin’s friend, the founder of the secret police, had only been an alternate member at the time, and Beria, Stalin’s crony, became a full member only toward the end of his political career. It could be argued that Andropov’s elevation had more to do with his personal ability or charm, and that it was purely accidental that he has now been joined by Aliev, another veteran of the secret police. It is possible that this is the case—but there are many other equally able people in the Soviet Union who have not become members of the Politburo.

Andropov, for all we know, may disappear soon; he is said to be in indifferent health, or he may fall victim to a cabal. But the power of the KGB transscends personalities. It is a state within a state, not just an espionage agency and a secret police force. It is the keeper of all state secrets, with enterprises in all walks of life, and with a little army; it is the agency always entrusted with particularly important and sensitive assignments. The Soviet system needs it to survive, and at the same time it is always a potential threat to the bureaucracy. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, when it was being reorganized and rebuilt, it was in no position to make a bid for power. Today it is stronger than ever before and self-confident. At a time of crisis it would be the obvious instrument to use.

A great many people in the Soviet Union have been talking of late about the need, as it were, to “get the country moving again.” But the middle and lower echelons of the bureaucracy are averse to change; too many vested interests are involved. How to carry out changes against such resistance, open and secret? Sooner or later a future leader, or possibly a group of leaders, will look for a transmission belt, parallel to the party, to carry out their orders, or at least to make sure that their instructions are obeyed. The KGB could fulfill this function.

Certainly the Soviet Union has always been a police state, but the police have never run it. During the very first years of the 20th century, the rulers of Russia briefly played with the idea of police socialism. It did not come to much. Contrary to widespread belief, not even the Stalin period was characterized by the arbitrary rule of the secret police; it was the despotism of one man who had subjugated the secret-police apparatus, used it for his own purposes, and ultimately had its leading cadres shot. If, therefore, the KGB were to establish itself as a new committee of public safety, it would have to do so from within the party. This would be an interesting new stage in the development of Soviet Communism. Soviet history during the last two decades has been predictable and boring; now there is a chance that the unforeseen may happen: police Communism.

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IV

Finally, there is the question of the young generation. Everyone who has met the products of Soviet society knows that they are in some respects different from their parents. They were born after World War II, and do not remember the most difficult years in Soviet history. Their historical memory usually begins with the Khrushchev period. It is difficult to find revolutionary ideologists among them; the very fact that they have to learn the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism (often by heart) in schools and the Komsomol, turns them against it, or at least induces indifference. The Soviet young are quite sure of themselves, career-oriented, very interested in material things; not for them the disdain of consumerism often found among the offspring of the middle class in the West. If, by a miracle, freedom of expression and organization were restored in the Soviet Union tomorrow, about the last thing the young would be interested in would be a New Left movement or a “Green” party, earnestly discussing Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Frantz Fanon, and Che Guevara.

At the same time, they take certain aspects of the system for granted and would no more question them than their Western contemporaries would question the right to buy jeans and to frequent discotheques. They are in favor of order and discipline, they are on the whole patriotic even though they may deride official propaganda. They are family men and women, and those of integrity and intelligence among them will look for careers far away from politics (leaving politics to the less desirable elements). If they have a personal philosophy, it is individualism. This may come as a surprise to foreigners who have been told about collectivism, who have read about Pavel Korchagin and the other young heroes of the revolution and the 1920’s. But wanting to be left alone is precisely a reaction against official theory and practice. The Soviet young have come to hold the private sphere of life in high esteem. They want “to do their own thing” to the extent that it is possible in a system of this kind. (And it is true that in this respect the Brezhnev regime did make concessions.)

The young, in short, are neither rebels nor reactionaries, but rather apolitical, even apathetic. They want a change for the better (and certainly an improvement in living standards), but by and large they seem reconciled to an imperfect order because they see no path to radical improvement. There may be small groups of militants among them, but these are untypical. (None of this necessarily applies to working-class youth, about whom very little is known abroad, and whose reactions may come as a surprise to those in power and, a fortiori, to observers abroad.)

What effect will these generational changes have? The short answer is that we do not know. There were those in the West who claimed for a long time that everything would change for the better once a new generation came to the fore, unencumbered by the heritage of Stalinism. This school of thought took it for granted that everything wrong with the Soviet Union was the fault of the older generation—first for having created Stalinism, later for having put up with it, and lastly for not having done away with its heritage. This, in turn, was based on the assumption that Stalinism was an aberration, or, as others saw it, a necessary stage of development which Soviet society had outgrown. The grain of truth in these assumptions is not very substantial.

For what Marx wrote in 1852 about the “enormous French state bureaucracy” enmeshing the body of French society like a net, “choking all pores and stifling innovation,” is equally true of Soviet society today. The “enormous” French bureaucracy counted half-a-million people, whereas in the Soviet Union their number is fifty times larger. They may tolerate a revolution from above, but only if it does not harm their interests. And yet Soviet society simply cannot be streamlined without making many of these bureaucrats redundant. This, to repeat, is the dilemma facing Andropov and those who will come after him. The alternative is to do little or nothing.

Some argue that the system must change to remain competitive and productive, to keep pace with the rest of the world, or for whatever other reason. But not even such streamlining will necessarily lead to a freer system; the idea that despotism cannot accommodate computers and robots is more than a little naive. Furthermore, we know from history that political elites can cling to power for decades, perhaps even for centuries, even if they have long since fulfilled their historical role (assuming they ever had one), even if they have lost faith in their doctrine and mission, even if they no longer have the active support of their followers.

True, there is no precedent for the Soviet system and no parallel, but this alone provides no sufficient reason for optimism. Political systems have changed as a result of military defeat, or of revolution, and they have collapsed following the radical decay of their foundations. But only over long periods of time. In our age war has become impossible and the anti-revolutionary potential, the means of repression at the disposal of a modern dictatorship, are so much stronger than the would-be rebels as to doom any such attempt from the beginning. It is not even sufficient for the incumbents to lose their self-confidence; a stage has to be reached in which they are no longer cohesive, and no longer have the will to defend their privileges. There are no indications that any such process has taken place in the Soviet Union. Some Western leaders may have lost their nerve; in the Soviet leadership there is no room for hesitation and world weariness. The Soviet fin de siècle seems to be as yet a good distance ahead.

The unique character of the Soviet system, a frozen revolution which can neither advance nor find its Thermidor, makes prediction dangerous. It would be foolish altogether to rule out radical change in the Soviet Union in the foreseeable future. All one can say is that at present it seems unlikely, and that, if it should occur, it would be triggered by circumstances and by forces which cannot possibly be anticipated today.

_____________

 

V

Successive Soviet leaders have stressed the primacy of foreign policy despite all the urgent problems facing them at home; as Brezhnev used to say, foreign policy is our most important domestic problem. There is no reason to assume that this will change under his successors. On the contrary, the successors may well be more assertive in pursuing Soviet interests in various parts of the world and also more subtle, more adventurous on the diplomatic level, trying to split the coalition of their “enemies”—making friendly gestures toward some, bringing pressure to bear on others, patching up some old, unnecessary quarrels.

Soviet foreign policy will watch with particular interest events in Africa and the Persian Gulf region. The Middle East will remain a trouble zone for a long time to come, Iran and Pakistan are unstable, and there may be opportunities elsewhere to give a little help to the forces serving Soviet interests. In not a few African countries, the presence of a few hundred proxies can make all the difference. Peter Wiles has drawn attention to the fact, disregarded by most Western experts on the Third World, that the parallels drawn between Angola and Mozambique today and Ghana, Guinea, and Egypt in the 1960’s are quite misleading, since these latter countries, though they were allied to the Soviet Union, never proclaimed themselves Marxist-Leninist, did not found and encourage Communist parties, and did not persecute religion:

The distinction between temporary allies and permanent imitations is of great emotional and intellectual importance. When Sekou Touré was young and Nasser and Nkrumah were alive, many knowledgeable people lost their heads and cried “wolf”: there was no solid empirical justification for calling these people or their states “Communist.” Therefore today many knowledgeable people refuse to cry “wolf” when the wolf stands in plain undoubted view.

One should add that the issue is not only of psychological and intellectual but also of considerable political interest. For it leads to the question of whether these advances in Africa and elsewhere are regarded by the Soviet leaders as irreversible, to be covered by something akin to a Brezhnev doctrine for the Third World.

It was only to be expected that the Soviet Union under Andropov would show more suppleness in its approach to arms control, and Western leaders quite obviously have to explore any proposals for the new elements they may contain. But it remains the case that although the Soviet Union does not want nuclear war, it does want “real security,” and this, given the Soviet mentality, means that the Soviet Union has to be the strongest power in the world, not just stronger than America but stronger than all its potential enemies taken together. It means retaining the initiative in world affairs, and it means expanding Soviet influence wherever possible. The Soviet Union not only has to be the strongest power, it also has to be perceived as such.

The problem as far as the Soviet Union is concerned, then, is not Reagan’s “aggressive language” but America’s power. America would be suspect, a potential enemy, even if its President were a member of the Committee on East-West Accord. Indeed, even a Communist America would be a potential antagonist, perhaps even a more dangerous one, for unimpeded by liberal restraints and public opinion, its leaders could pursue a foreign policy with the strength commensurate with its real power. Détente, as many Americans interpret it, is possible, but only with an American leadership willing to give up its interests outside the Western hemisphere.

This state of affairs has nothing to do with the Soviet belief in world revolution. It has nothing to do with George Kennan’s notion of an unconscious American need for an external enemy. It has nothing to do with “demonizing” the Soviet leaders. It has to do with the tendency of a global power unfettered by domestic constraints to expand its influence until it reaches determined resistance; it has to do with the fact that the Soviet Union is not just Russia but the leader of a bloc, and as such has to live up to its “historical mission” by maintaining an “irreversible advance,” even if at a slow pace; and lastly, it has to do with the fact that the existence of societies of a different kind will in itself constitute a threat to a Soviet leadership until these societies accept that Soviet power is the strongest on earth and adjust their behavior accordingly.

All this drives the Soviet leadership to expand its sphere of influence wherever opportunities arise. It is perfectly true that the impetus behind this drive is not as strong as it once was, and that it does not lead the Soviets into adventures except by miscalculation. If the drive continues, it is not because the Russians are so strong but because the West, disunited and confused, is even weaker. If the West showed firmer resolve, the international situation would be much less tense and there would be less reason for fear as the new period of Soviet history begins.


Footnotes

1 Pantheon, 207 pp., $13.95.

2 See his article, “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight & Win a Nuclear War” in the July 1977 COMMENTARY.

3 Oxford University Press, 320 pp., $25.00.

4 Ilya Levkov, Patterns of Adaptation and Acculturation of Soviet Jews in the United States, 1982.

5 Okhotnik werkh nogami, Frankfurt, 1980. This book raises a number of disturbing questions, but it is certainly one of the most interesting to have been published in recent years. It deals to a large extent with the story of Willie Fisher, better known in America under the name Rudolf Abel, the Russian spy who was arrested in the U.S. and later exchanged for Gary Powers. It has been translated into various European languages but has not been published so far in the United States.

6 This concept was developed in France two years ago in an interesting, if controversial, book by Cornelius Castoriadis, Devant la guerre; the second volume of his work will appear soon. See also an article by General William E. Odom, “The Militarization of Soviet Society,” in Problems of Communism, Sept./Oct. 1976. On the other hand, even enlightened Marxists (such as Eric Hobsbawm) have continued to maintain until recently that Communist states are “passionately civilian-minded.”

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