The Political Condition of the Soviet Union

by Vladimir Bukovsky

The Crisis of Ideology


The imminent downfall of the Soviet regime has been announced in the West almost every decade since the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd seventy years ago. Indeed, by the standards of the Western democracies they were always in deep crisis in the sense similar to that of traditional Marxist-Leninist teaching, which states that “the world crisis of capitalism is historically predetermined.” But, apparently, whatever the problem of a given society, it does not become “crisis” unless it is perceived as such by those who matter. Consider these examples: 


  • The loss of some 50,000 American lives in Vietnam created a national crisis, while comparable Soviet losses in Afghanistan seem to cause little concern in Moscow; 


  • At the same time, the Kremlin perceived as real threats to the Soviet system such “trifles” as a relaxation of political censorship in Czechoslovakia and the appearance of a new trade union in Poland; 


  • Communist takeovers in Southeast Asia and in several African and Central American countries left the American public quite indifferent, while a minor episode with hostages in Iran became a turning point in the American political mood; 


  • Mass unemployment during the Great Depression shook the foundations of American society while, at the same time, several millions were starved to death in the Soviet Ukraine without any awareness of a crisis. 


Clearly, “those who matter” in the United States do not matter at all in the Soviet Union, and vice versa. In a country where every life is supposed to be dedicated to a long-term ideological goal — the worldwide triumph of socialism over capitalism — the short-term well-being of the people means nothing. In the Soviet system, a crisis can only mean a serious challenge to the fundamental principles upon which the regime was built — described by the terminology of MarxismLeninism. Richard Pipes (1) is probably closer to the truth than he suspects when he ironically describes the current Soviet situation using Lenin’s definition of a “revolutionary situation”: 


“for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realize the impossibility of living in the old way, … it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way.” (2)


Of course, Lenin’s “revolutionary situation” does not necessarily mean a revolution exists, only the possibility of one. The outcome will depend heavily on the degree of “impossibility” of living and ruling in the old way, as well as upon the rulers’ ability to reform. However, “those who matter” in the USSR already clearly perceive the existence of a Soviet crisis. In his speech to the Plenary Session of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) Central Committee in April 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev ruled out any alternative except radical changes in the Soviet economy: 


“The historical destiny of our country and the position of socialism in the modem world will largely depend on the direction we take now…. There is simply no other way.” (3) 


But there are no starving crowds or dead bodies along the roads, no riots or clashes with the police, virtually nothing to show or hide on the evening news. Nonetheless, the stagnation of production and general backwardness of the Soviet economy has threatened the cause of socialism in the world. The hard-earned advantage in the “correlation of forces” may be lost to “world capitalism.” 


The current crisis and its implications for internal developments in the Soviet Union are described by Prof. Zaslavskaya in her famous “Novosibirsk Document” (4) in unusually frank and clear Marxist-Leninist expressions. This influential scholar — Gorbachev uses many of her definitions in his speeches — sees the cause of the Soviet economic problems in “the lagging of the system of production relations, and hence of the mechanism of state management of the economy which is its reflection, behind the level of development of the productive forces.” 


Lest somebody might have doubts, Zaslavskaya quotes a classic Marxist formula describing what actually happens in a time of contradiction between productive forces and the system of production relations: “There ensues either a period of acute socioeconomic and political cataclysms within the given formation, which modify and readjust production relations to the new mode of production, or there comes an epoch of a general crisis of the given social formation and of its downfall caused by a social revolution.” 


Nor should we believe that the socialist formation is a miraculous exception to this general rule; “attempts at improving production relations, bringing them into greater correspondence with the new demand of productive forces, … cannot run their course without conflict.” 


So, the Soviet people should brace for a new spell of class struggle in their classless society — or a struggle of “interest groups,” as Zaslavskaya tactfully calls them —because “radical reorganization of economic management essentially affects the interests of many social groups, to some of which it promises improvements, but to others a deterioration in their position.” And no class (or “interest group”) in history has been known to give up its position without a struggle. 


Not surprisingly, Zaslavskaya becomes vague and inconsistent, even evasive, when she defines the “social group” whose interests are antagonistic to the goal of social progress, and whose position, therefore, must “deteriorate” in the forthcoming class struggle. She speaks about an “intermediate link of the management” that has acquired more rights and responsibilities than those on the top and at the bottom; and about some bureaucrats on the top who do not want to have more responsibilities requiring better professional qualifications than they have. She mentions some officials who “occupy comfortable positions with high income and vaguely defined responsibilities,” and she describes the general tendency of the Soviet system to reward the docile rather than the more gifted and efficient. 


However, a description of general human characteristics and tendencies cannot substitute for a clearly defined social group that, in Marxist terms, shows similar economic interests and occupies a certain place in the production relations. She comes close to naming this mysterious group when she says that the “central element in the system of production relations is the dominant form of ownership of the means of production” — a classic Marxist formula. Should she go a bit further and name the culprit, she would not be an influential Soviet scholar anymore, but a dissident, because every schoolboy in the Soviet Union knows that under socialism the means of production belong to the Communist Party apparatus, acting on behalf of the “proletariat.” 


This is exactly the “interest group” — or “new class,” as Milovan Djilas called it long ago — the bureaucrats who occupy comfortable positions, with high incomes and vaguely defined responsibilities, who reward the docile instead of the gifted, and whose interests are opposed to a radical reorganization of economic management. When Zaslavskaya speaks about the need to shift from “administrative methods to economic means of management”; and when Gorbachev, echoing her, speaks about the need for more “independence and rights” to be given to the enterprises; when he, finally, says that “it is impossible to achieve any tangible results in any sphere of activity as long as a Party official substitutes for a manager…” (5) one has little doubt whose interests must be affected by this reorganization. 


The emerging dilemma is truly paradoxical: If the Party retains its control over the economy, the cause of socialism will be endangered and finally lost. If, however, the Party loses its control over the economy, it will thereby lose its control over Soviet society, and there will be no cause of socialism in our world. 


If the inevitable end of socialism can be predicted by the implacable logic of Marxist-Leninist analysis, then, indeed, we are witnessing a crisis of the system. 



The Soviet State: Dual Structure, Dual Purpose 


The Soviet state emerged as the first compromise between revolutionary ideology and reality, a compromise the communists had to make in order to survive. 


As soon as the Bolshevik victory within the borders of the former Russian empire had been secured, it was obvious the rest of the world was not going to follow the example. There was not a single sign that the world socialist revolution was soon to come. Attempts in Hungary, Germany, and Italy failed. An attempt to speed up the “historically inevitable process” by invading Poland also failed miserably: the Red Army was defeated, while Polish proletarians rallied behind their bourgeois government instead of revolting and joining forces with their Russian brothers. 


Everywhere in postwar Europe, economic conditions were gradually stabilized. Even Lenin had to admit by 1921 that the world proletarian revolution had been “delayed.” This was a major defeat for Lenin personally and for the cause of socialism in general. 


For Lenin it was a failure of his own pet theory, his main contribution to Marxism, according to which Russia was merely a “weak link” in the chain of world capitalism, and the Russian Revolution was to serve as a trigger for a general revolution in Europe, particularly in the industrially developed countries. His personal authority was thus at stake; the October Revolution was his personal gamble, initially opposed by almost all of his colleagues. The question remained: was it just an adventure or the beginning of a new era?


The longer the new era was delayed, the less likely it was to occur. A long shadow of a doubt was cast on the true nature of the Russian Revolution. If it was a real socialist revolution as predicted by Marx, it was bound to be repeated in all developed capitalist countries “within the reasonably near future”; (6) it would signify a real historical change, as had been true of the change from feudalism to capitalism, and from slavery to feudalism before that. 


The whole edifice of Marxism started to crumble right in front of the victorious proletarians, who believed in it as a religion, and who had just destroyed their country to achieve their victory, murdering a few million people in the process. The question remained: was it just a slaughter, or would history justify the casualties? 


It was even worse for the cause of socialism because its very survival appeared threatened: “For our victory to be secure and lasting, we must achieve victory for the proletarian revolution in all, or at least a few, of the main capitalist countries,” said Lenin at that time. (7) Otherwise, the “class enemies,” both outside and inside, could be expected to seize the opportunity of “strangling socialism in its cradle.” 

The internal “class enemy” was already rearing its head all over the country. Peasants were in revolt against the “war communism” policy. Sailors and proletarians followed in Kronstadt and Petrograd. The country, still overwhelmingly agrarian, had been virtually ruined by civil war. Fortunately for the cause of socialism, the external class enemies showed less interest in finishing it off, “because the capitalist world is progressively decaying and increasingly disunited.’’ (8) 


So sure were communists of the forthcoming world revolution that they did not try even to anticipate any of these problems, let alone to prepare a workable program. Even the most fundamental problems had not been discussed among theoreticians because “for a Marxist, relying on European revolution is a must.” (9)


Needless to say, there could be no way back and the revolutionary ideology could not be abandoned. Instead, Lenin proclaimed a new policy “of switching from a strategy of assault to one of a siege.” (10) “We are in the position of people who have to keep retreating in order, in the end, to seize the offensive.” (11) 


Internally, it was the New Economic Policy (NEP); externally it was “peaceful coexistence,” diplomatic relations, and even concessions to foreign capitalists, which, Lenin insisted, did not mean “making peace with capitalism.” 


Indeed, it was not peace. First, the Communist International declared “that fate [of the revolution] in the West would depend entirely on the progress and strength of the revolutionary movement in the Eastern [colonial] countries,” (12) a view accepted by Lenin. Basically, the idea was that the surplus value stolen from the workers of colonial and dependent countries, plus the plunder of the natural resources of those countries, had allowed the developed capitalist countries to bribe their workers, thus aborting the original Marxist scenario. Since that time, the main thrust of the Soviet revolutionary efforts has been directed to the Third World, creating a huge machinery of subversion with its own logic and dynamics.


Second, because of their fabled inability to unite, the capitalist states offered the Soviet regime an opportunity to exploit their own “contradictions.” In particular, it became possible to conduct a dual policy, one through official diplomatic channels, another through the Comintern. As Lenin stated it: “We must declare our wish for immediate resumption of diplomatic relations with the capitalist countries — on the basis of complete noninterference in their internal affairs.… In fact, they will be beside themselves with joy, will throw open their doors to us — and in will march our Comintern agents and Party spies to infiltrate their countries, dressed up as diplomatic, cultural, and trade representatives.” (13)


The Comintern developed into a huge machinery of disinformation and subversion, as indispensable for the cause of socialism as the “revolution in the East.” 


Although these changes helped Lenin overcome what he called “the biggest internal political crisis Soviet Russia ever faced,” (14) more fundamental problems continued to haunt the Soviet system long after his death. 


Central to these problems is an inherent contradiction between the state and a revolutionary ideology. Socialism promises a complete elimination of class structure and, therefore, elimination of the state as an “instrument of class oppression.” There would be no crime and no police, no army, and no national borders in the perfect society, no private property and inequality. How is this possible in a single underdeveloped, predominantly agrarian country, encircled by powerful capitalist states? According to Lenin’s own theory, the state is supposed to “die out” under socialism; yet its power must grow in order to survive and to promote revolution in the world. 


  • The state is interested in increasing productivity; yet the ideology demands elimination of inequality and imposes a principle of reward through collective social benefits, as well as strict central control of the economy.


  • The state must establish good relations with other countries, particularly if one expects to attract foreign investments. It needs stability in the world and stability in its foreign relations; yet ideology seeks to subvert them by spreading revolution and turmoil. 


  • The state needs the development of science, culture, and education to compete in the world market; but its ideology recognizes the universal values and declares science and culture to be class-oriented, serving the interests of the ruling class. It rejects bourgeois culture and must protect the population from its influence. 


  • The state needs calm and stability, a governmental structure and order, a just system of law, and citizens’ conformity to it, while ideology pushes to keep the “masses” in a revolutionary fervor, expecting world revolution as an advent of eternal happiness. Being a revolutionary force, it cannot rule by law, which is based on recognition of at least some inalienable rights of its subjects, but only by coercion. Its purpose is to remake man into a new creature, Homo Sovieticus. 


In short, communist ideology was created to destroy (and later rebuild) the world, not to compete or coexist within it. A “socialist state” is thus a contradiction in terms, which ultimately can never be reconciled. 


The contemporary Soviet state has evolved precisely out of these contradictions, according to dialectical laws. 


The new system of government was proclaimed a “dictatorship of the proletarians,” which in practical terms meant a dictatorship of the “advance-guard of the proletarians — of the Communist Party — ruling on behalf of the proletarians. By that time the proletarians — industrial workers and poor peasants — constituted barely 10 percent of the population, while the Party members constituted about 10 percent of the proletarians. (15) Leaving aside the terror needed for such a tiny minority to rule dictatorially, partocracy (16) became the only solution to resolve contradiction. 


Thus, there is always a Party “shadow government” — the Central Committee the CPSU and its respective departments — which oversees and works in accordance with ideology behind the backs of all other governmental institutions. And a network of Party cells penetrates every institution, from top to bottom, in order to  guarantee that each Party directive will be carried out to the letter. 


The Foreign Ministry of the USSR, like the foreign ministry of any normal state, is preoccupied with its professional duties of maintaining relations with other states, promoting trade, negotiating agreements, and, in general, advancing Soviet state national interests. At the same time, the International Department of the Central Committee promotes world revolution everywhere, making sure that the interests of communist ideology are given priority over any consideration of normal diplomacy. 


The Ministry of Education is concerned with preparing specialists in every sphere of activity, but its counterpart in the Central Committee is concerned with making a good builder of communism out of every student. And the Central Committee’s task gets priority when it comes to promotions and appointments, ideological content of educational programs, etc. 


The Ministry of Defense is supposed to be concerned with defense of the country and with training good soldiers and officers. But a parallel department the Central Committee, acting through the Chief Political Directorate of the Army, makes sure that these soldiers are good Soviet soldiers, the liberators of humanity from the chains of capitalism. 


The Ministry of Culture is supposed to attend to the promotion of arts, literature, and entertainment. But it is subordinate to the Department of Propaganda the Central Committee, which ensures that its real concern is effective propaganda for communist ideology. Accordingly, it became a ministry of political censorship, weeding out “wrong” tendencies and promoting the “right” ones. There is no such thing as “culture,” only “socialist culture” and “bourgeois culture.”


Even the intelligence service, apart from its “normal” duties of collecting military and strategic information about potential enemies, has a task of ideological subversion: disinformation, organization of mass movements, “liberation movements,” international terrorism, drug smuggling, etc. — in short, the organization of any activity that might destabilize, confuse, or scare the external world into submission. Internally, it evolved into a powerful secret police force. 


This dual structure, established in every sphere of life, on all levels — national. district, regional, local, with vertical and horizontal subordination — is a perfect instrument of control and an ideal system of government for the dual purposes of Soviet state: to maintain socialism within and to spread it without. For the Soviet state is not a traditional state: it is the material and operational base of the world socialist revolution. Internally, it maintains a regime of occupation; externally, a state of permanent ideological war. One is impossible without the other. 



Ideological Warfare Backed by Military Power 


As much as a “socialist state” is a contradiction in terms, the Soviet man, a kind of a “revolutionary conformist,” is also an irreconcilable contradiction. This new humanoid, Homo Sovieticus, is supposed to be seething with revolutionary zeal while working, resting, rearing children, or waiting for five years for a flat to live in. He must be filled with ever-consuming “class hatred” toward the American capitalists, while observing the governmental villas and the party bosses’ limousines, or while waiting in line to get a pound of rotten potatoes. 


Clearly, such states of mind can be maintained only in a completely isolated country, where people do not know their own history and cannot communicate with each other except through official channels. Yet, it is impossible to live and compete with the outside world, let alone spread the revolution across the globe, if the country is totally isolated. It must be a kind of “semiconductor,” which exchanges lies about Soviet life for lies about the outside world. 


The nation must constantly be kept on the edge of a catastrophe, of a crisis, to make the system work. What can provide that condition better than the permanent threat of war? 


Constant hostility to the outside world and a permanent threat of war fit perfectly into communist ideology and its dogma of inevitable class struggle. The basic thesis is simple: the socialist state, which is promoting the liberation of the brother-proletarians in the capitalist world, can only be a deadly threat to the capitalist system. As such, it is a constant target of its plots, aggressive plans, provocations. The Soviet state is not an aggressor, according to this doctrine: it is simply on the side of the exploited masses, who fight for their liberation against their greedy rulers. The mere existence of the socialist state (and, particularly, its every success, whether a huge construction project or fulfillment of a five year plan) is a ray of hope for the oppressed proletarians in the capitalist countries and is a threat to the existence of capitalism.


The Soviet people must work hard because each success is a new blow to the common enemy. They must be disciplined. They must not tell the enemy their shortcomings or their secrets. They must be vigilant; and, because the enemy may be nearby, they must inform on each other. They must not relax; they must defend themselves — therefore, their army must be the best. Above all, they have no right to demand justice or equality, mercy or prosperity, until the crisis is over — until, that is, world capitalism has been destroyed. 


Such propaganda is administered to every Soviet person, from cradle to grave, through all forms of media, arts, and education. This is a crucial element of the Soviet system, fostering secrecy, mutual suspicion, and the incentive to work for less, while making demands for improvements in material living standards or individual rights illegitimate. The system, finally, turns human beings into ideological warriors. In reality, the system is much more important than the Marxist-Leninist teaching itself, which is ridiculed by people in every walk of life. 


To be believable and effective, propaganda must bear some relation to reality. To survive, the Soviet regime needs the constant threat of war, international tension, and certain tangible proofs of its successes in the world conflict. 


On the other hand, a world war, particularly a nuclear one, would be a complete disaster for the Soviet system. Let us remember that only months after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, several million Soviet soldiers had surrendered to the enemy, something totally unprecedented in Russian history and quite out of character for the Russian people. The reason was simple: those conscripted peasants and workers refused to defend the communist regime, with collective farms, purges, and Gulags, even though they knew next to nothing bout the Nazi regime. Needless to say, a war with a democratic country will certainly produce even more defections. 


Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Soviet military machine engages in a war with the Western democracies. This could not plausibly be presented as another Great Patriotic War, and the army would probably soon disintegrate. If it advanced into Western Europe, the poor soldiers would see more food and consumer goods than ever before in their lives. All of them would be looting and drinking. None of them would willingly fight or return home. 


If NATO were strong enough to prolong such a hypothetical conflict, the Soviet economy would not be able to sustain the military effort. Fear, mass desertion, and an economic collapse, which are bound to happen in a prolonged war with the democratic world, make it extremely unlikely that the Soviet Union would ever try to solve its internal problems through a foreign war. 


Even less attractive is the prospect of a nuclear war. If the Soviet system needs anything in the West, it is technology, goods, and credits, not a gigantic stretch of charred earth. Above all, the leadership must fear that even a few nuclear explosions on Soviet territory would finish it by disrupting the system of centralized control over the population. Thus, as long as the West has the will and the means to defend itself, there will be no world war. But there will be no peace, either. 


Because the Soviet regime needs the threat of war for its survival, and yet cannot survive an actual war, the purpose of Soviet military might is to project the threat of force, not fight. Then, in the shadow of its force, it can employ its powerful and successful weapon—ideological warfare. The bigger the shadow, the better. 


The main principle of the ideological war is to claim sovereignty over your population, and then communicate directly with this population over head of its government. In essence, you pose as protector against an illegitimate, oppressive, or unjust government, and in doing so, you make the government look illegitimate, oppressive, and unjust. This principle implies a two-prong policy: one with the hostile government, another with the population, which is friendly and protective. The object of ideological war is to generate civil war or civil disorder, or to use already existing civil disorders to increase your influence and, finally, to take over the country. A more modest goal might be to create a constituency that will advance your interests. Your objective in this case is to change your neighbor’s policy, to modify his behavior, or even to force certain changes. 


Needless to say, the Soviet system is perfectly suited for conducting ideological war. Although the Soviet Union wages this war against the entire noncommunist world, it differs slightly in two large areas; the Democratic Industrial and the Third World. In the 1920s, when it became obvious that the world revolution was “delayed,” the main center of revolutionary activity was shifted to the Third World countries, where ideological war was waged for a kill. Revolutions followed in China, Vietnam, the Middle East, North Africa, etc. There was no need for actual projection of Soviet force, only for help to the indigenous revolutionary movements.


Colonial revolutions have caused considerable trouble in the democratic countries, occasionally bringing an acute political crisis, such as in the United States during the Vietnam war or in France during the liberation of Algeria. These revolutions, nevertheless, never developed into a serious economic crisis of the type predicted by Marx. No increase in class struggle in the metropolis occurred. Meanwhile, most of the world’s colonies gained independence. By that time, the Soviet machinery of “liberation” had acquired its own self-importance and logic. It became a part of the Soviet state and the Soviets’ most effective weapon of foreign policy. Its next operational concept was aimed at several strategically important areas: the Persian Gulf (Ethiopia, Somalia, South Yemen, Afghanistan); Southern Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Namibia); and Mexico and the USA (Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador). It developed useful helpers (Vietnam, Cuba) and clusters of mutually dependent socialist countries. It involved East European satellites in the process. Today the distant colonies are a large part of the socialist world and cannot be “dropped” at will.  

Most importantly, they became the only tangible measure of success the Soviet system could produce — the only proof that communist ideology is still correct and world revolution is still in the making. Besides, in the areas of expansion a direct clash with American interests often occurs, producing an additional source of tension and another opportunity to show Soviet superiority over “enemy number one.”


This, of course, is a powerful reminder to the sullen majority back at home that the threat of war is real and that the communist forces are still strong. 


This message is especially important for the numerous nationalities of the Soviet empire. War is always a risk, and ideological war is no exception. Countless Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Lithuanians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Armenians — to say nothing of the Eastern Europeans — are watching Soviet adventures in the Third World with great interest: one day the tide of war might turn the other way. (Some of these nations were occupied only recently, during World War II, and armed resistance continued until the early 1950s).


Thus, the Soviet Union seems to be trapped in its own expansionist policy because a collapse of a communist regime anywhere in the world may set an example to many, triggering a chain reaction. Lenin’s own theory seems to turn against his disciples: where is the weak link in the chain of socialist countries: Afghanistan, Poland, or Nicaragua? 


And so it goes, a vicious circle: the inherent instability of communist regimes drives them further on, around the world in search of a new target — even though it strains their economy and makes them more vulnerable. (17)


Meanwhile, in Europe, ideological war has been conducted much more modestly. The second strategic decision made by Lenin in 1921 concerned the developed capitalist countries, still the ultimate target though not an immediate one. This strategy called for “peaceful coexistence.” It did not mean, of course, anything like peace in the bourgeois sense. No such nonsense as friendly cooperation and relaxation can really exist between the class enemies. But the revolution was delayed, leaving a backward and half-ruined country facing powerful enemies. The task, therefore, was: a) to neutralize the class enemy, while b) strengthening the country by developing its industry, and c) quietly preparing infrastructures necessary for a forthcoming revolution. 


Accordingly, a more mild form of ideological war was selected for Europe: not to foment a civil war, but to organize and strengthen the forces sympathetic to Soviet Russia. Consequently, by the end of 1921, Lenin launched, through the Comintern, a new “United Front” — a broad alliance of revolutionary forces with the nonrevolutionary, “progressive” forces of social democracy, the reformist trade unions, groups of fellow travellers, and “useful idiots” among intellectuals. This was a long-term policy. 


On the other hand, capitalists were given broad concessions and long-term trade agreements, on very good conditions, to create a vested capitalist interest in the survival of the Soviet Union. Curiously enough, Lenin viewed it as a purely political ruse: “So, in negotiating the concessions, our own primary interests were political…. The economic aspect was secondary.” (18)


Little did he know at that time how important this “secondary aspect” would later become. Practically every “industrialization” project carried out during the subsequent five-year plans was made possible by imported Western technology. (19) From that time on, Soviet dependence on Western technology and know-how continued to grow until it became a major Soviet vulnerability. 


The need for a constant threat of war and international tension — both currently necessary for the Soviet regime’s survival — did not exist in Lenin’s time. Communist ideology was still sufficiently attractive in Europe, and revolutionary zeal had not yet subsided at home. Soviet propaganda about the “capitalist encirclement” and about “class struggle” was still effective. As Lenin remarked: 


“So how come that from all our contacts with bourgeois Europe and America, it is always we who have been the gainers and not they? Why always they who have been afraid to send delegations to our country, and not we to send our delegations to theirs? And, from these they have dared to send, we have always managed to lure some of its people (however few) to our way of thinking.” (20) 


But as the communist ideas became less attractive, the Soviet population grew more cynical and the Soviet regime had to rely on fear and the threat of war as substitutes for revolutionary zeal and devotion. The European peace movement, organized in the best traditions of the “United Front” and similar infrastructures, is fueled by fear of a nuclear holocaust, not by a sympathy with the cause of socialism. The emergence of nuclear weapons as a new factor in international relations gave an additional dimension to “peaceful coexistence,” with the “struggle for peace” being perceived by the Kremlin as a substitute for “class struggle.” And when the Soviet people watch on their television screens millions of Europeans demanding unilateral nuclear disarmament or protesting against placement of American missiles in Europe, their fears are reinforced and their willingness is strengthened to accept the Soviet regime as a lesser evil than destruction. After all, “better Red than dead” is a far more realistic proposition in the East than in the West. 


These changes in the equation of ideological war have occurred since World War II, as the Soviet population and especially the peoples of “liberated” Central Europe lost their belief in the socialist revolution. This myth was destroyed during the war, when millions of Soviet soldiers saw Europe and lived in occupied territories without commissars breathing down their necks. Stalin himself had to admit the complete failure of communist ideology when he appealed to the nation at its most difficult moment in 1941, invoking Russian national tradition and religion and carefully avoiding any socialist phraseology. Throughout the war, anti-Western propaganda was abandoned because of the Great Alliance, while high-quality American goods destroyed all talk about “rotten capitalism.” 


On the other hand, the brutal Soviet subjugation of Central Europe has considerably reduced pro-Soviet sympathies in the West. The iron curtain fell, perpetuating the division of Europe. And from that time on, the Soviet regime has had to rely on the fear of its military strength to advance its influence. With the American presence in Europe and, later, with the organization of NATO, this projection of force could work only if it was greater than the American one. Hence, military competition between the United States and the USSR became an important feature of the ideological war. A shift in the balance of power can decide the destiny of Europe, because political behavior will follow the shift: either Western Europeans will impose a “self-occupation” upon themselves, Finnish-style, or the Central Europeans will progress to a Finnish status or beyond. The latter, of course, would begin the Soviet empire’s disintegration. 


Accordingly, one final change has occurred in the ideological war: the Soviet regime no longer promises to liberate proletarians from the chains of European capitalists. Instead, it poses as a protector of all Europeans against American imperialism. 


To sum up, the survival of the Soviet regime depends today on three permanent



  1. International tension and the threat of war; 

  2. Military competition with the West — mostly the United States; and

  3. Expansion in the Third World. 


It also depends on Western technology, goods, and credits, without which it cannot continue to compete militarily with the United States, or expand further in the Third World. This dependence has become an unplanned fourth factor that slowly becomes more and more important. To compensate for it, the Soviet Union needs the threat of war more than ever — as the best “export” it can offer in exchange for technology and credits. Thus, Soviet foreign policy must fluctuate from detente to cold war and back. Its cycle works as follows: after reaching a maximum point of tension and deriving all possible advantages from the “struggle for peace,” the Soviet Union “sells” peace to the West for a maximal profit and declares detente. Since the system cannot relax without eroding, it uses this pause to improve its military balance with the West, and expand further in the Third World, thus fostering a new tension. And so on.


Of course, such a fluctuating modus operandi is not perfect. Ideally, the Soviet regime strives to reach absolute superiority, and simply “collect a tax” from the West, under the blackmail of the threat of war. As it is, it continually extends control over a few more countries at a time. However, the decline of the Soviet economy endangers even this imperfect process. Within ten to fifteen years the Soviet Union may become a second-rate power, incapable of military competition with the United States, unable to project its force and, therefore, incapable of generating a plausible threat of war. Collapse of its Third World and, later, European satellites is likely to follow, setting off a chain reaction within the USSR. 



The Crisis of the Dual Structure 


The dual structure of the Soviet state did not appear overnight, but evolved during 1918-21 Russian Civil War, and the subsequent struggles within the Party. Initially, Party control over the governmental apparatus was justified with the argument that most of the existing functionaries were untrustworthy “class enemies.” During the Civil War, most of the Red Army officers were former czarist officers conscripted by the communists on Trotsky’s urging, to serve as voenspetsy — military experts. Since these officers were fighting their former colleagues in the White Army, instances of “treason” were likely. Therefore, political commissars were appointed to each unit. 


The same was true in other spheres of life; old czarist teachers and engineers, although maintaining their posts, were perceived as “class enemies” and mistrusted. The Party was small (estimates show 115,000 members on January 1, 1918; 250,000 in March 1919), and consisted mostly of uneducated people (even by 1927 only 1 percent of them had graduated from universities, 8 percent had basic schooling, while over 25 percent were registered as “self-educated,” and 2 percent were completely illiterate), (21) as benefits a party of proletarians. 


The latter point is not a joke, but a very serious contradiction that was never resolved. On the one hand, a party of proletarians ruling on behalf of the working class should include a clear majority of workers in its ranks. So workers “from the factory" were the clear priority in recruitment and enjoyed especially favorable conditions for joining the Party. On the other hand, as soon as they became full members of the Party, they were promoted to leadership on all levels, thus ceasing to be workers. Demand for “real proletarians” in the Party was so great that only complete imbeciles were left without opportunities for advancement. This practice has continued almost until the present, creating an ill-educated and incompetent Party bureaucracy.


In due time most of the old “specialists” were replaced by new “Soviet specialists,” often Party members. Thus, in the army only 4,500 former czarist officers were still serving by 1930 (22) out of 50,000 on duty. The number of Party 

“specialists” in the governmental apparatus increased from 5 percent in 1923 to 20 percent in 1927. But the practice of Party “control” through political commissars created conflict between the more competent specialist and his Party controllers, usually less competent but obviously more influential. (23) 


Spheres of competence were defined vaguely: a Party leader was supposed to “lead, but not to interfere.” The considerable resentment thus accumulated was voiced at the 1923 Party Congress by People’s Commissar for Trade Leonid Krasin, an old companion of Lenin, who, on behalf of the “People’s Commissars as a whole” suggested that “Government should govern, while the Party should conduct propaganda.” (24) After 1923 this conflict became an essential part of the internal struggle in the Party; General Secretary Stalin defined the “proletarian dictatorship” as the rule of the Party apparatus over both the Party and the government apparatus. (25) Control of the apparatus was the main advantage against the opposition. 


Stalin had to build his personal authority in tough competition with old revolutionaries, who as late as 1927 constituted three-quarters of the leadership, while being only 1.4 percent of the total membership. By combining promotion of new members with purges of the old, and by increasing the power of the Party apparatus, Stalin consolidated his own power. This meant the creation of many new positions of control and a more extensive dual structure. In 1925, the apparatus constituted only 2.5 percent of the membership, while by 1939 it had reached 10 percent. (26) After the mass terror of the 1930s, the domination of the Party over the state could not be challenged. Its power became enormous, its privileges huge. Naturally, by that time it consisted of careerists without any real ideological commitment. In 1939, 70 percent of its members had joined after 1929, and only 8 percent had joined before 1920; (27) total membership was 1,589,000, and at least half were educated. Thus, the dual structure was complete by the end of the 1930s, with its inner core, the apparatus, reaching maximum power. 


A new class of bosses, of professional leaders and organizers, was what Stalin sought, a “certain type of Order of Sword Bearers (Knights Templars) inside the Soviet State, directing its every organ and spiritualizing its activity.” (28)


Indeed, they were and remained the very embodiment of revolutionary ideology, its priests and caretakers. For they are nothing without it but cynical parasites. But as long as the ideology reigns, they are omnipotent. There is no law, human or natural, that they cannot override. As a famous Stalinist wrote, “Our task is not to study the economy, but to change it. We are not bound by any law. There are no fortresses Bolsheviks cannot storm.” (29) 


In 1939, at the 18th Party Congress, it was decided that specialist departments of the Party’s Central Committee responsible for the different branches of industry should be liquidated because they only “increased confusion by competing with each other,” and by taking on the functions of economic institutions. This, it was argued, undermined the independence and sense of responsibility of the directors of enterprises. However, the result was totally opposite: being used to strict Party control, enterprise management seemed to be in complete confusion. After so many years of terror and purges, nobody showed initiative or took responsibility. Performance of the enterprises went sharply down and “reorganization” was quietly killed. (30)


After Stalin’s death, the appalling state of the Soviet economy forced Premier Nikita Khrushchev to attempt different reorganizations. He tried to subordinate the Party to the economy, so to speak, by giving priority to economic factors over ideological ones. He split the District Party Committees (Obkomi) into an Agricultural and Industrial Obkom for each district; he recreated Sovnarkhoz, the Councils of the People’s Economy (thus weakening central control). All to no avail. The people he shifted and shuffled were the same old Party bureaucrats and his haphazard “reforms” only multiplied the bureaucracy.


Eventually Khrushchev was pensioned off as a “voluntarist" who had rocked the boat too much, but the problem refused to disappear with him. Under the next leadership the economic functions were separated. Unlike Khrushchev, who was tormented by the need to reconcile the two opposite drives in the dual system, Kosygin represented the interests of the government (therefore, the need for reforms), while Brezhnev embodied the interests of the Party apparatus. However, if soon became clear whose interests were more important. Kosygin’s reforms turned out to be modest: all he achieved was to insist that enterprises should be self-sufficient and should generate profits rather than losses. Even this simple wisdom was never fully accepted. Kosygin’s reforms were watered down by the party apparatus and then quietly sabotaged by the middle management of the bureaucracy. 


The long years of Brezhnev’s reign saw the ultimate triumph of the partocracy. Not only did he outlive Kosygin, but he also was the first General Secretary in Soviet history to write proudly in the new Soviet Constitution (1977) that the Communist Party is, indeed, the supreme ruler of the Soviet Union and of its every institution. However, Kosygin’s efforts were not entirely in vain. His reform campaign generated debate in the hierarchy, and a barely noticeable split occurred between two trends: “managers” and “ideologists” (the actual terms used). Certainly, there was no questioning the ideology. Rather, the two sides argued how to better achieve the same goals. Thus, one side argued that, according to Marx, economic relations are the essence of history, a material force that moves society. And we are Marxists, aren’t we? Therefore, management efficiency should be paramount. Indeed we are, replied the other side, the ideologists — but did not Lenin write that the “ideas which come to possess the masses are a material force”? And we are Leninists, are we not? Therefore, ideological guidance is most important. 


Nevertheless, a number of interesting industrial experiments were carried in the 1960s, and were written up ecstatically in the Soviet newspapers. The early euphoria passed, for the experiments illustrated all too clearly the superiority of capitalist methods over socialist methods. It was clear that, if extended country-wide, although they would lead to a more rapid economic growth, they would also restore those “ulcers” of capitalism with which Soviet propaganda loves to frighten people: unemployment, inflation, and “the anarchy of production.” That is, it would be a market economy, and the state would no longer maintain its control over economic life. More importantly, it would render Party control of the economy both superfluous and impossible. 


In the ensuing muffled war, waged under the banner of economic reform, the Party apparatus used every means to suppress its opponents, including judicial repression. (31) But the decisive stroke involved the West. As an alternate to broad internal reforms, the ideologists proposed detente. They gambled on obtaining extensive economic aid and a trade boost from the West. Why introduce dangerous reforms if you can get what you want from abroad? 


One must not assume that this disagreement erupted between members and nonmembers of the Party, or that the Party bureaucracy had only one opinion, while the government functionaries were moved by another. Anyone in a position of power must become a Party member, and positions within the hierarchy are often determined by chance. But in every society there is a certain notion of decency, or a criterion of dignity that is accepted by anyone with a modicum of self-respect. Nobody can explain how this came about, but “decent” people in the Soviet Union do not join the Party simply for a Party career. Those who do are widely regarded as “backward” types incapable of attaining a normal, “decent” profession. However, it is an entirely different matter when a good specialist is forced to join the Party. So, there is a dual path: one individual can become director of an enterprise because he is a good Party member, while another becomes a Party member because he is a good enterprise director. 


Managers belonged to the latter group, and ideologists to the former, but one cannot tell them apart by their official biographies. Most Soviet officials in either are required to have a complete higher education in economy, technology or industrial processes; most must have experience in both Party and governmental work. And the closer to the top, the more indistinguishable they become from the outside. 


Rank and file members in the Communist Party do not enjoy enormous privileges, but they have a better chance of being promoted, whatever their profession might be. The key positions in every community, in every occupation, are always filled by Party members. They constitute the ruling elite on all levels. Accordingly, they have a dual loyalty: first and foremost, to the Party which promotes them; second, to the enterprise, institution, or department they work for. The second structure — the Party apparatus — runs parallel to the local, regional, district, republic, and Central committees. There are currently 18 million Party members, roughly 6.5 percent of the population, or about 10 percent of its adult component. The ruling elite, the nomenklatura, is about 3 million, families included. (32) Other estimates go as high as 5 million. (33)


It is impossible to determine how many are “ideologists,” but they are a formidable force. It does not matter what they believe in; much more important is what they stand to lose. Their status being conferred by the Party, and not by their skills or talents, they could not remain on the same level in any other sociopolitical system (if, indeed, such a level of power and privilege exists anywhere else). Besides, many might be held responsible for corruption and crimes they have committed in the service of the regime, if the regime ever changes dramatically (as happened in Poland during the heyday of Solidarity). For these reasons, they prefer a long decline, a slow death, if the demise of the system should become inevitable. Although both sides seem to agree that some reorganization is necessary, radical economic reforms mean an immediate ouster and a loss of status for the partocracy. By contrast, a continuous decline in the economy, dangerous as it is, would mean only a gradual defeat for the Soviet camp, with the ultimate catastrophe coming perhaps fifteen to twenty years from now. Even if radical reform can “save the cause of socialism” (which is questionable), they would still prefer the slower scenario. Understandably, the idea of reform makes them uneasy — who knows if the process can indeed be managed? 


On the other hand, the “managers” apparently believe they do not stand to lose anything except their ideological chains. Being good specialists, better educated and more confident, they believe they will remain at the same level (or even improve their status) in a more competitive society. Members of the top echelon in the nomenklatura probably hope to become the sole masters of the country if they can manage to remove the partocrats. They may become that in the long run, but let us have no illusions: these “reformers” are simply more energetic, more self-assured, and better educated communists than the old partocrats. Being “specialists,” they are used to relying more on calculations than on political intuition, and they are willing to run the risk of reforms in order to “save socialism.” Being younger, they do not want to preside over the downfall of their regime. It is less clear, however, how much they understand of the system’s limitations or the possible consequences of needed reforms. 


Even if Gorbachev is a proponent of radical reforms, he will find himself in the same situation as Khrushchev twenty years ago. His reforms will have to be conducted through the same Party apparatus whose power he will strive to diminish. The General Secretary has no other instrument of control over the country, and by reducing its power he will be reducing his own, too. 


Ever since Stalin established his own power, by establishing the power of apparatus over the Party, and that of the Party over the country, any significant change in Soviet life must start with the apparatus. Indeed, during Andropov’s brief reign, according to some accounts, “hundreds of persons who held real power either in Moscow or in the provinces were removed. Thousands of middle-echelon officials were replaced or shifted to other duties.” (34) This “purge” continues, but even if Gorbachev places people like himself in every position of influence in the country, he is bound to discover what Napoleon discovered when his brother Jerome, whom he appointed to be a “king” of conquered Spain, became a real king in due time. After all, Khrushchev was removed by the people he had chosen and promoted when they felt he had gone too far. 


Structural constraints make far-reaching reforms impossible. But if they do not go far enough, they will not work. Where is the border between these two? The time when the government could govern, leaving the Party to conduct propaganda (as Krasin suggested), passed long ago. Once revolutionary enthusiasm died, the Party had to rely on an exclusive right to promote and to dismiss, to enrich and to impoverish any individual in the country. If people are promoted according to their talents and rewarded according to their performance, who will bother to join the Party? And if they do not — where is the reform? 


So far, Gorbachev has not unveiled a plan for reorganization. We can only guess its main features, from hints in his early speeches. (35) Amidst invigorating appeals for better discipline, he reemphasizes Kosygin’s principle of “self-sufficiency,” which this time must be introduced “in reality”; he threatens to eliminate many bureaucratic governmental institutions and hints at a possible return to the Khrushchev version of the Sovnarkhoz, or regional economic authorities. His constant subject is a need to give more rights and independence to enterprises, the simplification of central planning, and a “revolutionary shift to state-of-the-art technology.” It looks like a fairly minimal adjustment within the system. 


His other ideas are bound to be more controversial. Thus, his remedy for agriculture is believed to be wide introduction of a “family-based productive link system” (zveno), a system that was tested in the experiments of the 1960s but which, in spite of spectacular results, had been rejected as an attempt at restoring capitalism. 


Some of his statements are quite radical: 


“We should take measures that would strengthen the consumer’s impact on the technical level and the quality of production. We ought to radically improve price formation …”


It remains to be seen, however, how much of this “radicalism” will actually be introduced into Soviet economic life. 


Clearly, there is no overlap between what goes too far ideologically and what goes far enough economically. Such is the nature of the system. As soon as merit, professional skills, and real prices are introduced, the dual structure of the Soviet state will collapse. A writer becomes prominent because his books are popular among readers (not among leaders); an enterprise becomes successful because its product is in great demand; a student becomes just a student, a teacher — a teacher, and a government — merely a government. At such a point ideology will disappear, along with the Party apparatus. 


The introduction of “market socialism” in Hungary and the rapid modernization of China have created additional pressure (and temptation) regarding similar changes in the Soviet Union. But these are poor examples. The huge shadow of the Soviet Union prevents Hungarian society from going too far politically with its economic development. Nobody wants a repetition of 1956. But who is going to pull back the Soviet Union if it strays too far? 


Chinese reforms are just beginning and their further development or results uncertain. There is, however, a very important difference between the Soviet Union and China: the latter need not ponder the repercussions of its reforms on a closely guarded “socialist commonwealth of nations.” Developments in Central Europe have always gone further than in the Soviet Union (Poland and Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, etc.). This centrifugal tendency will grow even stronger, because now the Soviet regime needs its satellites as an economic buffer during the present period of economic stagnation and costly reorganization. This strains the economy of Central Europe through the process of “further economic integration and international division of labor.” (36) Can the Soviet regime combine liberal economic reforms at home with tough policies in Central Europe (let alone with crushing popular unrest in these countries)? 


Such will be a particularly difficult task during a period of detente, which the Soviet regime desperately needs to achieve the goal of a “revolutionary shift to state-of-the-art technology.” In fact, they need much more; according to Gorbachev they need: 


“joint development [with the West] of new technology, planning and construction of [new] enterprises and exploitation of raw materials’ resources.” (37)


Of course, they hope to enjoy economic cooperation with the West without relaxing their internal “cold war” climate. Today, however, this may prove difficult to achieve. The Western public might, by this time, have learned something from the previous spell of detente. Also, the need for more initiative from the people in order to make reforms work, combined with an external detente, could make maintaining the internal “cold war” difficult. 


In short, limiting factors and possible grave consequences outweigh any drive for radical economic reforms. Desperately needed reforms may result in a loss of control over the economy. Reforms, needed because the Soviet economy cannot sustain the huge military apparatus and the effort of maintaining or expanding its external empire, may lead to an erosion of the external empire, reversing the momentum and threatening the internal empire of the Soviet Union. Reforms are needed to sustain military competition with the West, but they may require prolonged period of detente with all the dangerous consequences that would entail. 


Accordingly, two variables are enormously important: first, the behavior of the West;  second, the behavior of the Soviet population. If the West provides help a great scale and places no preconditions involving internal systemic changes on its transfers of technology, equipment, and consumer goods, then the Soviet regime can get away with a policy of minimal change and will continue its “class struggle” for another decade or more before its next crisis. That is, the scale of its reforms is inversely proportional to the scale of conditions of Western economic assistance. 


If the West continues to help perpetuate the existence of the Soviet external empire by recognizing Soviet client-states and providing them economic help (Central Europe, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Angola, and, perhaps soon, Vietnam), then the price of the empire will continue to drop and the risk of collapse will be diminished, slowing the drive for radical changes in the Soviet economy. If, on the contrary, the West disassociates itself from these countries and supports resistance movements, then the drive for improving the performance of the Soviet economy must increase, producing, in turn, desirable internal changes. 


A similar effect is produced by the American rearmament program and particularly, by the Strategic Defense Initiative. If the Americans abandon SDI, the pressure for reform will be reduced. 


Finally, a second variable — the response of the Soviet population. How far must the forthcoming reforms go to gain their enthusiasm? How big must new incentives or popular belief in the stability of the reforms be to stimulate productivity to a required level? Will the Soviet people be deceived once again by propaganda and by their rulers’ television performances? Can they be simultaneously enthusiastic about reform and frightened into submission without a threat of war? In the final analysis, the extent and success of reforms will depend on popular reaction. 



Exhaustion of Materials: Human and Physical 


Of all the elements in Soviet society, the human being is the most neglected. Socialist ideology deals with classes, social groups, and “collectives.” The individual is absorbed in the collective and then, supposedly, is reborn, completely transformed as a function of the statistical average. While in a nonsocialist country, the prosperity of the whole is measured by the prosperity of each individual, Soviet citizens are supposed to define their wealth in the context of the common wealth of the society. 


Therefore, in 1918, the first major economic decision made by the “proletarian vanguard” was nationalization of all enterprises; the second was the establishment of centralized state planning (GOSPLAN) as a substitute for market relations; the third was the introduction of a system of “leveling” benefits to proletarians, i.e., collective rewards through social benefits (free education, free care, etc.). 


Whatever revolutionary enthusiasm among the masses might have existed in 1917, their response to this new system was lukewarm; by 1923, productivity had dropped to 60 percent of the prerevolutionary level (although the market oriented New Economic Policy was already in operation and some wage incentives had been reintroduced), and production reached only 25 percent of the average in the period just before the Revolution. Later, however, egalitarian “leveling” was abandoned. By 1934, the gap between highest income to lowest was a ratio of 29:1. (39) However, this did not include “rewards” for “productive” labor. Through the period of the Stakhanov movement and beyond during the 1930s, the higher productivity of the pacesetters was used to set production norms, not wages. Once the state (or, rather, the Party) became the sole distributor of (insufficient) goods, favors, and privileges, they rewarded loyalty, not productivity. Those who were more “loyal” were more “equal”. Money had little importance, and good relations with management and Party bosses became essential for survival. A popular book of the 1930s tells a story of an underground millionaire who, travelling with a suitcase of money, could not live decently or even buy basic things because he did not belong to a “collective.” (40)


Soviet economic development meant the rapid industrialization of the country, i.e., the development of heavy industry, engineering, and energy supplies. From the standpoint of Marxist theory, socialism can be built only in countries with a sizeable proletarian class created by industrialization. Further, heavy industry was an indispensable basis of military force, needed in a world of “capitalist encirclement”; and finally, economic independence from world capitalism is impossible without a strong industry. As a result, Soviet capital goods production, by beginning of the 1940s, increased four times over the level of 1928, while production of consumer goods trailed far behind. (41) By and large, heavy industry worked full blast for continuous self-reproduction. 


This process made people even more dependent on the state (Party) distribution system because consumer goods were in permanent shortage. An extensive economy emerged, with huge capital investments and low return on investment. An increase in production could be achieved only by building more and more low-profit enterprises. In due time, such economic expansion reached its natural limit, with a permanent shortage of labor and capital. The economy survived only thanks to wholesale exploitation of natural resources (oil, gas, gold, etc.), a skimming of the easily accessible, low-cost upper layers. Thus, by the 1980s, extraction of practically all major natural resources in the country was becoming more costly, leaving the country with reduced means for expansion, and with shrinking hard currency resources. 


On the other hand, persistent labor shortages led to further exploitation of the workers. A number of legal restrictions were introduced in the 1930s—50s, including the internal passport system, laws on “parasitism,” punishment of those who changed jobs too frequently, and a wide use of prison labor in the unproductive branches of industry. The latter created an economic need for mass repression under Stalin (up to 20 million prisoners in the late 1930s), (42) which continued as an indispensable part of the Soviet economy. Although the number of prisoners decreased in the 1960s—70s to 4-5 million, a much bigger number of petty offenders (those sentenced to up to three years of imprisonment) were sent to work at “construction sites for the people’s economy.” 


At present, even the ruling Party has to admit that: 


“Further movement along this course in a situation where the possibility of involvement of labor, raw materials, and natural resources in production is reduced, will only lead to [an] increased number of unfilled jobs, to an excessive growth of expenditure for development and transportation of mineral resources, and for protection of the environment. This way of development has no positive prospects now: more and more investment would yield less and less results. In the present conditions, this would be a dead end.” (43) 


Developments in Soviet agriculture were even more disastrous. Communists could never make up their minds about what to do with the peasants, who because they earn their living with their hands cannot be regarded as a class of capitalists; on the other hand, they were not “proletarians” because they owned the “means of production.” This puzzle has never been satisfactorily solved and peasants were vaguely defined as a class with “petit-bourgeois instincts.”  


This ambiguity was reflected in subsequent political decisions. The Revolution was made by peasants who, attracted by Lenin’s promise of immediate division of the land, abandoned an unpopular war in 1917 to get home for the loot. There followed Lenin’s policy of war communism and confiscation of agricultural produce, which produced peasant revolts and hunger riots. Lenin changed course and introduced the New Economic Policy; within a year, agricultural production reached three-fourths of the prewar level. But this meant loss of state control; workers were less well off than peasants, and industrial investment lagged. So, by the beginning of the 1930s, the NEP was ended and war was again declared on the peasantry. Agricultural production again dropped dramatically; “collectivized” peasants did not want to produce. Starvation ensued on a vast scale and was used to break the peasants’ will to resist (exactly as is now taking place in Ethiopia). 


Soviet agriculture never recovered from this genocide, economically or morally. Although the 1928 level of production was surpassed by the end of the 1930s, this was achieved by increasing the acreage of arable land. Indirectly, Stalin recognized the defeat of his policy in agriculture when in 1935 he allowed collective famers to maintain private plots, a restricted number of individually owned cattle, and permission to sell their produce legally in the cities. By 1937-38, these tiny private plots (3.3 percent of arable land) accounted for 21 percent of all agricultural output in the country. (44) By the mid-1970s, the share of privately produced goods grew to 30 percent.


Paradoxically, when Brezhnev decided to increase agricultural production in the mid-1970s by investing more in it and by raising payment to the “peasants,” the production of agricultural goods decreased in inverse proportion to investment. With more money being paid for the same work and little to buy, the farmers simply decreased their private production. 


Thus,    both industry and agriculture reached the point of exhaustion; further expansion became impossible. Today the country must rely on imports of grain, technology, and credits to survive. 


Even nature seems to have been exhausted by seventy years of communist rule. Unlike in the West, where public opinion prevents or rectifies the worst excesses of industrial pollution, there were no forces in the Soviet Union to stand in the way of the state. The very idea that nature should be “protected from man” was totally alien to the revolutionary philosophy. “We cannot wait for favors from nature. Our task is to take them from her.” This was the slogan of the “proletarians,” who believed that, in the appropriate conditions, one can make a pear out of an apple and a government minister out of a cook. Seventy years later, this philosophy has created a major environmental catastrophe: Chernobyl is only its best-known example.


By the end of the 1970s, air pollution in the Soviet Union had reached “threatening level” in more than 1,000 cities; a level of “immediate danger for health” in over 100 cities; and a level ten times higher than that indicating “immediate danger” in about 10 cities. (45) Total economic damages caused by air and water pollution at the end of the 1970s were estimated by official Soviet experts to be 20 billion rubles, and by 1990 may reach 120 billion. Soviet rivers carry to the Baltic Sea about 20 times more pollutants than the Rhine delivers to the North Sea. Since land reclamation is expensive, only about 8 to 12 percent of the land destroyed by quarries and other methods of exploitation of mineral resources is annually reclaimed. Thus, about 77,200 square miles of territory had been destroyed by the end of the 1970s, with an additional 400 square miles being destroyed each year. Another problem is the rapid depletion of forests.


More land is destroyed by huge artificial lakes and seas created by hydro electric power stations. The area submerged by these lakes equals 46,320 square miles. Soil erosion has made unusable a staggering 243,180 square miles of once excellent fields (with biological productivity being reduced by 80 to 90percent). Komarov has calculated that the total land lost is equal to the territories of England, France, Italy, West Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg combined. (46) An estimated 100 to 200 years will be needed to restore it. 


Soviet policies have also destroyed rivers, turning them into stinking swamps. All this failed to produce the required amount of hydroelectric energy when the water level dropped. Evaporation, agricultural irrigation, and rapid expansion of industry aggravated the problem further. Natural lakes and seas — the Aral Sea, the Sea of Azov, the Caspian Sea — may shrink greatly or simply disappear by the next century. The ecology of the Black Sea is already damaged and will be damaged further. Shortage of water will affect development plans in industry and agriculture. 


The main solution pursued is to continue building canals, dams, and lakes. Thus, the waters of the Danube are going to be diverted northward, and proposals — now abandoned — would have turned the course of northern rivers (Pechora, Sukhona, Onega, and North Dvina) to the south via the Volga. There are also proposals to redirect the waters of huge Siberian rivers (Ob and Irtysh) to Central Asia, through a canal 1,500 miles long. Both projects would have cost about 35 billion rubles (undoubtedly with the widespread use of prison labor). (47) Scientists predict that these gigantic projects would not have saved the south, but would have destroyed the fragile northern ecosystem. (48)


This background of general hopelessness and environmental destruction is necessary to understand two widespread human reactions to Soviet reality: degeneracy and dissidence. 


One must remember that at least three generations have been born and have grown up under this system, watching the slow destruction of their country, culture, and fellow citizens. There is hardly a family that has not experienced repression at some time. For three generations these people have been obliged to listen and to repeat the obvious lies of official propaganda and to be cheerful at the same time because it is antisocial not to be cheerful in a socialist paradise. This contradiction alone, between reality and propaganda, is sufficient to produce a profound psychological trauma, to say nothing of ever-present fear, suspicion, and misery. 


One of the main goals of the Soviet regime was always to convince the population that they are in a no-win situation: there is no escape from their misery, either physically or emotionally. There is no way to improve their situation or to escape abroad, and any initiative is severely discouraged. This pattern is known in experimental psychology as “learned helplessness” and leads to the inability of the subject to discover how to escape, even when escape is available. 


One has to employ medical terminology because Soviet reality is not simply a matter of disillusionment, lack of prospects, apathy, or resignation. It is a biological exhaustion, a fatigue of human material. The signs are high infant mortality, low birthrate (below replacement rate among the Russians and some other nationalities), and an exceptionally high percentage of children born physically and mentally handicapped (about 6 to 7 percent by the end of the 1970s and projected to be 15 percent by the end of the 1990s). (49) The latter is partly caused by massive environmental pollution but largely by alcoholism, which is the most common escape-reaction. 


Contrary to popular belief, the current epidemic of alcoholism has little to do with traditional Russian drinking habits. A Russian prerevolutionary encyclopedia (50) says that in 1905 about 50 percent of men and 95 percent of women were total abstainers; per capita consumption was much smaller than in the United States today. A document smuggled from the Soviet Union in 1985 (51) showed an enormous increase in alcohol consumption. Although it is hard to believe, it is there asserted that, in 1979, only 0.6 percent of men and 2.4 percent of women were abstainers, and 5 percent among 

young people under age 18. In 1983, it reported, there were an estimated 40 million medically certified alcoholics; and that number is estimated to be growing to 80 million by the year 2000, or 65 percent of the working population. 


The second main reaction — dissidence — should not be understood simply as narrow political disagreement. Professor Zaslavskaya explains it as follows in the “Novosibirsk Document”: 


“Even with the most rigid regimentation of behavior in the economic sphere, the population is always left with a certain choice of reactions to governmental restrictions, which it does not necessarily … accept. Hence there is a possibility of overt and covert conflicts between interest groups and the society as a whole. When the established norms and rules affect the vital interests of certain groups of the population, … the latter often find a way to shirk restrictions and to satisfy their demands. When the state takes more strict measures to curb undesirable types of activity, the population responds by finding more subtle patterns of behavior to secure satisfaction of its demands in the new conditions, etc. Thus, reciprocally oriented behavior and interactions, of the state on the one hand, ... and of socioeconomic groups on the other, represent an important part of the social mechanism of economic development. (52)


Needless to say, the same kind of implicit “dialogue” occurs between the regime and society in all spheres of life. In the economic sphere, this “dialogue” has led to a “black market” of semilegal activities, corruption, and theft of public property. In other spheres it has led to cultural, religious, nationalist, and political dissent. 


The black market and corruption permeate every aspect of Soviet life, from top to bottom. Shortages of consumer goods, food, services, and materials have made it necessary for the people to develop their own system of distribution. The government has tried to fight it tooth and nail (since the early 1960s, a wide variety of these activities have been punishable by death), but the system grows. It has developed into a huge and intricate network of underground business activity, private industry, and corruption. The system of internal Soviet trade, many official enterprises, and a large portion of the police have become involved in it. (53) Quite often Party basses and top governmental executives become involved, or are bribed to cover it up. Few have been caught. During the eighteen years of Brezhnev’s reign, the top echelon of power became practically immune. One can only guess what effect this has had on corruption. 


To the population, the effect has been quite profound. If nothing else, people became less dependent on official favors and state distribution while becoming more and more cash-oriented. Consider the following, admittedly crude, estimate: the official average income in the country is about 160 rubles a month, and official governmental prices are calculated to allow people to barely make ends meet. However, little in the way of food and consumer goods is available in the shops, while in the black market their prices are three to four times (often five to ten times) higher than those established by the state. Since nobody dies of hunger or goes around naked, many actual incomes must be much higher — many people must be making 500 to 1,000 rubles monthly. When we hear that the black market price of blue jeans was 250 rubles in 1979, and they were “selling like hotcakes,” when we know that the prices of Soviet cars are in the range of 8,000 to 15,000 rubles, what else can we think? One cannot buy them with a 160 rubles monthly salary.


To sum up, the past seventy years of communist rule have destroyed any trust that may have existed originally between the rulers and the people. The latter can hardly expect significant improvements from any within-the-system reforms because the system has outlived itself. But, even if the system is dismantled, it may take a couple of generations before the country recovers and a huge, degenerated portion becomes replaced. Collective farmers have to relearn how to be peasants, “proletarians” have to learn how to be workers, surviving craftsmen have to teach their skills to the new generations. 


Gorbachev cannot count on these millions of “medically certified alcoholics’ to sober up suddenly and to become high-output Stakhanovite workers, even if he pays them five times the present wage. If they were capable of such feats of production, workers already would have joined one or another of the semilegal businesses existing in the country. The best Gorbachev can use them for will be on the construction of a 1,500-mile-long canal from Siberia to Central Asia, and of thirty-two dams on the White Sea, as some authors have suggested. (54) Gorbachev’s reforms must appeal to those who are interested in improving their personal income, who therefore must compete with the black market. In a way, Gorbachev’s reforms will help the black market. Two obstacles currently curb its activity: one cannot spend a lot of money in the Soviet Union, and, above all, one cannot do it openly. Both obstacles will have to be removed if increased material incentives are to be introduced. Besides, Gorbachev’s main idea —to reduce control over enterprises and to give them more initiative — implies even more “uncontrolled” interactions between underground capitalism and the state enterprises. 


In short, Gorbachev is going to learn what Lenin discovered sixty-five years before him: that the “market place is stronger” than socialism. It is of some interest to note what Gorbachev wants to do with the economy; it is far more interesting to see what the economy will do with Gorbachev. Whatever he does is bound to increase already growing inflation and, therefore, create conditions for widespread industrial unrest. Whatever his intentions, his actions will strengthen the existing trends. 




  1. Richard Pipes, Survival Is Not Enough (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), p. 199. This is a corollary of Plato’s assertion that changes in any constitution originated in the ruling class itself (Republic of Plato 545 AD). Cited in Alexander Shtromas, The Fall of the Soviet Empire, Second International Congress of the Professors’ Peace Academy, 1985.

  2. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin, “Left-wing Communism — An Infantile Disorder,” 1920, in The Lenin Anthology (New York: Norton, 1975).

  3. Pravda, April 24, 1985

  4. Arkhiv Samizdata, No. 5042, pp. 3-4, 16, 18.

  5. Pravda, April 24, 1985.

  6. V. Lenin, “Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii,” 37, pp. 299-300. Quoted in Bertram D. Wolfe, Lenin and the Twentieth Century (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1984), p. 144.

  7. Wolfe, p. 142.

  8. Wolfe, p. 147.

  9. Wolfe, p. 144.

  10. Wolfe, p. 155.

  11. Wolfe, p. 155.

  12. Wolfe, p. 146.

  13. Wolfe, p. 150.

  14. Wolfe, p. 153.

  15. These figures vary in different years. Thus, in 1919, 250,000 members; in 1923, 485,500; in 1928, 1,304,471. See Leonard Schapiro, Communist Party of the Soviet Union (New York: Random House, 1970).

  16. This expression was used by A. Avterkhanov.

  17. Charles Wolf, Jr., K. C. Yeh, Edmund Brunner, Jr., Aaron Gurwitz, and Marilee Lawrence, The Costs of the Soviet Empire (Santa Monica, Calif.” the RAND Corporation, 1983).

  18. Lenin, “Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii,” 42, pp. 95-96.

  19. Anthony Sutton, Western Technology and Soviet Economic Development (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1968-73).

  20. Lenin, “Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii,” 42, p. 116.

  21. Schapiro, pp. 331, 443.

  22. Schapiro, p. 465.

  23. Schapiro, p. 458.

  24. 12 S’ezd RKP(b), Stenograficheskii Otchet, 1923.

  25. 12 S’ezd RKP (b), pp. 56-57.

  26. Schapiro, pp. 452, 621.

  27. Schapiro, pp. 609-10.

  28. I. Stalin, Sochineniia 5: 71.

  29. S.G.Strumilin, Planovoe Khoziaistvo 7 (1927) 11.

  30. Schapiro, pp. 628-29.

  31. See Kudenko case, Khronika Tekushchich Sobytii 35 (1975) 56-58.

  32. Michael Voslenksy, Nomenklatura (New York: Doubleday and Co., 1984), p. 95

  33. Shtromas.

  34. Dusko Doder, “Andropov Rushed Renewal into Motion,” Washington Post, July 28, 1985.

  35. Pravda, April 24, 1985

  36. O. Bogomolov. “Soglasovanie Eknomicheskikh Interesov i Politiki pir Sotsializme,” Kommunist 11, 1985.

  37. Pravda, April 24, 1985.

  38. 12 S’ezd RKP(b), p. 29

  39. Leonard E. Hubbard, Soviet Labor and Industry (London, 1942), pp. 280-81.

  40. Ilya Ilf, Evgenii Petrov, Zolotoy Telenok.

  41. Donald Hodgman, Soviet Industrial Production, 1928-1951 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954).

  42. Schapiro.

  43. Kommunist 11, 1985, p. 62.

  44. Schapiro, p. 640.

  45. Boris Komarov, The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union (White Plains, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1980).

  46. Komarov.

  47. David Tolmazin, “Soviet System and Environment: Degradation of Water Supplies,” Kontinent 44.

  48. Grani, No. 133, 134, 1984.

  49. Komarov.

  50. Prof. Yuzhakov, ed., Bolshaya Encyclopedia, 1900-1907.

  51. Russkaya Mysl, February 7, 1985, p. 435.

  52. Arkhiv Samizdata, No. 5042, p. 26.

  53. Konstantin Simis, USSR: The Corrupt Society (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982).

  54. Andrei Babich, “What Is Concealed Behind Gorbachev’s ‘Reform’?” Russkaya Mysl, August 16, 1985, pp. 1, 4. ​


Bukovsky at AFT/AFL

Vladimir Bukovsky talks about freedom and captivity with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Labor in February 1977.

    Bukovsky at AEI

Vladimir Bukovsky heads discussion at an American Enterprise Institute dinner in his honor in June 1979.


Bukovsky FT Interview

Vladimir Bukovsky predicts Russia's disintegration in  a 1993 Financial Times interview.