Commentary Magazine

Russia-Beyond Brezhnev

Almost every new Russian ruler for the last two centuries has been hailed as a liberator upon acceding to power, and in almost every case initial euphoria has given way to disappointment, and worse. When Nicholas I died in 1855, even the harshest critics of the Russian system (the exiled Alexander Herzen among them) welcomed his successor, Alexander II, in glowing terms, especially after a few reforms were announced. Within six or seven months their enthusiasm had waned: “We confess our mistake. . . . This is the same regime, sweetened by molasses.”

The pattern repeated itself when Stalin came to power in the late 20’s. Some Western observers hailed the event as a long-awaited return to normalcy after the excesses of Lenin and Trotsky. This, for instance, was how Sir Bernard Pares, an Englishman and one of the most distinguished early Sovietologists, saw it, not only at the time but even fifteen years later when Russia under Stalin appeared to him “as a nearer approach to true democracy than the liberal movement before the revolution.” And when Stalin died in 1953, needless to say, expectations of a bright new future were even higher.

In many ways, the optimism that accompanied Stalin’s death was justified. There was every reason to assume that his successors would follow a policy more rational, less arbitrarily cruel and oppressive, than that of the murderous “father of peoples,” who had clearly become mentally unbalanced during the last years of his life. One of the most optimistic voices at the time was that of the late Isaac Deutscher, who wrote that the coming epoch might bring with it a “breathtaking reversal of the process by which the Soviet democracy of the early years of the revolution had been transformed into autocracy.” Deutscher thought that the economic needs of the country made the progress toward liberalization more or less inevitable; economic change would result in political change. “The nation has outgrown authoritarian tutelage,” Deutscher wrote, and a return to socialist democracy was just around the corner: “For decades freedom was banned from Russia, because it was, or was supposed to be, the enemy of socialism. . . . But freedom may once again become the ally and friend of socialism; and then the forty years of wandering in the desert may be over for the Russian revolution.”

It was a heartwarming vision, but, alas, it was not to be. Yet the question of where and why Deutscher went wrong is still (or again) of considerable interest. Was it his Marxist faith that led him astray? For he was of course naive, to put it no more strongly, to assume, in the light of the Fascist and Stalinist experience, that industrialization and modernization were bound to lead to greater political freedom. Yet Deutscher’s Marxist faith had a curious admixture of subjectivism and voluntarism. In any other country Deutscher would have discovered historical laws and necessities and class interests; in Russia, he could see only regrettable aberrations, individual mistakes, accidents of history which could be easily rectified. Historical materialism, in short, did not apply to the Soviet Union, a country about which Deutscher, in common with many others to this day, felt free to write like an old-fashioned Hegelian idealist.

Now that yet another change in leadership is taking place in the Soviet Union, new commentators in the tradition of Sir Bernard Pares and Isaac Deutscher have appeared. One of them is Jerry F. Hough, who teaches political science at Duke University. In a recent article on the Soviet succession (Washington Post, April 17, 1977), he presents arguments reminiscent of his illustrious predecessors.

Not that Professor Hough thinks everything is rosy in the Soviet Union, but by and large it has become in his opinion a more liberal and democratic society. A real diffusion of power has taken place, he writes, with more and more people participating in decision-making—as shown by the fact that over 50 per cent of the college-educated males between the ages of thirty and sixty are members of the Communist party. The position of the poor and of the dissidents has also, he tells us, steadily improved since 1964. As for the future, there is a strong natural tendency toward a “more relaxed type of authoritarianism,” such as is practiced in Poland. From this it follows, in Professor Hough’s view, that America should support those who work inside the regime for a “Polish” solution, and should not support the dissidents, who are dangerous people because they call for strict observance of the Soviet constitution—a constitution which “is not to be taken seriously”—and because they stand for “revolutionary change.” (On another occasion, at a conference in Washington, Professor Hough went so far as to compare the Soviet dissidents to Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman who, he said, once spread comparable exaggerations abroad about repressive conditions in America.) He recommends that the Carter administration soft-pedal the human-rights aspects of the Helsinki accords, reassure Soviet leaders—who suffer from a “deep sense of military inferiority”—with “mutual” gestures of arms restraint, and scale down or perhaps discontinue the activities of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

Soviet leaders would no doubt be amused by this effort to ascribe to them a deep feeling of military inferiority, which must be so deep as to be hidden from themselves as well as from the rest of the world, especially that part of it which has lately been feeling the effects of this “inferiority.” Equally amusing is the idea that membership in the Communist party is somehow bound up with the Soviet decision-making process (it is simply a prerequisite for getting and keeping positions of any importance in most fields of human endeavor in the Soviet Union). Poland, moreover, is the worst possible example Professor Hough could have chosen for his thesis: “authoritarianism” there may be relatively weak, but it is not at all relaxed. The Polish regime has managed to alienate the workers, the Church, the peasants, and the intelligentsia; having no political base, it is kept in power simply by the fear of open Soviet intervention. Then there is a statement like the following: “We have been too quick to assume that the increase in military spending [in the Soviet Union] denotes a leadership plan to achieve military superiority, and we have failed to consider that it may be part of the evidence that the leadership has relatively few conscious policy intentions and is primarily mediating among specialized elites.” As the Duke of Wellington said: if you can believe this, you can believe anything.

This curious mixture of naive misreading of domestic trends in the Soviet Union and open cynicism (the Soviet constitution “is not to be taken seriously”) is difficult to explain. Mitigating circumstances can be found in the case of Pares, for the Soviet system had been in existence for only a short time when he wrote about it, and even perhaps in the case of Deutscher. When it comes to Professor Hough, one is bound to agree with his own statement (although he does not appear to mean to apply it to himself) that “our misunderstanding of the Soviet regime is now probably greater than at any time since World War II.”1

It is instructive to compare Professor Hough’s euphoria with the far more somber analysis presented by leading European Communists. Thus, Santiago Carrillo, head of the Spanish Communist party, writes in a book published earlier this year that the Stalinist political system of the Soviet Union has not been transformed, has not been democratized, and even remains coercive in its relations with other Communist states, as was brutally demonstrated by the military occupation of Czechoslovakia (Eurocomunismo y Estado, Barcelona, 1977).



Misconceptions and wishful thinking aside, it is of course undeniable that real changes have taken place in the Soviet Union since Stalin’s days. Neither the Khrushchev cult nor, subsequently, the Brezhnev cult has been remotely comparable to the adulation of Josef Stalin. There have been no bloody purges for many years; the few courageous dissenters have been harassed, arrested, and imprisoned, but apparently not one of them has been shot. Power is no longer wielded by one man: the Soviet Union is ruled today by the 20 members and alternate members of the Politburo, the 11 secretaries of the Central Committee (6 of whom also belong to the Politburo), and the 426 members and alternate members of the Central Committee. (The Central Committee is convened but rarely, if only because its members are dispersed all over the Soviet Union.) Within the Politburo there is an inner group made up of the four senior members, all of them over seventy years old: Brezhnev, Suslov, Kirilenko, and Kosygin (there were five prior to Podgorny’s ouster last May). There has been on the whole a great deal of continuity since the Khrushchev era; only five Politburo members have lost their positions for political reasons in over a decade.2

Below the supreme leadership are the district and regional party secretaries and the central and local party and state apparatuses—altogether a bureaucracy consisting of some three million persons. But to this day all orders emanate from the center: if Khrushchev made a modest effort to decentralize and to give greater autonomy to local representatives of the party, the process has been reversed. In this respect as in others, de-Stalinization ended with Khrushchev, and Deutscher’s vision of freedom of speech, even within the party, is still a chimera.

The party secretaries rule a population which is largely apolitical. The observation, made by foreign visitors to Czarist Russia, that the Russian government always treated the people as minors, not fully competent to look after their own affairs, is as true now as it was at the turn of the century. Appeals for mass participation, to be sure, are issued almost without interruption, but these are always combined with calls for iron discipline and the need to strengthen the state and the party. Mass participation there is—in order to demonstrate conformity. A few observers of the Soviet scene have drawn encouragement from the fact that some local issues—such as the number of hospital beds to be provided, or of kindergartens—are decided locally, and sometimes are even accompanied by discussion; the supreme leadership cannot any longer impose totally arbitrary or unrealistic schemes on the population. This, however, was also true in the past. Even Stalin was not all-powerful; the shortcomings of human nature (and sometimes simply of nature), place a limit on the ultimate effectiveness of decrees issued from the center. There has always been some debate in the Soviet Union, on questions ranging from abortion to linguistics; it is on issues of political significance that there has never been any debate at all, as is illustrated by the present “discussion” of the new Soviet constitution.

A great many things have changed since Stalin’s day, then, but the monopoly of political power, the character of the institutions, the instruments of propaganda and control have not been essentially affected; they may have been streamlined, but they have not been liberalized, and they are not likely to be in the foreseeable future. The idea that modernization would bring about a diffusion of power, that in an increasingly complex society, experts (the “intelligentsia”) would play an ever more important political role, has so far been disproved by events.

But is it not possible that pressure from below will eventually result in far-reaching changes in the Soviet system? Some who argue that it will mainly have in mind the unsatisfactory economic situation and the aspirations of the national minorities. As to the economy, Soviet performance, measured by official promises, has certainly been less than brilliant. According to the party program of 1961, per-capita production in the Soviet Union was supposed to overtake the United States by 1970, but in 1977 the per-capita GNP is still (not quite) on the level of Greece and Spain. There has been, and will continue to be, a relative decline in the production of consumer goods. Furthermore, the Soviet economy faces considerable difficulties in its endeavor to increase productivity and capital formation.

The Soviet economy has, it is true, been less violently shaken by cyclical ups and downs than the economies of non-Communist nations. There is no unemployment (except the hidden one, which is not extensive), and the mineral wealth of the country will make it far less vulnerable to crises in the years to come than most other industrialized countries.3 On the other hand, it will have to extend considerable help to its less fortunate allies and satellites.

In short, the Soviet regime provides its citizens with a living standard which is still low by comparison with the West, even though it offers more security. The real problem facing the Soviet leadership in this respect is not an acute crisis but the fact that human beings are notoriously ungrateful, that unfulfilled promises give additional impetus to rising expectations, that even the most accomplished propaganda cannot make up for shorter working hours, more ample living conditions, or a greater supply of consumer goods. Popular dissatisfaction may well bring about economic reforms at a future date, reforms that were vaguely discussed in the late 50’s and early 60’s but then shelved. It is not at all clear, however, that economic reform need or would affect the monopoly of political power.



The problem of the nationalities, with their manifold claims and aspirations, is on the other hand in many ways more threatening to that monopoly. According to the last Soviet census, Russians constituted 53.4 per cent of the population of the USSR. Since there is reason to believe that this figure is slightly exaggerated, and since the rate of population growth is considerably higher among the Turkish peoples of the Soviet Union than among the Slavs (the former having increased by 50 per cent since 1960, the latter by only about 15 per cent), it is no longer certain whether the Russians actually constitute a majority. This would be of little interest if it were true, as is officially maintained, that the peoples of the Soviet Union coexist and collaborate with each other in a spirit of friendship and solidarity unprecedented in the history of mankind, thus creating a new and higher type of national community. But in fact there are many indications that ethnic tensions persist in the Soviet Union and have been reinforced by the global trend toward nationalism.

Soviet nationalities policy under Stalin was one of undisguised, forced, often brutal Russification; this was modified after his death, but since the early 60’s warnings have been voiced against bourgeois nationalism among the non-Russian peoples (even though it is not easy to understand how such nationalism could possibly exist among peoples who have no bourgeoisie now, and for the most part had none in the past). In some Russian circles, on the other hand, there has been within the last decade something akin to a cult of the Russian past—the village tradition, Russian folk customs and art, and so forth. Even if mainly cultural in character and strictly unofficial in inspiration, this trend too points to a revival of nationalism, at the very least on the emotional level.

The main problem is not the resistance of the non-Russian peoples to a cultural program that aims to force them to accept the Russian language and all that goes with it; the gradual emergence of Russian as a lingua franca is a natural process. Nor is it correct to say that the non-Russian peoples have been culturally neglected; higher education has in fact spread more quickly among them than in the Russian republic. But as experience in Ireland and in other parts of the globe has shown, linguistic assimilation by no means makes for political solidarity; on the contrary, the emergence of highly educated local cadres creates new tensions—in the Soviet case reinforcing the pressure for the de-Russification of the local party and state apparatus. Russia, in any event, was never really a melting pot, and the political limits of cultural assimilation are now clearly discernible.

Soviet nationalities problems have on the whole been handled with considerable expediency. While there seems to be an awareness of the potentially explosive character of these issues, they are hardly ever discussed in public. What is true with regard to Soviet Jews and Germans applies by and large to the Soviet nationalities policy in general: the number of exit visas has been increased, but at the same time the militants have been arrested. The purges of leading cadres have been more frequent and more thoroughgoing in the non-Russian republics than in Moscow, but by way of compensation there has been a deliberate effort to co-opt more non-Russians into the Politburo (including the secretaries general of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekstan, a Balt, and, of course, some leaders of Ukrainian origin). Russian leaders no doubt harbor few illusions of a truly integrated Soviet nation in the near future. Present policy is to defuse the inevitable conflicts by establishing close collaboration with the leadership of the non-Russian nationalities, in order to create an identity of material interests and to make them feel that they have no future except inside the wider framework of the Soviet Union. Given the circumstances, it is a realistic policy, but there is no guarantee it will succeed.

While the Russian republic has grown richer over the last two decades, most of the non-Russian peoples (except the Baits), being less industrialized, have grown relatively poorer. Non-Russian leaders are treated in Moscow with respect, but it is also true that none of them plays a role in the party leadership even remotely comparable to that once played by a Stalin, a Beria, or even a Mikoyan; the same seems to be true with regard to the supreme army command and the state security organs. Nor is it certain to what extent the collaborating elites in the national republics can be politically relied upon in Moscow; their own ambitions apart, they have to represent, at least to some degree, the claims of their fellow nationals, so as not to lose their credibility at home. This is not at all easy to accomplish, for at a time when even the smallest national groups in Asia and Africa have attained independence, with seats in the United Nations and diplomatic recognition, Uzbeks and Georgians, Azerbaijans and Kazakhs want at the very least to be masters in their own house. The Soviet Union is the last surviving multinational empire, and hence potentially quite vulnerable. Whatever concessions will have to be made could produce a momentum of far greater political significance than economic reforms. Hence the enormous sensitivity shown by Soviet leaders to separatist propaganda from outside.

None of this is meant to imply that the days of the Soviet domestic empire are numbered; empires disintegrate only when their rulers lose self-confidence and nerve, and there are no signs that this is happening in the Kremlin. Nor is there a united front of non-Russians, as there was, at least for a little while, in 1917. On the contrary, the claims of some of the non-Russian groups collide with the interests of others, and this opens a great many possibilities for a policy of divide-and-conquer, as was practiced by the Czarist regime. Still, it is fairly safe to predict that as centrifugal trends increase the new Soviet leadership will have to devote far more attention than in the past to nationalities policy.



By comparison, the challenge represented by the intelligentsia is almost insignificant. Once upon a time the Russian intelligentsia was a revolutionary force, but the qualities that made it so—loyalty to great ideas, a willingness to fight and to sacrifice—were confined to a small number of people. It is true that the intelligentsia turned decisively against the Czarist government toward the end of the century. By the same token, there are very few members of the intelligentsia today who are not critical of at least some aspects of the regime. But this kind of opposition, consisting of critical mumblings and anti-establishment jokes, is easy enough for the regime to live with. Occasional threats and occasional promises will keep the intelligentsia in line.

Indeed, aside from some individuals of exceptional courage, the record of the Soviet intelligentsia as a class has not been much better than that of intellectuals under other dictatorships. Some Soviet intellectuals have joined the ruling group and become nachalniki, bosses of one sort or another; others, not the best or the brightest, have offered fulsome praise to the historical mission of the party and its giant achievements. The great majority, while paying lip-service to official slogans, have tried not to get involved in politics. Talented young people of integrity are not encouraged to choose a political career. Among the younger members of the intelligentsia, official ideology is treated with skepticism, even open cynicism. But skeptics and cynics, lacking firm beliefs and values, will not, as a rule, choose the path of open defiance, with all the dangers involved. Rather than risk their careers, they will opt for the “private sphere” and invest their energies in their respective professional fields. They may be better informed about politics than the average Western intellectual, but they will essentially be passive onlookers. This general passivity of the intelligentsia is felt in the cultural sphere perhaps most acutely; even the late 50’s were an artistically exciting period in comparison with the 70’s.

Twenty years ago it was widely believed among Soviet experts in the West that the Soviet Union could not possibly stand still: it would either be transformed or it would degenerate. Yet there was a third possibility, as the years since have shown. Economic development has been coupled with political, social, and cultural stagnation at home, and a cautiously activist policy abroad. This combination could endure for a very long time.



What will the future leadership of the Soviet Union look like? In the near future, after Brezhnev goes, it seems likely that there will be a reshuffle among members of the old guard. But any such arrangement would be provisional; effective power sooner or later will pass into the hands of the younger members of the Politburo and the Secretariat. The transition may be smooth, for Brezhnev has placed his protégés in strategically important positions in the party and state apparatus, but it is equally possible that a struggle for power will break out, as happened after Stalin’s death. The Central Committee may try to reassert its authority, as it did on at least two occasions in the past (in 1957 and in 1964), by deposing some of the present leaders and promoting new ones. But it is also not certain that any of this really matters; it would be of importance only if the struggle for power resulted in a one-man dictatorship, something that seems unlikely except perhaps in a national or international emergency. The trauma of the Stalinist era (and to a far lesser extent of Khrushchev’s rule) has taught the upper bureaucratic crust the obvious lesson that its tenure, indeed its physical survival, cannot be assured under conditions of totally arbitrary rule; hence the necessity for a balance of power in the top leadership.

The generation that will succeed Brezhnev, Suslov, and Kosygin knows little about the outside world. This is not to say that the new leaders will be “Russia firsters.” The fact that the Soviet Union is a superpower has a logic of its own, and Soviet leaders are drawn into foreign affairs as irresistibly as are American Presidents. In this respect there is bound to be continuity with the immediate past, since the new leaders will certainly want to strengthen the Soviet military potential and make the most of Western weaknesses without causing a breakdown in détente. They may in fact be more dynamic in the pursuit, partly because younger people are usually more enterprising than their elders, but also because, in contrast to their predecessors, they have yet to prove themselves. In addition, the fact that Soviet domestic problems are so difficult to deal with, not to say intractable, may in itself contribute to a strong emphasis being placed on foreign policy, a field where striking successes may appear more likely. This is a well-known historical syndrome, and one not limited to Communist regimes.

Thus, the new leaders are unlikely to give up on the traditional ideological ambitions of the Soviet regime. The notion, in any case, that any Soviet leaders—whether those currently in place or those who will succeed them—no longer wish to see Communists coming to power in certain other countries because this is bound to cause tension and conflict within the Communist world, is based on a profound misunderstanding of Soviet psychology and policy. The Soviet Union is, after all, still the leader of the Communist camp; if it were not to press for the victory of Communism on a global scale, it would lose all credibility.

Nor, finally, are the Soviet leaders of the next generation likely to cut back on their military forces. The Soviet Union is a superpower, but not by virtue of its economic performance or the irresistible attraction of its official ideology. It has achieved the status of a superpower through its military strength. No Soviet leader is unaware of this fact, or can afford to disregard it. And the maintenance of a large military establishment carries with it the additional advantage of justifying economic shortcomings and political dictatorship—all said to be necessary to protect the achievements of “socialism” from powerful enemies even at a time of détente.



Political and social systems can remain stagnant for amazingly long periods of time. I have stressed some of the destabilizing factors threatening the Soviet political regime, but there are others pointing in the opposite direction. Thus the growing complexity (and vulnerability) of human societies reinforces in the long term the trend toward strict controls, toward the concentration of power in a few hands, and toward political domination by a relatively small elite. If there is discontent in the Soviet Union there is also a substantial part of the population, counting perhaps in the millions, which has a vested interest in the regime and which will oppose any change out of the fear that change will adversely affect its own status and privileges. This refers not only to those in the key positions of party and state, the economy, the army, and the security organs, but also to the lesser secretaries, officers, instructors, and bureaucrats, in whose hands lie the tools of coercion and propaganda. Although, historically speaking, dictators and ruling groups do sometimes lose their hold, such a prospect is not Overly likely in a regime in which the dictatorship has been deeply institutionalized, and which can rejuvenate itself biologically if not ideologically.

The truth is that the Soviet regime is without precedent, not because the revolution from above accomplished its aims but because for the first time in history the political results of revolution have been successfully “frozen.” True, there are enormous differences between the situation now and in 1950, and between 1950 and 1925. There have been periods of senseless slaughter, and others in which a bare minimum of violence was used. But the decisive lesson is that all these changes have taken place within clearly defined parameters, all scheduled to keep the regime in power, if possible with little coercion, if necessary by brutal means.4

Of course, all things, and all political and social regimes, are subject to change, and the Soviet Union is no exception. But if one day there is to be a movement toward freedom in that country, it will be triggered by forces and will take place in circumstances that cannot be foreseen today. As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, freedom is still the enemy of socialism and socialism is still thought to be possible without democratic institutions. The wandering still continues in a desert which has officially been declared an oasis.


1 An equally strange theory of Soviet liberalization has recently been propounded by Victor Zorza, quoting Alexander Yanov, a Soviet emigré writer. According to Zorza, Yanov warns that a breakdown in détente would lead to the replacement of the present, “centrist” leadership by a Communist-nationalist regime which would follow an isolationist policy “and could evolve into a Russian Nazi system.” The only way the “centrist” leadership can overcome the threat from the “little Stalins” is by allying itself with the managerial technocracy, or new class, which itself is attempting to secure its position by limiting the absolute power of the top Kremlin rulers. The West should therefore help the new class to “assert and extend its own authority in the interest of producing a regime able and willing to cooperate in a new international system.” Détente, in other words, is needed to prevent the “danger” of Soviet isolationism. If the logic of this argument seems a little doubtful, the historical parallel to Nazism borders on the incredible—although the thought of isolationism as a pronounced feature of Nazism is certainly a novel one.

2 Brezhnev's recent elevation to the Presidency does not mean the restoration of one-man rule but, on the contrary, the opening of a new, more acute phase in the struggle for succession.

3 A comparison of the Soviet growth rate with that of the other six leading industrial nations shows that in 1971 the Soviet Union ranged third (after Japan and France); in 1972 it was seventh and last; in 1973 and 1974 it was second; in 1975 it led the field—but this was a year of general crisis. In 1976 and 1977 Soviet rates of growth have been (or promise to be) about average in comparison with other industrialized nations.

4 It is this element of stability which no doubt helps to account for the curious fact that in the West favorable comments on the Soviet Union are likely to come today more often from conservative circles than from the Left. The writings of George Kennan are an example; more recently, Enoch Powell, the eloquent spokesman of the extreme Right in Britain, has published an almost glowing account of his recent trip to the Soviet Union (London Times, June 21, 1977). Mr. Powell notes with approval that “here is a state at once intensely conservative and intensely nationalist,” and he observes with equal approval that “it is self-evident to the Russians that the citizen belongs not merely to the state but to a specific part of the state, and has no right to leave his home or his country at will.” It is quite obvious what there is in Soviet society to attract these conservatives—stable order and discipline imposed by a strong authority.

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