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A Source of Light

Power and the Soviet Elite

by Boris I. Nicolaevsky, edited by Janet D. Zagoria
Praeger (for the Hoover Institution), 275 pp., $6.95

Boris Ivanovich Nicolaevsky, who died on February 22 of this year, was a great historian of the Russian revolutionary movement, who had lived through, or close to, much of what he described. He became a revolutionary early in youth—a Bolshevik first, then a Menshevik. he experienced arrest and exile, along with all who followed the life of a devoted enemy of Tsarism. By the time the revolution came, Nicolaevsky was a leading Menshevik and soon became a member of their central committee. He remained in Russia until 1922, when he was allowed to emigrate. The Bolsheviks were as yet only killing or hounding to death the socialist revolutionaries and the anarchists: the turn of the Social Democrats was to come a few years later. Nicolaevsky knew everyone, had read everything, had discussed everything. He knew his way about an archive in an instinctive manner, like that of a native threading his path through the jungle. It was because his method was so instinctive, based on so much experience and knowledge that could not be specifically pinpointed, that Nicolaevsky was such a wonderful guide to all students of the revolutionary movement who were fortunate enough to be able to seek the help which he never refused. There is no one to take his place, and much of his vast knowledge has inevitably been lost with him. Even so, a tremendous contribution remains. There are his books and a large number of historical articles. Perhaps Nicolaevsky was at his greatest as an editor of documents. Six large volumes of edited and fully and fascinatingly annotated documents relating to the history of the Soviet Communist Party between 1906 and 1912 are available to scholars, though in manuscript form. They form the one single most important source for the revolutionary history of this rather obscure period. It is no exaggeration to say that anyone who ignores this material in writing about the period will write nonsense.

About a quarter of this book is taken up with something which is somewhere between the living of history and the writing of it—the famous Letter of an Old Bolshevik, and a long interview in 1904 with Nicolaevsky on the subject of the visit of Bukharin to Paris in 1936. When the Letter was first published, it was not known, of course, that it had been based on conversations with Bukharin, and indeed everything was done to conceal this fact, in Bukharin’s interest. After the “trial” and killing of Bukharin the need for secrecy became less imperative, and the source became gradually known. Nicolaevsky’s record of his talks with Bukharin now supplements the Letter, and forms a most important source in itself, both on Bukharin and on the history of his times. The Letter provided the first analysis of the struggle in which Stalin was engaged against his colleagues who were desperately casting around for some way of getting rid of him without bringing the whole of the system down about their ears. The Letter was as much Nicolaevsky’s work as Bukharin’s, if not more. For it required the interpretative gifts of someone who understood the working of the Soviet system as well as Nicolaevsky did, and probably better than Bukharin, to grasp the real significance of what was going on. It has often been pointed out how closely Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 confirmed much of what had been disclosed with the publication of the Letter of an Old Bolshevik twenty years before. I wonder if it is not the other way around. Khrushchev and his successors are by now so entangled in the falsifications of their own history in which they and their backs have for so long been engaged that, without the aid of a few honest records produced outside the Soviet Union, they are incapable of telling the truth even when they think it expedient to do so.

THE REST OF THIS VOLUME is in fact concerned with a few such honest records. It consists mainly of the republication in English translation of Nicolaevsky’s analysis of the Soviet political scene in his articles originally published in Russian. Many of them appeared in the journal which Martov founded in 1922, Sotsialistichesky vestnik, which for over forty years (until its regrettable demise) provided—for those who took the trouble to read it and were not blinded by ignorance, prejudice, or political corruption—more authentic information on Russia than any other source. These articles of Nicolaevsky, therefore, belong to the category of what some are pleased to call “Kremlinology.” As a joke this term is harmless enough. But it has also been used as part of the endeavor to discredit the patient work of those who labored to salvage something of truth and sanity in the assessment of Communist rule at a time when the whole panoply of left-wing intellectual dishonesty was arrayed in an effort to keep the truth from emerging. Times have changed, Communist regimes are no longer an enigma, and there must be few literate people left who are prepared to take Soviet statements about themselves at their own valuation. (The same does not seem to be true of China, at any rate so far as Britain is concerned.) Has “Kremlinology” still a function to perform? And what has been its achievement as an aid to the understanding of politics?

All political systems have secrets, and all speculation about current political events depends on conjecture, on evaluation of the relative reliability of guesses, and on the sifting of the plausible from the plainly nonsensical. A few years ago, when much was being written about the question of the succession of the leadership of the Conservative party in Britain. I was very much struck with the fact that it seemed more possible to make a reliable assessment of what happened in the Kremlin in 1953 than of what had happened before one’s eyes in the Conservative party. But secrets are one thing. What is peculiar to the Soviet and kindred systems is that the normal and perfectly legitimate reticence which every political party or government maintains about its current activities is supplemented by two further devices. There is first of all the officially maintained smokescreen of deception and prevarication which no private or unofficial source is allowed to dissipate or to question. And secondly there is, or was until the world Communist movement broke up in fragments a few years ago, a well-organized international conspiracy of rogues and their dupes working to help the official set of lies to gain credence and acceptance.

It was here that knowledge of past history proved so vital for an understanding of the present, as no one showed better than Nicolaevsky. For much of the misunderstanding of the Soviet scene was due as often as not to plain ignorance of what had happened in the past, and was therefore in some degree likely to be happening in the present. No one knew better than Nicolaevsky the tracks through the jungle of Communist politics since the earliest days of the existence of the Soviet regime, and indeed, often just as relevant, since the days of the emergence of Bolshevism as a separate movement in Russian Social Democracy. His studies of various aspects of the aftermath of Stalin’s death and of the struggle for power which followed it, were probably more profound and closer to the truth than those of anyone else, precisely because he knew the background against which current events were unfolding.

BUT HISTORY ALONE is not enough. To interpret Soviet politics with insight it is also necessary to be able to spot the significant detail which illuminates the scene. To take one example from Nicolaevsky’s articles relating to the period after Stalin’s death—the one dealing with the execution of Riumin. Riumin was a leading member of the Security Service, and the architect of the famous “Doctor’s Plot,” which Stalin’s successors disowned immediately after his death. Soon afterwards there began the unedifying process of the shooting of the policemen who had carried out their instructions from the politicians, as part of the endeavor to enable the politicians to evade their responsibility. The shooting of Riumin might have passed as just another of the incidents in this process. But not for Nicolaevsky. He noticed that the charge brought against Riumin had been laid under Paragraph 7 of Article 58 of the Criminal Code, which dealt with the undermining of state industry, transport, trade, and a host of similar things which seemed rather remote from plotting the destruction of a few elderly Jewish doctors. Ruling out the possibility of mistake or accident, Nicolaevsky came to the conclusion (by a detailed process of analysis which cannot be reproduced here) that the new purge which Stalin had contemplated had been opposed by Malenkov not because of its anti-Jewish implications, but because it was intended to extend to the whole of the economic apparatus by its architect, Stalin. this article was published in 1954. It was only some years later that further information confirmed the high degree of accuracy of Nicolaevsky’s assessment.

Is there still a need for this kind of analysis, at any rate so far as the Soviet Union is concerned? No one will ever believe the myth of the monolith again. It has been shattered once and for all, and not so much by the labors of men like Nicolaevsky, but by the Soviet leaders themselves. Nothing that any of the severest critics of Communism ever wrote even begins to approximate to the kind of devastating annihilation of Communist double-talk that was produced in the exchange of abuse between Russia and China. The Actions of Communists in their political practice have been so patently exposed as no better, to say the least, than those of any politicians anywhere, that one would have to search far and wide for an innocent who would be prepared to believe in a New Soviet Civilization, or in the replacement of the Government of Men by the Administration of Things, or any of the other myths of the Thirties.

AGAIN, IT IS BECOMING EVIDENT that the Soviet leaders themselves are becoming tired of the endless power struggles and purges which have disorganized their lives for nearly fifty years. Are the new leaders getting weary, perhaps, or more cynical, or more attached to the material privileges which are threatened by the precarious system of the past? Or are they perhaps simply getting more sensible and less dogmatic? Or perhaps Marx was right when he observed that when history repeats itself, the second performance is always a farce. Whatever the reason, it is obvious that the dramatic happenings of Stalin’s day are, for the time being, out of date.

For all this, I think there will still be a need for the cool assessment of the soviet scene, and that it will be very long time before the work of Nicolaevsky will be forgotten. Already a new generation is growing up. Just as it is now almost impossible to credit the idiocy that pervaded judgments on the Soviet Union in the Thirties among so many intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic, so the generation now growing up may be tempted to dismiss the history of our terrible generation as too grotesque to be credible. The rewriting, the apologies, the extenuations will then begin in earnest—there are enough of them, to be sure, already available, some even sanctified with the authority of having been accepted into the canon of “standard works.” It is not good for mankind to spin legends about its past, if only because the past can so readily and easily revive again as a part of the present. Nicolaevsky’s long life was dedicated to seeing to it that one corner of this past, at any rate, should never be misunderstood again.

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