Andropov’s Turn

Philip Short

  • Khrushchev by Roy Medvedev, translated by Brian Pearce
    Blackwell, 292 pp, £9.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 631 12993 6
  • Soviet Policy for the 1980s edited by Archie Brown and Michael Kaser
    Macmillan/St Antony’s College, Oxford, 282 pp, £20.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 333 33139 7

Revolutions and their aftermath are a commoner feature of historical development than we often realise. What is happening today in Iran was happening fifteen years ago in China, sixty years ago in Russia and nearly two hundred years ago in France. It is a point made forcefully by Andrzej Wajda’s latest film, which depicts the struggle between Danton and Robespierre – between humanist and puritan, pragmatist and idealist. Wajda intended it as an allegory on the present-day state of Poland. But his message is painted on a broader canvas. The terror that stalked France in the dreadful summer of 1794 is the same that Stalin unleashed in 1934. It is in the nature of revolutions to destroy their own children and to raise up, in Danton’s words, ‘tyrants worse than those they overthrew’.

Roy Medvedev’s first book to be published in the West, Let history judge, was a brilliant and minutely-researched account of one such tyrant: Stalin. His latest, Khrushchev, is very different in both scope and subject. Yet it is a logical continuation of the earlier work in the sense that, far more than a simple biography, it is a political assessment of the attempts of Stalin’s immediate successors to come to terms with his legacy. That task is not yet over. The problems Khrushchev faced in the 1950s are in many cases mirrored in the problems Yuri Andropov faces today. Brezhnev’s last years, like Stalin’s, were deadened by an all-embracing conservatism. And though Khrushchev and Andropov are patently very different characters, the experiences of the one tell us a good deal about the choices before the other.

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev was born into a peasant family in the village of Kalinovka, near Russia’s border with the Ukraine, on 17 April 1894. There is a revealing passage in his memoirs in which he describes the world in which he grew up:

In my childhood in the Donbass, I once witnessed a pogrom with my own eyes. I went to school four versts [nearly three miles] from the mine where my father worked. One day I was coming home from school. It was a lovely, sunny autumn day, with spiderwebs flying about in the air like snow. We were barefoot that day, like every day from spring to late autumn. Every villager dreamed of owning a pair of boots. We children were lucky if we had a decent pair of shoes. We wiped our noses on our sleeves and kept our trousers up with a piece of string. It was a beautiful day, and we were in a carefree mood. My schoolmates and I met a man driving a wagon. When he saw us, he stopped and started to weep. ‘Children,’ he said, ‘if you only knew what they’re doing in Yuzovka [now Donetsk].’ We started to walk faster. As soon as I arrived home, I threw down my book bag and ran all the way to Yuzovka ...

  There had been a decree that for three days you could do whatever you wanted to the Jews. For three days there was no check on the looting ... and all the pillage and murder went unpunished ... In the factory infirmary we found a horrible scene. The corpses of Jews who had been beaten to death were lying in rows on the floor ...

  Before taking a job in the mines, my father had been a farmhand. We had been poor then, and we were poor now. My mother earned extra money by taking in washing. I used to make a few kopeks by cleaning boilers after school and on Saturdays. Both my father and mother, but particularly my mother, dreamed of the day when they could return to the village, to a little house, a horse, and a piece of land of their own.

Khrushchev joined the Bolshevik Party in 1917. The immediate post-Revolutionary years were no more gentle than those that had preceded them. Medvedev quotes a slogan from the Yuzovka local paper: ‘In the republic of labour, there is no room for parasites and idlers. They will either be shot or pulverised between the great millstones of labour.’ In 1924, at the age of 30, Khrushchev was appointed a Party raikom (district committee) first secretary. It was the beginning of a seemingly irresistible rise, which, by the eve of the war, saw him a candidate member of the Politburo and one of the 12 most powerful men in the Soviet Union. Medvedev’s treatment of this period points up the two principal weaknesses of his book. He has never been a vivid writer, but to reduce a flamboyant, larger-than-life character like Khrushchev – a man both earthy and prudish, blustering and compasssionate, gifted with immense personal vitality and drive – to the level of a cardboard cut-out is no mean feat. The occasional telling phrase, as when Medvedev writes of Khrushchev having ‘the perspicacity to ignore certain obvious truths’, is too rare to illuminate long passages of drab prose. This failing is reinforced by the impression that Medvedev is pulling his punches and revealing less than he knows, particularly about Khrushchev’s role in the blood purges of the 1930s and the political infighting that accompanied his rise to power.

Hedrick Smith, in his book The Russians described Medvedev as ‘a carefully calibrated nonconformist’, implying that he trimmed his sails to the wind. The conclusion suggested by a comparison between Let history judge and Khrushchev is rather different. The first, published in 1971, was a work of real scholarship, original and often profound. The second seems shallow, and reads like a product of the intellectual stagnation that marked the end of Brezhnev’s rule: from this, even so independent a mind as Medvedev’s may not have been entirely immune. With a new leader in the Kremlin and political change in the air, he has begun, in the last few months, to speak out again, even though the present climate for dissent could hardly be less congenial. The fact that Medvedev is writing from within the Soviet Union, and is subject to all the pressures that implies, is what in the end makes his books so valuable. Khrushchev may have weaknesses. But it also has the overwhelming merit of allowing us to observe, through unblinkered Soviet eyes, one of the seminal periods of post-war history.

Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalin at the 20th Party Congress in 1956 provoked unrest in Poland, rebellion in Hungary and, later, the great schism with China and the Spring of 1968 in Czechoslovakia. In the West, the Soviet model was discredited. The rebels of the 1960s and 70s no longer looked to Lenin, as their fathers did in the 1930s: they sought inspiration in Mao, Marcuse, Bakunin and Trotsky. The change was reflected in student unrest in Europe and America, and in the emergence of groups like Baader-Meinhof, the Red Brigades and the Weathermen. Even those in the West who continued to see some hope in Marxism-Leninism began to distance themselves from Moscow. The Spanish and Italian Parties, followed by the French, used the term ‘Eurocommunism’ – but it was not enough to revive the faith that Khrushchev’s speech had destroyed.

Medvedev’s discussion of Khrushchev’s motives in denouncing Stalinism – partly a move in the internal power struggle and partly a ‘movement of the heart’ – and of the attempts at internal reform which de-Stalinisation brought, forms the most successful chapters of his book. He makes a perceptive comparison between Khrushchev’s attempts to double agricultural production and Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and describes how, again and again, reforms which could have been sound, ‘through haste, uninspired application, lack of attention to detail and the absence of preliminary experiment and economic analysis’, damaged the Soviet economy. When Khrushchev decided that Soviet farms should grow maize, they all grew it, regardless of suitability. When Khrushchev demanded higher meat production, peasants slaughtered dairy herds and breeding stock. ‘The replacement of one system by another based on equally inflexible prescriptions made no sense,’ Medvedev writes. One by one, Khrushchev’s ‘hare-brained schemes’, as his successors called them, antagonised every influential social group: the military, writers and artists, young people, industrial workers, the bureaucrats in the ministries, the Party apparatus – and finally, his own colleagues in the Presidium. So ended a period of greater hope and change than the Soviet Union had known since the 1920s. When Khrushchev was replaced by Brezhnev in October 1964, dynamism gave way to stability and change to consolidation. Politics became more secretive and consensus the agreed method of rule.

Brezhnev’s 18 years as General Secretary should not be belittled. In that time the Soviet Union achieved strategic parity with the United States; it became a superpower, with interests in every corner of the globe; and the living standards of its people steadily improved. But where Khrushchev at least attempted to modify the Soviet system, Brezhnev merely tinkered with it. The result is that the military and political might of one of the two most powerful countries rests on a politico-economic structure more backward and arthritic, not only than those of its East European neighbours, but even, since Mao’s death, of China. The structural weaknesses strangling the Soviet economy and asphyxiating Soviet political life were already crying out to be tackled in the early 1960s, and are still waiting to be tackled now.

These issues are discussed in detail in a book which should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in Soviet affairs and in the problems confronting Andropov. Soviet Policy for the 1980s, edited by Archie Brown and Michael Kaser, both of St Antony’s College, Oxford, is a collection of nine essays on different aspects of the Soviet system completed six months before Brezhnev’s death. There is one complete dud: John Hazard’s contribution on Soviet legal trends. A man who accepts as ‘fact’ the Soviet Supreme Court’s claim that criminality in the Soviet Union has diminished since 1940, and who gives his readers to understand that the Soviet authorities resort to administrative detention ‘only in exceptional circumstances’, forfeits the right to be taken seriously. Professor Hazard is described as ‘a frequent visitor’ to the Soviet Union ‘over half a century’. It would be charitable to take the view that he has become too close to his subject. Certainly, on this showing, he need never fear that the Russians will refuse him a visa.

Two of the essays deal with Soviet relations with the West. David Holloway rightly attributes the troubles of détente to the two sides’ inability to agree on what it should mean and, in particular, to the Americans’ insistence that the Soviets ‘restrain their efforts to increase Soviet influence in the world’, a condition which the United States has never accepted for itself and which no Soviet leader could accept either. Neither side can claim a monopoly of foolishness in East-West relations, but America’s exaggerated expectations and consequent irrational disillusionment has certainly made it more difficult to achieve agreements on arms control.

Among the factors which led the Soviet leaders to initiate the opening to the West in the late 1960s, Holloway mentions their desire for imported technology as a means of avoiding economic reforms which might generate pressure for political change, as had happened in Czechoslovakia. But, as Philip Hanson shows, in an essay on Soviet foreign economic relations, the imported equipment often failed to do what was expected because the unreformed Soviet economy could not assimilate it.

The prospects for reform, and the problems impeding it, make up the rest of the book. John Miller discusses the extent to which the Soviet Party is becoming a hereditary ruling group. He finds that ‘the educated and qualified are increasingly becoming the typical [Party] members, and the Party presence among the poorly educated is falling.’ Alistair McAuley, in a companion essay, concludes that the Soviet élite have ‘largely lost their social conscience, if not their socialist consciousness’, and that their policies are ‘unlikely to re-create a sense of ideological commitment to the goals of equality or social progress’. Ethnic Russians continue to wield a disproportionate influence, although, as Ann Hegelson points out, by the end of the century Turkic races will form a quarter of the Soviet population. The tensions between different nationalities that are likely to result are dealt with only in passing. But Hegelson writes at length on the ‘crisis in the Soviet family’ which is leading to very low fertility in the more developed parts of the country. This will cause four Union republics – the Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Latvia and Estonia – to experience a net decline in their labour force between 1985 and 1990. That means that the traditional Soviet method of increasing growth by expanding the work-force will have to be replaced by increased productivity. And that in turn will require structural reform.

Michael Kaser provides a useful review of the constraints on Soviet industry in the 1970s, of Brezhnev’s attempts to raise efficiency and of the reasons why they failed. But he does not venture very far into a consideration of the options open to the Soviet leadership in the 1980s. The absence of any discussion of the reforms carried out in Hungary, of the ideas put forward by Soviet economists like Libermann but never carried out, and of the need to find some way of motivating the Soviet workforce, is a lack made all the more noticeable by the following chapter in which Professor Alec Nove does discuss just these questions, in relation to agriculture. ‘In my view,’ he writes,

the basic principles of effective reform ... are those which underlie the relative success of Hungarian farming. Its essentials are the following: Firstly, much greater freedom to choose what to produce ... This means that state purchase prices must be so fixed as to persuade the producers to choose the desired pattern of production. Secondly ... (more or less) free trade ... Thirdly ... flexible work arrangements within the farm, to interest the peasants in their work. Fourthly ... non-agricultural sidelines ... Fifthly, the private sector [should be] encouraged ... Finally, the Hungarian authorities have dared to increase retail prices of food to a level at which supply and demand are in approximate balance.

It is a measure of the resistance to innovation that characterised Brezhnev’s leadership that, while most of these principles are now being applied at least partially in Deng Xiaoping’s China, Nove rates the chances of their adoption by the Soviet leaders as very remote. ‘It runs quite counter to their attitudes and policies,’ he writes. ‘Equally strong arguments for major micro-economic decentralisation in other spheres of the economy have been put forward and rejected.’ In the absence of major reforms, Nove adds, shortages of foodstuffs will continue.

The final essay, by Archie Brown, on the Soviet succession, ought to have been overtaken by events, for it was written before Brezhnev’s death and Andropov’s accession to power. That it is not out of date, but on the contrary provides an invaluable perspective on the tactics the new leader is now using to try to set his stamp on Soviet policy, is a tribute to Brown’s analysis. He makes two key points: that ‘any conceivable General Secretary at the present time is going to continue to see the KGB as a necessary instrument of the Party’s goals,’ and there is likely to be ‘a continuing commitment to the use of coercion against political opposition’; and, secondly, that any new leader will have to ‘temper innovative zeal with reassurance that he is sound on fundamentals.’ That is precisely what Andropov has been doing. The crackdown on dissent, the moves to curb the flow of information and human contacts with the West, the police campaign against absenteeism and corruption – all are of a nature to reassure those in the Army, the KGB and the higher echelons of the Party who backed him as Brezhnev’s successor. This is not to suggest that Andropov himself is against these moves, or that he is a closet liberal – a term that is meaningless in the Soviet context. But it is true, as Roy Medvedev has noted, that his powers are still quite limited. The Politburo is unchanged; the Premier is one of Brezhnev’s most loyal creatures; the Presidency, while not held by one of his opponents, is still unassigned. This is what Brown calls the ‘group honeymoon period’, when, because power is dispersed, ‘very important inputs into the policy process may be made by leaders other than the General Secretary.’ Moreover, there is plenty of precedent for Soviet leaders pursuing policies for tactical reasons when their final objectives are very different. For three years, from 1953 to 56, Khrushchev, to win the backing of the Army and of heavy industry, opposed Malenkov’s efforts to promote the interests of Soviet consumers. But as soon as Malenkov fell, Khrushchev took over his policy as his own.

The reassertion of discipline that has taken place over the last five months is more than just a tactic, however. It is also an essential precondition if major reforms are to be attempted. Andropov is too intelligent a man to think that police action against absentee workers is enough to remedy the ills of the Soviet economy. He has had more direct contact with the outside world than any of his predecessors had before they came to office, and is more alert to the obstacles to modernisation. But he is aware that reform will be controversial and disruptive: hence the need to prepare the way by shoring up the primacy of Party and State. Hardly a day goes by without an article in the Soviet press discussing some aspect of economic policy, and for the first time since 1964 Khrushchev’s name has been mentioned in a favourable context. How far and how fast Andropov will be able to proceed depends on many factors: his ability to extend his own power-base; the strength of the vested interests resisting change; and, indirectly, a whole range of elements – from the level of East-West tension to the state of the Soviet harvest. But it will be surprising if, within the next two years, a serious new effort is not made to solve the problems Medvedev describes in Khrushchev and to put into effect some of the options in Soviet Policy for the 1980s. Only then will it be possible to judge the nature of Andropov’s regime and of the man who heads it.