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Russian Roulette

Political Succession in the USSR

by Myron Rush
Columbia, 223 pp., $5.95

Russia After Khrushchev

by Robert Conquest
Praeger, 267 pp., $5.95

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 been a fact of the greatest significance. The absence of his successor on a similar occasion may simply mean that he had a bad cold. If Mr. Suslov failed to mention Khrushchev in two speeches in 1958—Mr. Rush makes heavy weather of this—this may have been pure coincidence. (For all we know, a Soviet leader may sometimes do this simply to annoy the western Kremlinologist.) Mr. Rush assumes, rightly I think, that there are factions in the Kremlin; but we know very little about who belongs to which faction, and what they stand for.

At this point, for want of factual knowledge, all kinds of doubtful hypotheses are applied; Conquest and Rush attribute great importance to the origin of Soviet leaders and their date of birth, their employment in various government and party agencies, for instance the fact that many are either ethnic Ukrainians or have worked in the Ukraine, etc. If, to put a fictitious case, Comrade Petrov is elevated to a leading position in the Kremlin, it stands to reason that he will take along with him a few of his cronies; these things happen everywhere. But I would be most reluctant to draw far-reaching conclusions from the fact that Petrov and Sergeyev were born in Odessa in 1915 and that they worked together in Kharkov in 1939. It may mean, of course, that they have come to love each other dearly; it might just as well mean the opposite. Stalin and Trotsky were born within a few months of each other in 1879; Lenin and Kerensky first saw the light within a few blocks from each other in Simbirsk. It did not make them friends. Early in his book Mr. Conquest compares the political biographies of Polyanski, Shelepin, and Semichastny, born in 1917, 1918, and 1924 respectively: they are the three up and coming leaders in Moscow, at this moment at any rate: on the basis of biographical data he notes that they are typical products of the Stalin era, and that nothing good can be expected from such people. His skepticism may be justified. In a similar way, an observer of the French political scene in 1794 would no doubt have written off Barras as a staunch supporter of the Jacobins. After all, Barras had voted for the execution of the king and excelled in the suppression of the counter-revolutionary rising at Toulon. Clearly a most unlikely man to liquidate the French revolution!

Mr. Rush, and particularly Mr. Conquest, deal at great length with the respective chances of the main contenders for power. They comment on Brezhnev’s age handicap, on Voronov’s experience in agriculture, on Polyanski’s relative inexperience in top positions. There is much penetration and inventiveness in this kind of game, but the equation has too many unknown factors. Whenever facts are lacking, historical parallels come in handy, and Mr. Rush deals at length with 1923-26. I doubt whether this will greatly enlighten us. The situation in Moscow during Lenin’s last illness and after his death differed in many essential respects from the present state of affairs. According to the Kremlinologists’ rules of the game. Stalin, the unpopular and relatively inexperienced Georgian, should never have emerged as the supreme leader in the Twenties; Khrushchev was ruled out in view of his “age handicap” and for a great many other reasons. The Kremlinologist knows some basic biographical data; all the rest, including such unilluminating adjectives as “conservative,” “brilliant,” “independent,” etc., is at best intelligent guess work.

There are so many factors that are not known and cannot be foreseen. It cannot even be taken for granted that a member of the presidium or the secretariat is thirsting for more power; at this moment there seems to be a notable reluctance to act as number one. Khrushchev’s fall is of recent date and may act as a temporary deterrent. There is little else that can be taken for granted. If Petrov made certain pronouncements five or seven years ago about the state of Soviet literature or agriculture, it does not necessarily follow that Petrov still holds these views. Very often it is not the strongest pretender (on paper) who is successful in the end; frequently there is a stalemate, and as a result some apparently colorless compromise candidate emerges. Having acceded to power, this nonentity may suddenly reveal totally unexpected energy, character, and even highly individualistic opinions.

Mr. Conquest believes that the present political leaders fail to carry conviction: “Kosygin and Brezhnev, Shelepin and Podgorny, Suslov and Polyansky are not the men to rule a great country beset by a general crisis.” How can we know? Stalin in 1923 carried even less conviction, and how many people put their money on Khrushchev in 1953? There is no room for the public display of individual talents and independent views near the seats of power in Moscow; it is only the man on top who can show the qualities that carry conviction. And don’t we know that in our day and age an image of strength and leadership can be created, even if these qualities are largely absent? All in all, it is much more difficult to forecast the outcome of the struggle for power in the Kremlin than the outcome of a horse race, or some athletic competition. Few gamblers anyway would put their money on a horse on the basis of such scanty information as there is at the disposal of the Kremlinologist.

It is no doubt very important to follow closely the changes in the Soviet leadership, the texts of official pronouncements, the order in which the names of the pretenders are mentioned. Such information, in the form of interim reports, situation and position papers, will be needed for practical purposes. But is it really enough for a full-length book? In writing a book there is sometimes a strong temptation to engage in model-building, in generalizing and theorizing, even if the factual basis is very slim indeed. Mr. Rush’s “cyclical theory of Soviet politics” is an example. Such theories usually state the obvious in a roundabout and laborious way. Mr. Rush, for instance, tells us that the period of succession is usually a time of crisis in dictatorships, and especially so in the Soviet Union; that the contenders have to fight for power after the death (or disappearance) of the former boss; that in this interim period there is instability, and that dissident groups within the leadership have a greater opportunity to influence politics. All this could be said in simple language in three to four pages. Mr. Rush, with much erudition and with the benefit of modern political theory, says it in 214 pages. He also says in the end that no particular strategy for the West can be deduced from this cyclical theory of Soviet polities.

Mr. Conquest deals with a great many non-theoretical subjects in addition to Kremlinology, and his book is therefore more interesting. He discusses, albeit sometimes in a stream-of-consciousness manner, the important problems of contemporary Russia; much of this is very intelligent. He overrates, in my opinion, the extent of the economic crisis in the Soviet Union and, above all, the degree of dissatisfaction among the population. He thinks (with Orwell) that the regime will either democratize itself or perish. This is an undue dramatization; the chances are that in the near future the regime will neither become democratic nor will it perish. Mr. Conquest also discusses the possible disintegration of the Soviet Union into succession states. The prospect of an independent Tadjikistan or Byelorussia does not necessarily fill one’s heart with joy. There are of course centrifugal trends in the national republics, but there are also strong forces of cohesion which Mr. Conquest clearly underrates. On the other hand he overestimates the importance of ideology (“any real change in communism must involve an evolution in ideology”). In my view, doctrine will probably be the last thing to change in the Soviet Union; to a surprising degree, it can be adjusted to new realities as has been shown in history time and again. The “specific weight” of ideology is never constant; a regime may be mainly or largely motivated by ideology at a certain stage of its development; later on the impact of ideology usually diminishes sharply.

The weakness of Kremlinology is its alienation from its subject. However critical of the Soviet regime the Kremlinologist may be, Pravda remains his daily bread. What an unsatisfactory mirror of Soviet reality! Once upon a time Pravda was almost the only source of information about things Soviet. Need it be said that there have been changes during the last decade, and that Soviet life (and even Soviet politics) is much more complicated and more interesting than its reflection in the Soviet press? A prolonged visit to the Soviet Union, if it was feasible, would have a beneficial effect on most Kremlinologists and would help them to view their field of study in a broader context and in fuller perspective. True, they would not get the answer to such questions as whether Shelest was given full membership in the party presidium in November 1964 to counterbalance Shelepin’s influence, or whether a Ukrainian group relying on Titov and Semichastny at the levers could become the dominating power in the Kremlin (I am quoting Mr. Conquest). These important problems can admittedly be studied at greater leisure in New York and London. But what about the dynamics of Soviet policy and society—social and economic trends, the general mood, the character of the new generation? I don’t think they are fully reflected in Pravda—to put it mildly. My own reading of the situation and the outlook differs considerably from that of Mr. Conquest, and, I suspect, of some other Kremlinologists. I don’t think it is of great importance whether the Soviet Union will be ruled by Brezhnev and Kosygin or Podgorny and Shelepin.

While the question of succession may not be settled, the regime as a whole is in a relatively stable phase; the general course in domestic and foreign affairs has been set; the style may differ, the substance hardly so. It does of course matter whose finger will be on the trigger, but all that the Kremlinologists will be able to tell us, I fear, is whether the man at the end of the hot line is a member of the “Ukrainian faction” or a “Leningrader,” and this may not be too helpful. The number of choices facing the rulers seems to be limited for quite a few years to come. Grave problems confront them, as they do the rest of the world. I do not see any good reason to expect a (non-nuclear) explosion; all the signs seem to point to a period of relative stability. Mr. Conquest says somewhere that everything is possible in Soviet politics. I agree. I may be mistaken and Mr. Conquest’s predictions may be borne out by subsequent developments—but if so, hardly for the reasons he adduces.

The bulk of the Soviet population never had it so good; they are enjoying now some of the good things in life promised them for many decades but not delivered before. Living standards are rising, housing conditions improving. There is a great demand for more of the same; there is discontent about bottlenecks and insufficient supplies of consumer goods. There is, perhaps, the beginning of a revolution of rising expectations. But whoever thinks there is an overwhelming demand for political freedom is fooling himself; effective government is wanted, not political freedom. Part of the official doctrine is no longer taken seriously by anyone, part is universally and unquestioningly accepted. Lenin is au dessus de la mêlée. Even critical spirits would no more think of doubting Lenin’s wisdom and goodness than Luther doubted the wisdom of God. There will be new developments, but there is no good reason to expect basic change; that will come only when the leaders of the generation that entered kindergarten after Stalin died succeed the men whose names figure so prominently in Mr. Rush’s and Mr. Conquest’s books.

  1. *

    Interested readers should consult a recently published book in which the case both for and against Kremlinology has been stated, ably I believe, by a number of practitioners of this art and their critics; having edited the volume I cannot say more (The State of Soviet Studies, MIT Press, 1965).

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