Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Gregory, Cohen, and Laqueuer on Bukharin

Let's talk about Nikolai Bukharin, shall we? And let me say up front that my wordiness on this topic isn't merely sparked by the review copy of the newly published book, Politics, Murder, and Love: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina in Stalin's Kremlin, that Paul Gregory's publicist was gracious enough to send to me (Hoover Press). No, I also happened to be thinking about Bukharin as a result of reading an essay by one of my favorite Sovietologists, Walter Laqueuer, entitled "War Against the Peasants; The Bukharin Alternative," found in his essay collection, Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations.

According to Laqueur, who is never anything but clear-headed and trenchant, Bukharin did not in fact offer a serious alternative to Stalin or to Stalism as an economic philosophy or indeed political creed. Of course, Bukharin was a much more humane and urbane man than Stalin or Stalin's cronies, whether or not they survived the purges (and very few did). Although he was at first a Bolshevik Leftist, he made exceptions and eventually came down fairly firmly in favor of a more moderate policy toward the peasantry.

On the other hand, Laqueur reminds us that Bukharin's economic philosophy did not break in fundamental ways with either Lenin or Stalin. All leading Bolsheviks accepted the basic economic tenants that squeezed the peasants and transferred wealth to the cities. Moreover, whereas Soviet economics can hardly be divorced from Soviet politics, Bukharin was the first to denounce Trotsky and his allies, and was often more shrill in his denunciations of political rivals than his early ally Stalin.

It's a truism to say that Bukharin suffered from the Original Sins of Bolshevism. That is, he believed in Lenin's economic policies as well as his political intolerance, and eschewed political pluralism and democracy. Even so, Bukharin is a sympathetic and tragic figure. Steven Cohen's famous biography overstates the case but does a great deal to illuminate the positive aspects of Bukharin the man and thinker. (And Gregory and Laqueur both point to that work's enormous influence inside Russia 40 years previously). Bukharin was, to be sure, intelligent, witty, creative, well-liked (by Bolsheviks), and even courageous in his own way.

Even so, Laqueur and Gregory are right to point out that Bukharin was not a serious alternative to Stalin as a politician. Notwithstanding his fans in the late Soviet period, Bukharin had no real constituency or even important governmental post. He had no great instict for intrigue. He didn't possess the requisite ruthlessness demanded by Soviet-style "collective rule." Bukharin was also known, as Gregory also points out, for a certain personal unsteadiness or emotionalism. He was never a serious competitor for power.

All that being so, Bukharin remains a fascinating story. Paul Gregory's biography reveals all of the pathos of Bukharin's downfall, which was a mixture (almost necessarily under the circumstances) of courage and cowardliness. In the end, it was almost impossible to be courageous in Stalin's Russia, so Bukharin's intermittent resistance deserves a good deal of praise. More interesting, is Gregory's incorporation of Bukharin's love life into this downward spiral from the Politburo and Pravda to jail and execution. Anna Larina, younger than her new husband by decades, supported her husband every step of the way, and sacrificed her youth by spending the next twenty years in the gulag. She was lucky to have lived. After Stalin, in the spirit of the Decembrist wives, Anna maintained a campaign to rehabilitate her husband, yet this rehabilitation didn't happen until much, much later.

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