Political Succession in the USSR
Russia After Khrushchev
As on past occasions, a visit to the Soviet Union earlier this year produced in me conflicting impressions: striking advances and equally striking backwardness in many fields. There was readiness to talk to strangers, greater curiosity about events in the West. The late President Kennedy is still a hero in the eyes of most Russians. Some of them wanted to know whether Mrs. Kennedy and the children had been provided for. There was a willingness to discuss almost any topic under the sun, including the merits and demerits of Mr. Khrushchev, but little comment about his successors. And it was my clear impression that this reluctance to talk about them stemmed not so much from fear and suspicion, as from the belief (which I have shared for some time) that it was not at present of tremendous importance whether Russia was ruled by Brezhnev or Kosygen, by Polyanski or Titov, Podgorny or Kirilenko. The question of promotion and demotion mattered greatly under Stalin, since not much else was or could then be known; and it became a matter of growing fascination in the years after the death of the dictator. In retrospect however, it seems doubtful whether the “kto-kovo” (who-whom) was of decisive importance for the country as a whole. Would Malenkov have followed a policy radically different from Khrushchev’s? In present circumstances an analysis of the main political, social, and economic issues facing the Soviet Union in 1965 is a more fruitful approach than an appraisal of its rulers, particularly since much more is now known about Soviet problems than about Soviet personalities.
I want to make a number of unkind remarks about Kremlinology. But I ought to stress at the outset that while I do not share Mr. Conquest’s conviction that Kremlinology is the Namierism of Soviet political history, I reject the popular image of the Kremlinologist even more emphatically. It is both unfair and stupid to regard the Kremlinologists as crackpots or charlatans; those who professionally follow the struggle for power in the Kremlin are neither less intelligent nor less honest intellectually than their colleagues in other fields. Kremlinology has attracted some very good minds for the same reason as Chemistry (or Alchemy) did in the Middle Ages: because there were so many unknown factors involved in the riddle, and because of the intrinsic importance of the subject.*
Kremlinology, of which Mr. Rush’s book is a fairly typical example, is a legitimate subdivision of the general field of Soviet studies; its main weakness is that it has too often to make bricks out of straw; its main temptations to claim too much on a slender factual basis. Namier had many—too many—historical sources at his disposal; the Kremlinologist, alas, has only Pravda and the Soviet provincial press, which provide few clues about what is happening in the Soviet corridors of power. The Kremlinologist is thus reduced to intelligent guessing. If the late Mr. Beria did not appear at the Opera in 1952 or 1953 this could have…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.