Tuesday, September 22, 2009
One of the big questions I have about modern Soviet history is how exactly the system became humane. I suppose this begs the question of whether or not it really did have any claims to humanism. I read Natan Sharansky's chilling "Fear No Evil" which describes how the Soviet surveillance state continued to function well into the 1980s.
When I discuss the question of Soviet humanism, I really only mean that the system became much more moderate and reasonable in comparison with Stalinism. I wouldn't really debate Ronald Reagan's description of the Soviet Union in the 1980s as an "evil empire." In many ways, it remained that. One thinks of Solzhenitsyn's memoir, the Oak and the Calf, to see both sides of the story.
On the one hand, Solzhenitsyn clearly identifies many horrible traits about communist Russia: it was bureaucratic, invasive, cowardly, banal, vulgar, and generally un-free. On the other hand, Solzhenitsyn survived all of the oppression. He became famous in the Great Thaw but even after the Communists identified him as a threat he somehow survived as a public entity.
The book Armageddon Averted points to a perhaps related paradox: this massive empire, possessed of stockpiles of nuclear weapons, somehow disappeared without taking the world with it. This was a failure of will, but probably also a result of a kind of creeping humanity among some government elites (or perhaps just cowardice coupled with the growing democratic power of a humane citizenry).
I think this question of Stalinism turning into a different kind of society is the highlighted by the life of Khrushchev, especially as written by William Taubman. Because Khrushchev, despite his mercurial temperament, really did make some decisions by taking into account moral considerations. And yet the same man was a close crony of Stalin, a product of Stalinism, and a despot who helped to bring about near apocalypse in the Ukraine.
One recalls that Beria, who was responsible for political violence on a huge scale but also apparently liked to personally torture or rape victims, also tried to become a reformer when Stalin died. There's really much to say about this question of a creeping Soviet morality. Did it result merely from a reaction to Stalin's excesses? Did it actually survive Stalin's purges and gulags, and if so, how? Did morality stem from some aspect of Marxism, from contact with the West, from the Soviet intelligentsia?
Another instructive book related to this is "Conversations with Gorbachev" in which he and a Czech communist reformer who took part in the Prague Spring discuss their mutual attempts to reform communism from within. The Prague Spring participant has to a large extent turned away from Communism now, but Gorbachev perspectives are more interesting. Even now, he seems to be saying that Communism offered the world something, that it contained a moral sensibility that even now is needed in the West, if not in the form of a Soviet Empire.
Posted by Fur Coat