A perspective on history: the Soviet system reconsidered
Theodore von Laue
In discussing the Soviet Communist system and the vast changes the country has undergone over the last 80 years, most Western Sovietologists or Russians have considered only Russian, or Eurasian, circumstances. Proper evaluation of the Soviet experiment, however, requires that it be set into the broad context of the twentieth century, a century of unprecedented bloodshed. Such an evaluation reveals that far from being the monsters they are often portrayed as, Soviet leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin followed the only practical course of action to ensure the survival of their country.
A profound shift in political ambitions on a global scale began in the late nineteenth century. Fueled by a desire for economic and industrial expansion, the British empire set the example, inspiring worldwide imitation by other European countries and the United States. During the First World War, the European powers’ pursuit of victory led to unprecedented mobilization and collective sacrifice. Casualties totaled over 12 million civilians and 37.5 million soldiers, setting the tone for the postwar years when power politics became global. What did individual human lives count when the fate of a country was a stake? The European war effort thus served as a model for ambitious postwar regimes like Fascist Italy or Hitler’s Germany, whose citizens were becoming politicized as never before. In 1927 the Japanese prime minister Tanaka dreamed of expanding Japanese power even into Europe. In 1917, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had proclaimed American democracy as the model for the world; by 1918 he predicted another world war.(2)
Viewed in this broad context, how did the Soviet regime, established only since the revolution of 1917, fare? The Russian Empire emerged from World War I disheartened by its defeat and saddled with massive poverty and unemployment. When Lenin signed the humiliating peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, ceding extensive territory to Germany, he announced his intention to “make Russia cease to be wretched and feeble and become mighty and abundant in the fullest sense of the term.”(3) But its vast Eurasian territories, populated mainly by uneducated peasants, did not contain the cultural resources necessary for building a modern state capable of holding its own with western European countries and the United States. The Russian writer Anton Chekhov in 1897 had condemned the peasant population as “rough, dishonest, filthy, drunken”(4); but, given the adversities of climate, territorial distances, the heritage of serfdom, and pervasive poverty, how could it have been otherwise? As for the Western-oriented Russian intellectuals, a small minority, they suffered from a strong sense of inferiority to the West and sought to overcome their country’s backwardness. As Dostoyevsky wrote in 1880:
Every great people believes and must believe if it intends to live long
that in it alone resides the salvation of the world, that it lives in order
to stand at the head of the nations, to affiliate and unite all of them, to
lead them in a concordant choir toward the final goal preordained for
Inspired by Marxism, Lenin defined humanity’s goal as Communism.
But how could Russia overcome its challenges to becoming that world leader? In 1902, while living in exile in London, Lenin had formulated a theoretical prescription for a totalitarian recasting of Soviet Eurasia: “[W]hat is to a great extent automatic in a politically free country must in Russia be done deliberately and systematically by our organizations.”(6) The liberal prescription, suspended during the war even among democratic countries, made no sense among what he perceived as brute Eurasian masses. In the collapsed post-World War I Russian empire, Western humanitarian values were an invitation to defeat. Peace and order, let alone territorial security for his country, could be established only by a determined dictatorship; popular support would follow.
Thus, in early 1918, when Lenin advocated terror against perceived enemies of the state, it seemed a minor cruelty amidst the continuing battles of the war. After the peace of Brest-Litovsk and a nearly successful assassination attempt against him, Lenin escalated his terrorist policies with the help of the Communist Party, the Cheka (secret police), and concentration camps for perceived enemies of the state. As Lenin’s prescription of 1902 began to take shape, anarchy and civil war endowed it with the ruthlessness bred by the world war just concluded.
Lenin’s brutal repression, evidence of which has been well publicized in the West, has led to widespread vilification of his policies. But Western experience, evolved in relatively small and much more integrated countries, is inapplicable to the Soviet Union. No European country had suffered as much as Russia in the First World War; Soviet leaders were fighting to save their country from utter collapse in the face of popular incomprehension. Moreover, brutality had long been part of Russian life, and never more than during the Russian Civil War of 1921. As Maxim Gorki has testified:
In Siberia peasants would dig holes and bury Red Army prisoners, head
downwards, leaving their legs sticking out up to the knees, then gradually
filled up the holes with earth, watching the convulsions of the victims,
which of them took longest to die.(7)
Regard for individual life was a necessary sacrifice in Lenin’s ambition to enhance life in the future. In Russia, necessary changes could be accomplished only by a highly centralized dictatorship mobilizing the Russian masses with the help of the semireligious Marxist vision of human perfection. In the West, individual freedom had always been anchored in powerful if ethnocentric nation states; under the circumstances, ideals of individual freedom would have been an invitation to disaster in the Soviet Union.
Can we then condemn a Russian patriot, determined to surpass the influence and success of Western nations, for wanting in 1920 to spread the Soviet model and reveal “to all countries something of their near-inevitable future”?(8) After the collapse of the Russian empire, in short, the Leninist model offered the only rational alternative to chaos if Russia were to regain some standing in global politics.
Like Lenin, his successor Josef Stalin (1897-1953) dreaded a repetition of the chaos of 1917. Stalin was terrified by the dangers to his country posed by expansionist nations like Italy and Japan. Germany soon would follow, he feared, and American influence loomed ever larger. Stalin therefore determined to modernize the Soviet Union in the shortest time possible, whatever the price. He frankly stated his primary intention in 1931 in utterly un-Marxist terms. After citing all the defeats Russia had suffered, he warned his peoples: “Now we are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this lag in ten years. Either we accomplish this or we will be crushed.”(9)
Obviously, assessing the world scene in these years of unprecedented change was a risky business, and egregious misjudgments by all political leaders were a curse of the decades between the wars. Modern Russian intellectuals’ blindness about world affairs is appalling; none of the exceptionally gifted intellectuals who condemn Stalin’s policies–Alexander Solzhenitsyn foremost–have shown any sensibility about their country’s external insecurity at that time. In his grasp of global realities, Stalin clearly outshone all his contemporaries. Carrying Lenin’s prescription to its extreme, he aimed at total control not for his own ego but to guide his ignorant country firmly through a necessary cultural transformation unprecedented in history.
In attempting to transform anarchic peasants into cooperative urban-industrial citizens, Stalin forced them against the grain of tradition into a pattern of life utterly incomprehensible to most of them. That drastic cultural revolution in the lives of millions of peasants, westernizing them by anti-Western methods, was designed to wipe out deeply cherished agrarian habits of mind and action. Rural landscapes of individual peasant farms and local villages were forcibly transformed into huge collectivized state farms, while workers were often drafted and sent to urban areas where they were forced to become industrial workers in state factories. Inevitably collectivization provoked resistance, both unconscious and deliberate, and in his solitary vision and lonely life Stalin was haunted by real or imagined threats. Remembering his adversaries in the early days of Soviet rule, Stalin had reason to distrust his comrades, especially in this time of perilous change. Even Stalin’s closest associates were uneasy, increasing Stalin’s insecurity as well as spreading instability in society at large. The conflict produced an existential void in Russian minds. The customary ways of thinking that had given meaning to life were discredited, and the new ideology did not fit human reality. As Yuvgeny Yevtushenko has written, “Stalin’s greatest crime was the corruption of the human spirit.”(10) And Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, complained in 1963, “No revolution ever has destroyed so much of value for the people as our Russian revolution.”(11) But given the threat to the country’s survival, how much of the anachronistic and individualistic tradition was worth preserving in this backward country threatened with political extinction?
Obviously, collective reculturation, involving rapid industrialization through a series of Five Year Plans and, more drastically, transforming anarchic and passive peasants into conformist workers like Western citizens, was a highly fragile experiment. Catastrophic mistakes and chaotic mismanagement were inevitable given the urgency of the change, the total lack of experience, and the vindictive temper of the times.
Yet Stalin’s style of leadership, although crude by Western standards, was persuasive among his disoriented peoples. The sophisticated design of Soviet totalitarianism has perhaps not been sufficiently appreciated. However brutal, it was a remarkable human achievement despite its flaws. The Marxist ideology helped suppress the ethnic and national diversity within the Soviet Union in a common membership in the proletariat that promised a glorious communist future to follow.
The party thus imposed a sense of Soviet superiority designed to match Western arrogance. In order to sustain that artificial pride, all subversive comparison with the outside world was suppressed. Soviet Communists promoted idealistic dedication, especially among young people, to help speed up the Stalinist transformation of Russian society. In addition, following fascist practice, the party idealized Stalin in order to promote emotional unity; ever present, he was “the beloved father, dear guide and teacher, greatest leader of all times.”(12) But though he knew how to act his public role, Stalin himself retained a sense of fallibility and imperfection, remaining remarkably humble. During cheers at a banquet in honor of his 70th birthday in 1949, his daughter Svetlana heard him say about the guests: “they open their mouths and yell like fools.”(13)
Stalin has been greatly criticized for the extent to which he used terror as an instrument to transform traditional attitudes and to force submission to the discipline imposed by the Communist Party–far greater than under Lenin. There is no need here to go into detail on this subject as it has been highly dramatized. Suffice it to point out that Stalin had reason for fear. The experiment of reculturation in the 1930s was at its peak. In addition, external dangers were mounting: Japanese aggression in China, German rearmament under Hitler. While a terrorizing shakedown enforcing loyalty and discipline had been part of Bolshevik statecraft from the start, now the need became especially urgent.
Stalin had plenty of assistants in his campaign of terror, among them Genrikh Jagoda, Nikolai Yezhov, and Laurentia Beria, not counting the guards in the gulags. Their wolfish brutality was rooted in Russian life, as Solzhenitsyn noted in his Gulag Archipelago: “Where does this wolftribe appear from among our people?” he asked. “Does it really stem from our roots? Our own blood?” And he answered devastatingly: “It is our own.”(14) Under the circumstances, a slower pace of reculturation, as suggested by some critics, would only have encouraged anarchy and retarded the process of mobilization just when external threats were rising. In any case, by 1938 the terror was scaled down, and Stalin himself admitted that “mistakes” had been made.
Stimulated by the new widespread literacy the Soviets promoted, which offered new job opportunities, and motivated in part by a sincere idealism for the Soviet cause, industrial productivity in the Soviet Union had increased by 1940. In addition, popular entertainment and cultural pursuits continued in Moscow and elsewhere; even under Stalin, Soviet citizens had access to music, ballet, and theater. Physicists and engineers were trained for the future glory of the Soviet Union, and all citizens enjoyed a degree of economic security promised by socialism.
Having hoped for cooperation with Hitler, Stalin was taken off guard when the Nazi leader invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Stalin had profoundly misjudged Hitler’s plans. War justified Stalin’s frantic effort to reculturate the Soviet population, as Hitler threatened the very identity of Russians. In October 1941, Hitler said, “We are absolutely without obligations as far as [the Russians] are concerned …. Look upon the natives as redskins.”(15) Hitler intended to Germanize the Soviet Union, and terror under German rule would have been even worse than under Stalin.
Despite devastating losses and months of battle, the Soviets were victorious at Stalingrad in February 1943, greatly boosting the morale of both Soviet troops and civilians. Essential resources were available to the Soviets for fighting the most devastating and cruel battles of World War II. By engaging the bulk of Hitler’s armed forces, Stalin’s soldiers not only preserved their own country but also assisted the victory of their Western allies as they invaded France in 1944. Thus the Soviet Union emerged as a victor in World War II and as master of Eastern Europe, more powerful than the tsarist empire had ever been.
Should Stalin now have slowed down his drive to catch up to Western superiority? His country was still poor and backwards, having suffered greatly during the war. Stalin therefore continued his basic course, now challenging the United States during the Cold War by matching its nuclear weapons. Thanks to scientists like Andrei Sakharov, he succeeded. When Stalin died in 1953 the Soviet Union was an incipient nuclear superpower with a strong ideological appeal in Asia and even Africa.
Though in Stalin’s last years the terror lessened under Beria’s guidance, the chaotic strains through which he had guided his country for so long led to increasing paranoia. As Khrushchev overheard him say in 1951, “I am finished. I don’t trust anybody, not even myself.”(16) In any case, the news of his death moved most Soviet people to tears; in Moscow people were mortally crushed in the crowds gathering for his funeral service. Although the price was brutal, Stalin had opened to them a source of confidence and patriotic pride; their country was respected in the world. Moreover, for the first time Russian Eurasia was safe from the hostile attacks that had endangered its civic stability in the past.
How then are we to judge Stalin? Viewed in the full historical context Stalin appears as one of the most impressive figures of the twentieth century. Born in obscurity, he rose to historic significance, a fallible human being of extraordinary qualities. He supervised the near-chaotic transformation of peasant Eurasia into an urban, industrialized superpower under unprecedented adversities. Though his achievements were at the cost of exorbitant sacrifice of human beings and natural resources, they were on a scale commensurate with the cruelty of two world wars. With the heroic help of his uncomprehending people Stalin provided his country, still highly vulnerable, with a territorial security absent in all its history. Always incited by the Western model, he accomplished this historic turning point in Russian history under circumstances utterly alien to the Western experience. Given the utter novelty of Stalin’s effort to reshape the peoples of the tsarist empire in a world of unpredictable change, profound mistakes on his part were inevitable. But we, the proud source of Stalin’s model, can hardly condemn the improvised imitation under non-Western conditions in perilously critical times.
In the postwar Soviet Union, profound changes in global politics were wrought by the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II. The United States, in surprising cooperation with Stalin’s Soviet Union, set the tone for a new era in 1945 by sponsoring the United Nations as a tool for peaceful worldwide cooperation. That vision was backed up by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that reaffirmed basic humanitarian values for the conduct of human affairs.
Despite the tensions of the emerging Cold War, the spirit of the United Nations penetrated into the Soviet leadership. Stalin’s atrocities became a moral burden as the country benefited from its new external security; the dread of Russia’s collapse faded from memory, replaced by moral outrage against Stalin’s efforts to prevent it. A speech in November 1956 by Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, revealed Stalin’s cruelties to a shocked communist audience. The compulsions maintaining political unity remained in force, however, although gradually they were scaled down. The pretense of Soviet superiority was upheld for a time by Soviet triumphs in space exploration, and under Leonid Brezhnev, who followed Khrushchev, the Soviet standard of living rose to its highest level within memory.
Yet as contact with the West increased, the Soviet system’s hold over its population diminished as inevitable comparisons undermined the communist message. When Mikhail Gorbachev took over as head of state in 1985, the Soviet experiment gradually was discredited. In 1989 Soviet control over Eastern Europe was ended, and by 1991 the Soviet Union had fallen apart.
Now Russia and other former members of the Soviet Union are conducting their protracted post-Soviet experiments, attempting to build civic communities and democratic governments in the vast Eurasian lands and among their divided peoples just liberated from the Soviet dictatorship. The Federal Republic of Russia, the heir to the Soviet Union, possesses helpful assets: unprecedented external security, an urban-industrial society created by the Soviet experiment, and considerable natural wealth. But it still suffers from its size, lack of civil cohesion, and economic fragility. The traditional divisiveness persists, aggravated by profound cultural disorientation and deepening poverty. Gone is the relative economic security granted under Soviet socialism, and violence still is part of life. Boris Yeltsin, in uncertain health, faces the hopeless task of mobilizing his people for a common purpose. High-living financial oligarchs in charge of outdated industries control most of the economy, and young people seek Western standards of living, especially visible in the artificial splendor of Moscow. Such standards are sustained by foreign loans, but the money lent to help the Russian economy flows back into private accounts in Western banks. While the prospects for the future look grim, nostalgia prevails for Russia’s past eminence in world affairs; Russians yearn for the self-assurance that goes with global prestige.
And thus we, proud Americans, again look at a Russia caught in profound distress. We are willing to help but still ignorant of what use our exceptionally favored historical experience can be for that distant country. We need first of all to let a loving compassion open our eyes to the alien realities in Russian Eurasia and to the helplessness of its peoples, just as Goethe advised nearly 200 years ago.
(1) Theodore Von Laue, Leopold Ranke: the Formative Years (Princeton, 1950), 138.
(2) Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 29 (Danbury, Conn., 1995), 362-63.
(3) Robert Tucker, ed., The Lenin Anthology (New York, 1975), 434.
(4) Anton Chekhov, “Peasants,” in The Oxford Chekhov, ed. Ronald Hingley, vol. 8 (London, 1965), 221.
(5) Feodor Dostoyevsky, Diary of a Writer (St. Petersburg, 1877; reprint, New York, 1954), 757.
(6) Tucker, The Lenin Anthology, 83. The quotation here is given an enlarged meaning beyond its original context, which deals with the training of a worker-agitator for political experience, but it reflects the essence of Lenin’s revolutionary theory.
(7) Quoted in Richard Hare, Maxim Gorky (London, 1962), 102-103.
(8) Tucker, The Lenin Anthology, 551.
(9) Josef Stalin, 4 February 1931, Sochineniya, vol. 13 (Moscow, 1952), 89.
(10) Yevgeny Yevtushenko: The Collected Poems, ed. Albert C. Todd, (New York, 1991), xvi.
(11) Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend (New York, 1967), 119.
(12) Quoted in Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography, 2d ed. (New York, 1968), 609.
(13) Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend, 160.
(14) Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1 (New York, 1973), 160.
(15) Dr. Henry Picker, comp., Hitler’s Secret Conversations 1941-1944 (New York, 1953), 91-92.
(16) Strobe Talbott, ed. and trans., Khrushchev Remembers (Boston, 1970), 307.
Theodore Von Laue, a professor emeritus at Clark University, received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1944 and was certified by the Russian Institute at Columbia University. Among his publications during his long and illustrious career were well received books on German historiography, late imperial Russia, and the Soviet Union. As a beginning historian, yon Laue was greatly influenced by the humanist philosophy of German historian Leopold Ranke, who insisted that specific historical problems be set in the larger historical contexts of “human freedom, or justice, or other fundamental goals of Man.”(1) Von Lauds career has been dedicated to understanding the twentieth century, a century of unprecedented interdependence, with, in his words, “the help of our moral absolutes: compassion, charity, love. `Without love,’ as [German romantic poet and novelist] Goethe wrote, `there is no true understanding.'” Von Laue credits his own experience as an American immigrant in sensitizing him to the need for a relativist approach in studying other cultures. He was interviewed by Roger Adelson for the Autumn 1995 issue of the Historian. In this issue he offers us a perspective on Soviet history based on his career of research and writing about the Soviet Union.
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