Farmer Khrushchev

Conflict and Decision-Making in Soviet Russia: A Case Study of Agricultural Policy, 1953-1963

by Sidney Ploss
Princeton, 312 pp., $6.95

The Soviet Economy Since Stalin

by Harry Schwartz
Lippincott, 256 pp., $5.00

The great debate among Sovietologists is whether lust for power or divergence of policy is the main cause of the perennial quarreling in the Kremlin. Mr. Ploss’s implicit answer is “Both, equally”; and he proceeds to illustrate this with a study of Soviet agriculture, a source of contention in the USSR more intense perhaps than even defense and literature. Economic policy is an important branch of Kremlinology, but so far the economists have tended to ignore it. Mr. Ploss, although not himself an economist but a political scientist, manages to keep exactly the right balance between, say, Khrushchev’s desire to oust Malenkov and their disagreements over such matters as the grain supply. Only a political scientist, one is tempted to say, can explain Soviet agriculture.

The book’s faults, then, are of secondary importance, although they do add up to an imposing sum. First is the lack of narrative skill. This is after all a history. It covers, in spite of its title, more than eighteen years of agricultural policy. The dramatis personae are numerous, ranging all the way from A. I. to Frol Kozlov, from Pal’man to Pal’tsev, and the agricultural issues about which they choose to quarrel are equally numerous. The reader’s intelligence should not in such cases be over-estimated; he needs cross references, sub-headings, and summaries. In addition to the general chronological account there should perhaps be a detailed and connected account of what was said about each issue.

More important is the book’s bias. For when all allowances have been made, this is Khrushchev as he himself would have written it. Stalin was the ideal man to succeed: Anybody would have looked good. Each of his potential successors wanted to have all his powers but to exercise them more rationally; each was a nicer man, freer of paranoia and sadism; each faced the virtual impossibility of retaining the degree of autocratic power that Stalin exercised. The real question is, how did Khrushchev compare with his rivals?

THE pons asinorum of modern Kremlinology is that Khrushchev, the anti-Semite, the opponent of peasants’ private ownership (p. 49), the supporter of mob-rule over state law, the man who hedged on the 1954 Geneva Agreement, was less “liberal” than Malenkov who favored the system of the private plot and was the architect of the Geneva Agreement; and much less liberal than the policeman Beria, who defended the Jews in Georgia at the height of Stalin’s anti-Semitism, delayed collectivization of the newly annexed Eastern Ukraine (a point omitted by the author, though it is part of his subject), gave his prisoners amnesty when Stalin died, and nearly lost East Germany to capitalism. Beria had a very bad press during Khruschev’s rule; for history is written by the conquering party in the USSR as surely as it was in Tudor England. It is not clear to me that Mr. Ploss really knows all this.

The case for Beria as against Khrushchev is overwhelmingly strong …

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