The Soviet empire in seven men

The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire
July 10, 1998

The life and death of the Soviet empire was circumscribed by the careers of seven leaders beginning with Lenin, passing to Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Chernenko and Andropov, ending with Gorbachev, their sway spanning seven decades, a coincidental numerology reminiscent of The Revelation of John, the "seven kings", the "seven bowls full of the seven last plagues". That association I suspect would raise no great objection from the late Dmitri Volkogonov, not least in view of his late Christian baptism, but essentially because he traces through the people and the policies of the seven Soviet rulers the effects of a pathogen that infected the Soviet system from the outset, a malignancy to which leader and system alike finally succumbed.

In his introduction Volkogonov explains the purpose of his "seven short books in one", the exploration through leadership profiles of certain fundamental aspects of "the country, the regime and the system". None of the seven was ever popularly elected. All came from the provinces, each had his own perception of how he would govern. Lenin was a "partisan political emigre, reader of books and newspapers". Stalin emerged from "the world of the classless" to become a merciless dictator, "Bolshevik clan chief", his knowledge of Russia "strictly functional". Khrushchev remained a boisterous "prisoner of the Great Utopia", Brezhnev equated stagnation with stability. Andropov, the policeman, viewed the state from the peak of the Lubyanka prison, Chernenko personified "a ridiculous appointment", reducing government to clerical routine. Gorbachev impaled himself on a fundamental contradiction: the belief in reform while simultaneously preserving the Communist system. Nevertheless, it was Gorbachev alone among Soviet leaders who attempted to encourage reflection on "the fundamental questions of the Soviet system". But Volkogonov adds immediately that reflecting falls appreciably short of rethinking.

Lenin and Stalin not only possessed the "power of dictators", they were widely recognised as dictators in their own right, "real" leaders enjoying mass approbation, an imprimatur denied to their successors. In terms of typology, Volkogonov identifies two trends. The first, initiated by Lenin and Stalin, was continued by Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, cleaving to orthodox Bolshevism and ingrained conservatism, leaving the system established after October 1917 intact and untouched. Khrushchev and Gorbachev represented degrees of reformism, the former bent on repudiating the Stalinist "cult of personality" though not Stalinism, the latter "undoubtedly the best of the seven" committed to "the most major reform". Here in multiple guises was "colossal power" but the very excess of it beyond control brought "irreversible erosion and destruction".

Volkogonov states unequivocally that "the party and its seven leaders" followed both the "logic and the letter of Leninism". What that implied and with what fell consequences is explored through the seven political portraits, which singly or together make for compelling reading in their own right. The extensive use of archives discloses the uninhibited rawness in relationships and the unabashed crudity of "comradely exchanges", vividly illustrated from the archival record of Mao Tse-tung's response in 1958 to Khrushchev on the subject of Stalin. "Mao: When I came to Moscow he (Stalin) didn't want to sign a treaty with usI I remember that Fedorenko and Kovalev passed on his advice that we should take a trip round the country. I told them that I have to do only three things: eat, sleep and defecate. I hadn't come to Moscow just to wish Stalin a happy birthday. So I said: if you don't want to conclude a treaty of friendship, don't. I'll carry out my three functions."

The studies of Lenin and Stalin, both revisions or reconsideration, of biographies published earlier, form the cornerstone of the book and need to be read in tandem. This Lenin is the founder and fount of Bolshevik absolutism, "suspicion, informing and secret collaboration" stamped on the system. It is to Marxism that Volkogonov ascribes the "genetic cause" of what evolved as Leninist Bolshevism, but to borrow a phrase used by Andrei Kokoshin elsewhere, Lenin himself, "the one-dimensional man", was responsible for the system's "genetic code", the violence, coercion, confiscation and cruelty, absolutism of power and the ideological imperative.

With its emphasis on violence, coercion and criminality, the appraisal of Stalin sees Stalinism as "the materialisation of Lenin's ideas", the realisation of "Lenin's precepts". In Volkogonov's view, Leninism and Stalinism were twin souls, taking from Marxism "one of its least emphasised aspectsI dictatorial power". Like Lenin, Stalin waged continuous war against "hostile elements". Permanent purge became a necessity, though war "slowed down the terror machine". Discussing the war, Volkogonov is not persuaded of assertions that Stalin planned to attack Germany in July 1941. From one who has extensively mined the archives, his statement that no known documentation supports such a contention has considerable weight. Volkogonov also exploits his singular access to archives to establish not only Stalin's complicity in unleashing the Korean war but also his subsequent role in its conduct. To provide air cover for the Chinese "volunteers" Stalin formed the 64th Fighter Aviation Corps based at airfields in northern China. But as the prospect of victory dwindled, Stalin steadily lost interest in the Korean war, the result in Volkogonov's view "a draw" concealing a moral defeat. The failure to "ignite world revolution", the vast expenditure notwithstanding, gnawed at Stalin. Yugoslavia had defected, the chance of victory in Korea missed. With such thoughts his death-bed closed on him.

Any trace of sympathy in this iron-fisted book is reserved for Khrushchev, the paradox of an unconscious Stalinist who nevertheless struck a deadly blow at Stalinist totalitarianism. Volkogonov acknowledges his instinct for reform but sees it undermined by "arbitrary behaviour" characteristic of a Bolshevik leader. Drama abounds in this study: the killing of the whining, cringing Beria, secrets of the 20th Party Congress "secret speech", exploits in space, the acrimonious disputations with that "old boot" Mao and the climacteric of Operation Anadyr, the Cuban missile crisis. The idea of "putting one of our hedgehogs down the Americans' trousers" was first broached by Khrushchev in April 1962. A month later Marshal Rodion Malinovskii reported to the Presidium. Commanders had been appointed for the operation, a missile division with five regiments assigned to Anadyr. According to Volkogonov all buttons (or their equivalents) were ready to be pressed, save for discretionary use of Pliev's tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba itself.

Catastrophe was narrowly averted but Khrushchev's days were numbered. Political obscurity was accompanied by physical decline. What followed was a virtual interregnum of advancing decrepitude, two decades of growing stagnation under Brezhnev, a temporary flourish of Andropov's disciplinary whip, mumbling inconsequentiality from valetudinarian Chernenko.

Last claimant of the hereditas damnosa was Mikhail Gorbachev, his "brilliant party" raising him not only as a Leninist but obliging him to remain one, hence the severity of Volkogonov's judgement upon him. Perestroika was in essence a call for a "return to the true Lenin" as opposed to Stalin's misrepresentations. By clinging to Lenin's dialectics as a solution, the party, politburo and Gorbachev undermined much of perestroika. Volkogonov's political judgement is harsh. Gorbachev, "little respected leader of a bankrupt party", lacked the resolve and insight to abandon his general secretaryship. His evaluation of the "historic outcome" of perestroika is more generous in finally acknowledging what Gorbachev himself proclaimed, "Society now has liberty."

What ultimately does Volkogonov mean by this patently malevolent "Leninism"? He sees it as morbidity, the public mind congealed within the Bolshevik system afflicted with the paranoia of "hostility to and distrust of any alternative social experience". This is not to deny the system a degree of "constructive social policy", education, health, social security, but the price paid in terms of a recognisably civil society was exorbitant and latterly debilitating. In "ex-Leninist" Volkogonov a minute residue of "Leninist dogmatism" seemingly still lingers in his approach and style, but otherwise this is a powerful work, its value substantially enhanced by the quality and quantity of evidence garnered from numerous archives. And for the smooth rendition of what was obviously a complex text into English, the reader has genuine cause for gratitude to Harold Shukman, translator and editor.

John Erickson is emeritus professor of defence studies, University of Edinburgh.

The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire: Political Leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev

Author - Dmitri Volkogonov
ISBN - 0 00 255791 6
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £24.99
Pages - 572

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