Long Live our Soviet Motherland!

From History Today (hat tip: Ron Good):

Could the Soviet Union Have Survived?

We ask four historians whether the demise of one of the 20th century’s superpowers was as inevitable as it now seems.

Rodric Braithwaite, British Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1988-91) and author of Armageddon and Paranoia: the Nuclear Confrontation (Profile, 2017).

People still argue about the fall of the Roman Empire. They are not going to agree quickly on why the Soviet Union collapsed when it did. Some think it could have lasted for many years, others that the collapse was unforeseeable. Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident scientist, foresaw it decades before it happened.

Victory in war took the Soviet armies to the centre of Europe, where they stayed. The Soviet Union’s seductive ideology had already given it influence across the world. But after Stalin’s death in 1953 the ideology started looking threadbare, even at home. In Eastern Europe, inside the Soviet Union itself, the subject peoples were increasingly restless for freedom. Soviet scientists were the equal of any in the world, but their country was too poor to afford both guns and butter and their skills were directed towards matching the American military machine, rather than improving the people’s welfare. It worked for a while. But in 1983 the Soviet Chief of Staff admitted that ‘We will never be able to catch up with [the Americans] in modern arms until we have an economic revolution. And the question is whether we can have an economic revolution without a political revolution’. 

The Soviet leaders were not stupid. They knew something had to be done. In 1985, after three decrepit leaders died in succession, they picked Mikhail Gorbachev to run the country: young, experienced, competent and – they wrongly thought – orthodox. But Gorbachev believed that change was inescapable. He curbed the KGB, freed the press and introduced a kind of democracy. He was defeated by a conservative establishment, an intractable economy and an unsustainable imperial burden. It was the fatal moment, identified by the 19th-century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, when a decaying regime tries to reform – and disintegrates.

Russians call Gorbachev a traitor for failing to prevent the collapse by force. Foreigners dismiss him as an inadequate bungler. No one has suggested a convincing alternative scenario. 

The other participants reference Gorbachev’s attempts to curb drinking on the job (“Did he understand who he was getting into a fight with?”), anti-Soviet demonstrations in the Kazakh SSR in 1986 (did you know about these? I didn’t!), and Glasnost, i.e. Gorbachev’s policy of press freedom, which undermined the “key to the survival of any dictatorship, [which] is strict control of the media, which shapes public opinion and promotes tacit acceptance of a regime.” I seem to remember Christopher Hitchens once offered a similar answer. 

Read ’em all

Stephen F. Cohen, 1938-2020

From the New York Times:

Stephen F. Cohen, Influential Historian of Russia, Dies at 81

He chronicled Stalin’s tyrannies and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he was an enthusiastic admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Stephen F. Cohen, an eminent historian whose books and commentaries on Russia examined the rise and fall of Communism, Kremlin dictatorships and the emergence of a post-Soviet nation still struggling for identity in the 21st century, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

His wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher and part owner of The Nation, said the cause was lung cancer.

From the sprawling conflicts of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the tyrannies of Stalin to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Vladimir V. Putin’s intrigues to retain power, Professor Cohen chronicled a Russia of sweeping social upheavals and the passions and poetry of peoples that endured a century of wars, political repression and economic hardships.

A professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, he was fluent in Russian, visited Russia frequently and developed contacts among intellectual dissidents and government and Communist Party officials. He wrote or edited 10 books and many articles for The Nation, The New York Times and other publications, was a CBS-TV commentator and counted President George Bush and many American and Soviet officials among his sources.

Read the whole thing

“B is for Beria (and Bering Strait)”

Gail Heriot on Instapundit:

On this day in 1953, LAVRENTIY BERIA met his end. Stalin himself had died nine months earlier, and his chief henchmen were turning against each other. Beria, Stalin’s chief of the secret police (NKVD), was arrested on charges of treason and tried in secret.  And then shot.

It’s not easy to work up sympathy for such a bloodthirsty killer. But the rest of the story is truly bizarre. Less than a month later, the Soviet Encyclopedia sent a notice to subscribers enclosing new pages.  In translation, it said the following:

The State Scientific Publishing House of the large Soviet Encyclopedia recommends that pages 21, 22, 23, and 24 be removed from Volume 5 as well as the portrait [of Beria] between pages 22 and 23 to replace which the pages of the new text are enclosed.

The aforementioned pages should be cut out with scissors or blade, leaving inside a margin on which the new pages can be pasted.

The substitute pages were an article on the otherwise obscure Friedrich Wilhelm von Bergholtz and pictures of the Bering Strait.

Subscribers dutifully cut Bering out of the encyclopedia.  Failing to do so would be dangerous.

Back in the USSR

An interesting article in the National Post:

An uncensored look behind the Iron Curtain: Long-lost images of Stalinist Russia snapped by a U.S. diplomat.

Long after their father had died, the family of former U.S. Army Major Martin Manhoff invited Seattle-based historian Douglas Smith to take a look at some photos. Manhoff had been posted to the U.S. embassy in the Soviet Union  from 1952 to 1954, and he had shot some colour photos while there.

In boxes that had lain almost untouched for 50 years, Smith was soon gazing at a treasure trove of rare candid images from one of the most closed societies in human history.

Smith is now looking for a permanent home to house the collection. With his permission, the National Post presents a small selection of the Manhoff archive below.

Click on the link to see these remarkable images. They don’t resemble the propaganda posters, but they’re not exactly the grim 1984 aesthetic either. I’m especially happy to read the name Douglas Smith, who came to Reinhardt for a talk on Catherine the Great back in 2008 for our Year of Eastern Europe and Russia. Check out his latest book on Rasputin.

Book Review

From Dissent, a review of an interesting book:

Love and Death in Revolution Square

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets
by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016, 704 pp.

Svetlana Alexievich’s father became a communist after Yuri Gagarin flew into space. “We’re the first! We can do anything!” he told her. She too became a believer. “Disillusionment came later,” the 2015 Nobel laureate for literature writes in Secondhand Time, the final installment of her five-volume exploration of the Soviet soul.

Like nearly every child growing up in the USSR, I also dreamed of meeting a real, live cosmonaut. Yet my wish came true only a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union. Last September, Valentina Tereshkova, the world’s first woman in space, addressed the inaugural gala for the London Science Museum’s exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. As Tereshkova came off stage, I seized the moment. Tripping over my words, I told her that for a child growing up in faraway England while his country was falling apart back home, her achievement was one of the few things that kept me proud of my once great motherland. Tereshkova glared at me. “It must have been tough, growing up in England,” she said and walked away, past her charred re-entry capsule encased in glass a few feet away.

What did I expect? A Soviet person has no time for those who have not suffered. War, displacement, hunger, and forced labor underpin Alexievich’s work like the pulsating ostinato in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. “We know how to suffer and talk of suffering,” she wrote in her first book in the series, War’s Unwomanly Face,  a collection of testimonies from women about their experiences of what is still known throughout the former Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War. “Suffering justifies our hard and bitter life. For us, pain is an art.”…

Ever since its adoption by Russian president Vladimir Putin as an ersatz official ideology, Soviet nostalgia has been dismissed by Western commentators as a hankering for strongman leadership and great power status. Certainly, that is how it has been cannily deployed by the Kremlin: through the revival of militarized Victory Day parades, irredentism in Ukraine, and revived alliances with former client states such as Syria.

However, as Alexievich shows in Secondhand Time, for many of its former citizens—often derided as sovoks, a cruel pun on the word for dustpan—what the Soviet Union represented most was not geopolitical but moral superiority. This may seem a strange way to describe a state that imprisoned and executed millions of its own citizens. But as one woman reminds Alexievich, “socialism isn’t just labour camps, informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s also a bright, just world: everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others.”

The spiritual aspects of socialism are rarely discussed in Western accounts of the Soviet Union. As the Russian-born anthropologist Alexei Yurchak showed in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, the USSR had a distinct moral order broadly shared even by those who disagreed with the regime or its politics. A cornerstone of Soviet ethics was the belief that, as one man tells Alexievich, “it’s shameful to love money, you have to love a dream.” Other values included altruism, self-sacrifice, a concern for the weak, the elevation of group over individual concerns, and the rejection of wealth and materialism. The country’s sudden dissolution proved to be more traumatic to many of Alexievich’s characters than the suffering they had endured at the hands of the USSR.

More at the link.

The Atom Bomb

“Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of lives” claims an article in the Diplomat. “By showing the world the horrors of nuclear warfare, the atomic bombings made future ones much less likely.” I suppose this is true; at least the author did not claim that the bombs themselves ended the war and thus obviated the need for Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan scheduled for November, 1945, and which would have cost hundreds of thousands of Allied lives and millions of Japanese ones. That the bombs didn’t actually end the war has been understood for some time; indeed, Keck quotes another article which states that “the bomb didn’t beat Japan… Stalin did.” The bombs were a convenient excuse for Japan to use in surrendering to the United States, and the Emperor famously noted in his surrender speech that “the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.” But do you think that a “new and most cruel bomb” was going to extinguish Japan’s will to fight? More people died in the “conventional” firebombing of Tokyo, which was one of many Japanese cities to suffer such a fate. Or, as the authors put it, “If they surrendered because a city was destroyed, why didn’t they surrender when those other 66 cities were destroyed?”

People tend to forget that Stalin had an agreement with the other allies to declare war on Japan within three months of the end of the war in Europe. True to his word, he declared war exactly three months after VE Day – that is, August 8, 1945, two days after Hiroshima, and one day before Nagasaki – at which point Soviet troops invaded Manchuria and Korea. This removed the Japanese hope that the Soviets could serve as a broker between the US and Japan, and impelled the Japanese to surrender to the United States. Moreover, what the article does not mention is that the Soviet invasion scared the US as much as it scared the Japanese. We were pushing for an unconditional surrender in Japan, as we pushed for (and achieved) one in Germany (which itself was an attempt to avoid the problems of the Armistice of 1918, whereby the Germans could convince themselves that they hadn’t actually lost). The Japanese interpreted our demand for an unconditional surrender to mean that the Americans might force them to relinquish their Emperor, something ideologically unthinkable. But by August of 1945 it was apparent that we were not going to be friends with Stalin after the war, and we did not want to have happen to Japan was was currently happening in Germany, and what would soon happen to Korea. So we indicated that we were willing to accept a surrender with the caveat that the Emperor would remain on the throne and not be subject to war-crimes trials – which indeed came to pass. In other words, we accepted a conditional surrender – the same one the Japanese themselves hinted they would offer in early May, 1945.

So yes, it looks like Stalin impelled Japan to formally surrender, and us to accept that surrender. In retrospect, it also calls into serious question the atomic bombings – and all the other damage – that we did to Japan from May until August of 1945.

Robert Conquest, 1917-2015

Another great historian has passed. The Telegraph:

Robert Conquest, the writer on Soviet Russia who has died aged 98, was a polemicist and a serious, published poet; but above all he was an historian, one of the outstanding scholars of his time, whose books did as much as any other man’s to alter our view of the communist experience.

Conquest personified the truth that there was no anti-communist so dedicated as an ex-communist. His career illustrated also what the Italian writer Ignazio Silone, another former communist, meant when he said to the communist leader Palmiro Togliatti that “the final battle” of the 20th century would have to be fought between the two sides they represented.

An ardent Bolshevik as a young man, Conquest became a bitter foe of Soviet “Socialism”. He had first visited Russia in 1937 as a youthful devotee of the great experiment. It was a half century before he returned in 1989, having spent his life between chronicling the horrors the country had endured, and emerging, in the view of the Oxford historian Mark Almond, as “one of the few Western heroes of the collapse of Soviet Communism”. “He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn,” said Timothy Garton Ash.

Of his many works on the subject, perhaps the most important was The Great Terror, published in 1968 and detailing the full enormity of what Stalin had done to the Russian people in the 1930s and 1940s. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz paid the most succinct tribute to this book when he said in 1972 that The Great Terror had “closed the debate” about Stalinism.