Monday, July 16, 2012

The Good Soviets

I don't know if anybody can explain the source of their obsessions, interests, or passions, but the Soviet Union is undoubtedly one of the most important phenomena in modern human history.  This is true for a variety of reasons.  In the first place, the Soviet Union represented in some imperfect way the culmination of the wider socialist project of European intellectual history.  Bolshevism is related to all of the modern processes of European history, including industrialization, rationalization, colonization, and modernization.  We simply cannot analyze the meaning of the generic, ongoing Leftist critique of capitalism and modernity without understanding the Russian ideology of October, leaving aside none of its spectacularly visible triumphs and none of its egregiously terrible failures.  Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the other Old Bolsheviks were the inheritors of a revolutionary tradition that stretched back at least as far as Robespierre and the French revolutionaries.  They understood the Enlightenment tradition of political economy and participated fully in a historical dialogue about equality, fraternity, and liberty.  1917 is inextricably linked to 1789 and 1848.  What's fascinating is the extent to which the Soviet Union's collapse, in 1989, is also tied to 1789, although twenty years of introspection hasn't exactly helped contemporary Russians to understand their own place in the continuous history of revolutionary aspirations.

The Russian Revolution is a big moment in the history of humankind for a second reason:  it led, in short order, to the radical expansion of the revolutionary dream.  The expansion of this dream was so radical, that China is only one of many different countries that was transformed by their contact with Marxism.  While European power would have collapsed under any circumstances, Bolshevism helped to inspire some of its most successful opponents.  The Soviet Union has played a central role in twentieth century global history.  The country was one of the largest empires in the history of the world, and of course defeated Europe's second Napoleon, Adolph Hitler.  This alone would justify intensive introspection about the role of the Russian Communist Party and Bolshevik state.  The crimes of the regime are also intrinsically worthy of study.  Lenin's system of government led to unmitigated tyranny, famine, political terror, and demographic catastrophe.  To have lived through the early decades of the Soviet Union's existence, was to have survived revolutionary spontaneity, Civil War, economic dislocation, purge, colonialism, collectivization, famine, and global war.

The Soviet Union was an exercise in black government.  But it was also an engine of unprecedented experimentation.  At the time, there had been few similar adventures in atheism, central planning, socialist economics, or proletarian mobilization.  The Soviets attempted to re-write history.  Their faith in technology was absolute.  However misguided, Russian Communists produced something radically different from other villainous regimes:  they produced a serious critique of Western modernity.  In some ways, the Soviet Union remains the only plausible alternative to capitalism the world has ever known.

Understanding the full horror of Stalin's purges and gulag labor system makes it difficult to sympathize with the Bolshevik dream, but not impossible.  To understand Bolshevism, we must look to the revolutionaries of 1917.  Although Lenin made a long series of cruel decisions, his opposition to colonial exploitation, capitalist economic theory, tsarist oppression, and global militarism are admirable. But after Lenin and his colleagues had been swept away by Stalin, we must wait until the 1960s to rediscover the Soviet impulse for positive change.  In the 1960s, bloody Khrushchev became an unlikely champion of a benign future.  Notwithstanding his personal participation in Stalinist mass murder, Khrushchev had imbibed something good from his Party upbringing.  Indeed, he believed that the Soviet Union could successfully compete with its American and European rivals in the production of economic wealth.  The Soviet Union was, after all, outrunning the American economic growth rate by a factor of two or three, or so it appeared to both American and Russian economic experts.

Like Khrushchev, ordinary Russians in the 1960s had every reason to believe in their country.  We might well ask how this belief was possible when so many average citizens had relatives who had suffered so terribly at the hands of Stalin's lieutenants.  But Americans believed in the U.S. Constitution  even when millions of African-Americans were legally enslaved.  In fact, it was hard for Soviet citizens to ignore their government's propaganda about the unequal status of the slaves' ancestors even in modern, 1960s, America.

The novel, Red Plenty, helps us to understand this moment in 1960s Russia, after Stalinist brutality had faded, but before the limits of Soviet economics had been reached.  In the 1960s, Russia remained a heroic alternative to the imperialist West, friend of Cubans, Vietnamese, Polish, and struggling peoples all over the world.  In the 1960s, Russia was still a leader in nuclear armament, space exploration, and athletic competition.  The Russian economy wasn't perfect, but it wasn't apparently propped up by unemployment and inequality.  The secret was centralized planning.  During the 1960s, Russian life was good and getting better.  Housing shortages were getting better;  wages were getting higher;  consumer goods were becoming more plentiful.

If you read the Soviet Constitution, you get a sense of the Soviet promise.  According to that constitution, the Soviet regime was democratic but orderly, planned, and unified.  While Western critics talked about tyranny, many Soviet citizens may have once accepted their government's foundational documents at face value:  Russians, Ukrainians, and Uzbeks alike were heirs to a civilization of radical, proletarian equality, and logical, rational, and technocratic good government.  In the 1960s, most Russians understood that their system of government had overcome a dark past to overcome fascism, educate a backward country, and produce a space-age material culture.

Khrushchev's visit to America, which is discussed at length in both K Blows His Top and Red Plenty, is symbolic of this high water of Soviet pride.  Khrushchev landed in American in a gigantic airplane, larger than anything in the American commercial or military fleet.  The plane was so large he needed to climb down from it with the help of a ladder.   Khrushchev's visit was a strange mixture of braggadocio and insecurity.  Like many of his countrymen, the Soviet premier both admired and pitied America.  America was a truly great power, more dynamic by far than its decadent counterparts in Western Europe;  and yet Russia had come much farther in a much shorter space of time than America had.  If the trend continued, surely the Soviet Union and its communist imitators had nothing to fear from peaceful competition.  Khruschev had seen the future, and it worked.


  1. Just discovered your blog ad am greatly enjoying it - particularly the posts about having to lay ones books down into storage - a fate mine might also have to suffer soon....

    And while I am unconvinced by your defence of Henri Troyat I will definitely be looking for Bruce Lincoln when I can afford to buy books again....

  2. Thank you! I appreciate feedback. And Troyat's history may not be perfect but he's a great stylist, no?