Soviet society is in a state of spiritual turmoil for which there is no precedent in its entire history. A comparison with the Khrushchev years is valid but insufficient: the passion, the bluntness, the consistency, and, most importantly, the depth and the scope of the upheaval under Mikhail Gorbachev go far beyond anything that happened between 1956 and 1964. For the diagnoses being made today no longer center on “individual distortions” and “shortcomings” (no matter how repugnant) but are directed instead at virtually the entire moral universe in which Soviet society functions and from which it derives its legitimacy. Indeed, this assault far exceeds anything said or even thought by those who for decades have been branded by Soviet propaganda as “mad anti-Communists.” It is a mood strikingly similar to the one that swept the Russian intelligentsia at the turn of this century: bitter disillusion, anger, radical nihilism, and dense fire aimed at the twin pillars of the ancien régime—Orthodoxy and absolutism—and it could well have a revolutionary outcome of its own.
What is “Soviet humanism”? asks one of the most popular Soviet film directors, Eldar Ryazanov, and answers: “Soviet humanism” inspired Pavlik Morozov to inform on his father; “Soviet humanism” sent Soviet prisoners of war from Nazi camps directly to the gulag; “Soviet humanism” locked artists in lunatic asylums or threw them out of the country for “dissidence.”
The historian Yuri Afanasiev goes still further. In the pages of the Communist party paper, Pravda, itself, he declares: “I do not consider our society socialist, even ‘deformed’ socialist, [because] these ‘deformations’ touch upon the very foundations, the political system, the system of the relations of production, and most certainly everything else.” His vision of Soviet history is “millions of zeks” (political prisoners); “enslaved, robbed, hapless peasants”; the long-suffering Soviet people who undertook a “great revolution” only to be “deceived” and “humiliated,” only to be drowned in “sixty years of nihilism, spiritual void, and decay,” only to get a “socialism without freedom and without bread and butter.”
Yet it is not just the utterly unprecedented scope of these no-holds-barred philippics that sets the current muckraking apart from any similar campaign in the past. Its most original and most dangerous feature is the precision with which the heavy artillery is targeted, and the depth of shell penetration. In Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, almost every major legitimizing myth is being shattered.
Take, to begin with, the myth of “social protection” (sotzialnaya zashishennost). According to this idea, the Soviet state, while occasionally inferior to the capitalist West in the quantity and quality of consumer goods, shields its citizens from the ills of capitalism: hunger, poverty, disease, unemployment, crime, prostitution, and, following the latest Western trends, drugs and homelessness.
The debunking of this myth began early in the glasnost era with the simple acknowledgment that all these evils plague Soviet society as well. Then the formerly classified data started to pour forth—even as Soviet spokesmen, including Gorbachev himself, continued to tout “social protection” in front of Western audiences. (He did so with passion, for example, in his interview with NBC before the 1987 Washington summit and repeatedly during the summit.)
Of these formerly “capitalist” evils, the newly disclosed scale and depth of Soviet poverty, food shortages, inadequate medical care, and the housing crisis have been especially shocking. With the official poverty level set at 75 rubles per person per month ($1,413 a year by the official rate of exchange and $90 by the market rate), the Soviet people have been told that 43 million of their compatriots are under the poverty level and fully 40 percent of Soviet families (about 100 million people) live on less than 100 rubles a month. Pensioners are especially hard-pressed: every third urban senior citizen and eight out of ten villagers—over fifteen million people altogether—receive less than 60 rubles a month. (In case the Soviet reader needed help in understanding what living on 60 rubles a month means, the central government newspaper Izvestia published a letter from an unusually affluent pensioner who complained that she and her husband were unable to spend less than 150 rubles a month on food.) The handicapped are worse off still: an invalid woman with a child was reported to be living on 31 rubles and 48 kopecks a month. Contrary to the widespread belief that “in the Soviet Union no one goes hungry,” the consumption of meat and dairy products by the Soviet poor has declined by 30 percent since 1970!
But hunger in the Soviet Union results not just from poverty alone. Another, peculiarly Soviet, cause of it is rationing, a detailed description of which has also been supplied. In the Kirov region of the Russian Northwest the ration cards allot 500 grams (slightly over a pound) of cooked sausage per person per month and 400 grams (less than a pound) of butter.
Perhaps the greatest damage to the myth of “social protection” has been done by the gradually revealed enormity of the health-care disaster. A total of 1,200,000 beds are in hospitals with no hot water; every sixth bed is in a hospital with no running water at all; 30 percent of Soviet hospitals do not have indoor toilets. According to Soviet experts, the USSR spends on medical care five times less than the United States: 22 billion rubles as compared with $174.8 billion. (Undoubtedly, the perspicacious Soviet reader was quick to make a calculation based on the real market—10 to 1—and not the ridiculous official rate—1 to 1.57—and found that the Soviet Union spends 79 times less on public health care than the great capitalist demon the United States.)1
The health-care broadside ricocheted into another constituent myth of the “social protection” cluster—the “golden childhood” of Soviet children.2 The very same children whom millions of posters all over the Soviet Union proudly declare to be “our future” turn out to be attending schools half of which have no central heating, running water, or sewage systems. Children as young as ten work twelve-hour days harvesting potatoes and cotton on collective farms. In 1986 there were 35,000 labor accidents among working children under fourteen; “hundreds” of schoolchildren die in such accidents every year and “thousands” are crippled.
Not waiting for the Soviet public to recuperate from the disclosure of the infant-mortality rates—five times higher than Japan, 2.5 times higher than the U.S., 50th place in the world after Barbados and the United Arab Emirates—the muckrakers provided supporting details: “poverty” in funding for obstetrics; total absence of ultrasound diagnostic equipment (“Not a single Soviet-made machine in thirty years,” wrote the leading Soviet authority on obstetrics and pediatrics, “in the entire era of space exploration!”); unavailability of single-use paper gowns.
The last nail in the coffin of the myth of “golden childhood” was a short poem called “In the Maternity Ward” by the leading Soviet poet, Andrei Voznesensky. Grim even by the decidedly cheerless standards of mythocide, it is about a rat attacking an infant: “We ourselves are rats, blubbering/about things lofty,/. . . We save people on drifting icebergs/ Send projects to Mars/ A rat in a maternity ward/ ate through a baby’s cheek.”
Finally, prostitution and organized crime—which together with unemployment have for seventy years been identified with capitalism in the official mythology—succumbed to the revisionist onslaught. Fifteen-year-old prostitutes in apartment-bordellos, extortion, hired guns (it costs from 30,000 to 100,000 rubles in today’s Soviet Union to have somebody killed), street battles between rival gangs—a Pravda article went so far as to call organized crime “a state within a state.” Lacking, after decades of enforced silence, a vocabulary in Russian to describe the newly acknowledged vices, Soviet reporters have adapted words from the American scene like kidnapping and raket, and such concepts as money-laundering (otmyvanie deneg) and godfather (krestniy otetz).
Nothing binds the rulers and the ruled, Communists and non-Communists alike, so tightly as the tragic, heroic myths of World War II, the Great Patriotic War. For over forty years, the official catechism has been simple and dependable: the Soviet Union, confronted with the prospect of an imminent Nazi invasion and betrayed by the West, which was conniving to deflect Hitler eastward, artfully bought time in 1939 by concluding a nonaggression pact with Germany. The Soviet scheme worked: the Nazi onslaught was postponed by two years, during which time the Soviet state strengthened its defenses, trained the army, and stockpiled materiel. Then, after initial setbacks caused by the surprise timing of the German invasion, the Soviet army vanquished the Nazi barbarians and liberated the world from the “brown plague.” What is more, the Soviet Union did it all alone, with virtually no assistance from its allies; it succeeded because of the military genius of its marshals and the skill of its rank-and-file soldiers. (As Yevgeni Yevtushenko declared in his famous poem, “Do the Russians Want War?”: “Yes, we know how to fight!”)
Every element of this myth is under attack today in mainstream Soviet periodicals. The nonaggression pact has been labeled “one of the most tragic and shameful pages in our history”—no clever maneuver but, as far as the Soviet Union was concerned, a genuine and inexcusable treaty of friendship. A military historian reveals how, in the spirit of this friendship, the Soviets turned over German Communist refugees to the Gestapo. And for the first time in almost fifty years the Soviet people have been reminded of the statement made by Stalin’s Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov a week after the signing of the pact: “It is not only senseless but even criminal to wage a war to ‘destroy Hitlerism’ under the false banner of a struggle for ‘democracy.’ “
While the very existence of secret protocols contained in the nonaggression pact was officially denied by the Soviet Union until this past August, for over a year the mythslayers had been pointing to actions taken in the wake of the pact which confirmed Western accounts of those protocols—most notably the division of Poland between the Soviet and Nazi occupation forces. As for the adroitness of the “maneuver” itself, it is now said to have allowed Germany to concentrate all its forces in the West, to defeat France, and then to throw against the Soviet Union not only its entire military might but the newly acquired resources of a conquered Europe. Furthermore, the Soviet press has now disclosed that Soviet deliveries of “military-strategic” materials to Germany in accordance with the terms of the nonaggression pact played “a not insignificant role” in strengthening the Nazi military-industrial potential.
Soviet military strategy in World War II is undergoing a thorough critique as well. As if in answer to Yevtushenko, another popular Soviet writer, Viktor Astafiev, who, unlike Yevtushenko, is a World War II veteran, has said: “We did not know how to fight. We ended the war not knowing how to fight. We drowned the enemy in our blood, we buried him under our corpses.”
Finally, in perhaps the single most dramatic achievement of glasnost to date, the publication of Vasily Grossman’s great novel Life and Fate has struck at the very foundations of the war mythology by explicitly, and repeatedly, bringing up the parallels between the two savage tyrannies, Hitler’s and Stalin’s, and by depicting the heroic, betrayed, and martyred Soviet people as being ground between these two giant, bloodstained millstones. Said a shell-shocked participant in a readers’ discussion of Grossman’s book: “We used to portray the war [as] ‘there are Nazis and here are we. Darkness is there, goodness is here.’ Grossman changed the proportion, portraying the two systems not only in their collision but also in their eerie historical similarity.”
But more than anything else, what sets glasnost apart from all previous “thaws” is the willingness, and the ability, of the new iconoclasts to tackle the cluster of myths surrounding the Founding Fathers of the Soviet Union. Within two years, the wave of iconoclasm reached and passed the highest points of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, to engulf even the previously sacrosanct Lenin himself.
Unlike their counterparts in Khrushchev’s time, for the current generation of myth-hunters, brought up on samizdat copies of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, the issue is not the “rehabilitation” of the Bolshevik leaders killed by Stalin—Kamenev, Zinoviev, Radek, Bukharin. While welcoming such “rehabilitation,” the crusading Soviet scholars and journalists of today are in no hurry to make these old Bolsheviks into new icons. They are asking, instead, “How was Stalinism born, on what soil, and why?” And they are finding complicity in Stalinism on the part of the Founding Fathers, including those who opposed Stalin on this or that point. Thus Soviet readers are already being reminded that Nikolai Bukharin, perhaps the most celebrated “oppositionist,” was not just, in Lenin’s famous characterization, the “darling of the party” (as he is the darling of revisionist historians in the West like Stephen Cohen). In the 1920’s, Bukharin was also one of the most influential members of the dreaded Collegium of the OGPU (the KGB’s predecessor); he called executions by firing squads “a method of making Communist humankind out of human material of the capitalist epoch”; and he demanded that the kulaks (the well-to-do peasants) be talked to in the “language of lead”—a demand that Stalin later fulfilled by murdering millions of them.
In general, as one of the most daring of the mythslayers has written:
It is precisely the old guard that created the political mechanism, the tool for absolute power which Stalin subsequently used for his egotistical purposes. . . . In the final account, it was precisely the old guard . . . that voluntarily and by itself surrendered into Stalin’s hands the infinite power created by the revolution. Later, after 1924, it was precisely the old guard with its leftist impatience that urged the country to take leaps which turned into national tragedy.
Like Khrushchev before him, Gorbachev has discovered his own Lenin—this time, a “late,” post-civil war and post-Kronstadt Lenin, a “democratic” Lenin, a Lenin of the New Economic Policy (NEP), the foe of the bloated state bureaucracy, the defender of the private entrepreneur and peasant. But unlike Khrushchev, Gorbachev is unable (unwilling?) to prevent public exploration of alternative images of the great Founding Father. The water is swirling perilously close to Lenin’s pedestal and is rising higher and higher every day.
Significantly, neither Gorbachev nor Aleksandr Yakovlev, the Politburo member closest to Gorbachev, has been publicly committed to Lenin’s defense—most likely because neither wanted to fight a losing battle. Instead they have let Vadim Medvedev, the Politburo member in charge of ideology, to hold the fort. Yet the myth-hunters, seeing Medvedev for what he is—a hack with no real power—have proceeded to ignore his injunction against breaking the Lenin taboo.
The attack on the shrine commenced with Vasiliy Selunin’s masterpiece Istoki (“The Sources”), an essay portraying Lenin as the creator of concentration camps, a doctrinaire fanatic whose “education” before 1921 cost millions of lives, untold suffering, and brought the country to the verge of an economic abyss. Four months after the publication of this work, Medvedev reacted by condemning attempts to “trace to Lenin the beginning of the command-and-administer system.” But the iconoclasts, having crossed the threshold of the temple, had begun moving inexorably toward the sanctum sanctorum—the October Revolution and Leninist morality.
The 1917 Bolshevik coup is beginning to be portrayed precisely as that—a coup. Replacing the glorious “Great October Socialist Revolution” there is now seen to be a gang of conspirators, “taken seriously by very few people,” who “did not know how to solve the complicated problems of society but offered instead a set of very simple, primitive, understandable quasi-solutions.”
The myth of the October Revolution was dealt another blow by the reprinting, for the first time since 1918, of Maxim Gorky’s Untimely Thoughts, a classic denunciation of the horrors the Revolution had already then visited upon Russia. Although the passages directly attacking Lenin were censored out, the picture that emerges is one of “thousands, yes, thousands of people—workers and peasants—starving in prisons” and of “violence which is unworthy of democracy.”
As the veil of lies is lifted from the crushing of the nascent Russian democratic state by the Bolsheviks, the Constituent Assembly of 1918 is beginning to receive sympathetic coverage as Russia’s last hope for a parliamentary democracy. With increasing frequency, the dissolution of the Assembly after one session on January 18, 1918 is cited today as a precedent for a crackdown that could end the current “thaw” as well.
But what is potentially most damaging to the mythology of the Founding Fathers is the attack on the old moral justification of the Bolshevik terror. This justification was supplied by Lenin himself in a passage that generations of Soviet schoolchildren have had to memorize: “Our morality is completely subordinate to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat. . . . In the foundation of Communist morality lies the struggle for the strengthening and completion of Communism.”
An oblique yet unambiguous repudiation of this doctrine was published recently by the party’s main theoretical journal Kommunist, which compared Lenin’s “class morality” to the murderous “Catechism of the Revolutionary” of the 19th-century Russian terrorist Nechaev (“Everything is moral that expedites the triumph of the revolution”). Going even further, Kommunist also declared: “Once everything is evaluated from the point of view of some class, then there is no moral trial and no personal ethical responsibility.”
To be sure, there are still limits. When, this past April, in a now-famous TV interview, the theater director Mark Zakharov suggested that Lenin’s embalmed body be removed from the mausoleum in Red Square and buried, the director of the State Committee for Television and Radio was fired and the late-night program which aired the interview was “temporarily” taken off the air for “renovation of the sets.” Yet despite this rearguard action, the debunking of the Lenin myth will soon reach a double crescendo. First has come the publication in Oktyabr of Vasily Grossman’s Forever Flowing, a loosely-jointed narrative from which Lenin emerges both as a theoretician of totalitarianism and as its first practitioner. As a labor-camp inmate in the book puts it: “Lenin began the business of strangling Russian democracy, Stalin finished it.” Then there is Novy Mir’s serialization of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, the first chapter of whose second volume lays the creation of concentration camps squarely at Lenin’s door.
The vengeful filling-in of the “blank spaces” in Soviet history, combined with the loss or outright denial of any moral justification for what is now revealed to have happened, has produced a predictable result: people now question the legitimacy not just of parts of the Soviet record but of the Soviet regime itself. Incredibly, the rector of the Moscow State Institute of History and Archives now feels safe in stating that the Soviet regime “was brought into being through bloodshed, with the aid of mass murder and crimes against humanity” and that “one must admit Soviet history as a whole is not fit to serve as a legal basis for Soviet power.”
The fall of the Founding Fathers may mark the final destination of the Soviet crusaders, beyond which lies a gaping void. Of course, the crusaders themselves are trying to fill the void with new icons, including genuinely religious ones. Thus, in a meeting with Lithuanian intellectuals last August, Aleksandr Yakovlev, the godfather of glasnost, several times invoked the term “repentance,” while Maya Ganina, a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta, has called for “kindness and charity for Christ’s sake” and the playwright Edvard Rodzinskiy has bemoaned the loss of the Bible, “the greatest book in the world,” as a weapon to combat “the deficit of morality and culture.” Among political models, the czarist Prime Minister Petr Stolypin (1862-1911) is currently much in vogue for his attempt to free the Russian peasant from the shackles of the commune and make him into a private farmer; the cult of Stolypin is likely to be given a powerful boost when Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, of which he is a hero, is published in the Soviet Union. And following Stolypin, it is safe to predict, will be Alexander II, the czar (1855-81) who abolished serfdom and introduced political reforms that set Russia on the road to capitalism and constitutional monarchy.
As for the orthodox, they are fighting desperate rearguard battles to salvage whatever is left of the legitimizing mythology. Their spokesman, the Politburo member Yegor Ligachev, declares that “the facts of unjustified [sic] repressions” must not “overshadow the feat of the people who created the powerful socialist state.” After all, Ligachev points out, in the 1930’s the country became second in the world in overall industrial output, while in the much maligned 1970’s “national income” increased four times and “military-strategic parity” was achieved with the U.S.
Yet all such attempts to restock the Soviet pantheon with old gods are likely to fail: once declared naked, idols are even less usable than kings. Of all the much-commented-upon contradictions embedded in Gorbachev’s reforms, this is without doubt the deadliest: having set out to create a reformed one-party state socialism “with a human face,” Gorbachev has unleashed forces that are methodically destroying the legitimacy of any such future arrangement. No economic reform, no amount of Western good will, even if concretized with massive transfusions of capital and technology, and no brilliant foreign-policy stratagems can hope to fill this spiritual vacuum.
And so the question is: what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Moscow to be born?
1 As of today, the Soviet Union reports only 80 AIDS cases and only one acknowledged death from AIDS. But there is a potential here for an immense catastrophe. A country the size of the Soviet Union needs at least a billion disposable syringes a year. The plan for 1988 was 100 million, the actual production—4.5 million. The shortage is so severe that it is a common practice to use the same needle to draw blood from several patients. Often, sterilization procedures are observed imperfectly or ignored altogether. As a result, 3.8 percent of the Soviet population—over ten million people—suffer from hepatitis B, the disease that is transmitted exactly the same way as AIDS.
2 A song in the required repertoire of the Soviet grade school contains the stanza: “Our golden childhood/ Grows brighter every day./ Under a lucky star,/ We are born in the motherland.”