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I. F. Stone Reports: Can Russia Change?

A Chronicle of Current Events Republished in English by Amnesty International Publications, Turnagain Lane, Farringdon St., London EC4, England

Journal of the Soviet Human Rights Movement
Published Bi-Monthly in Samizdat in Moscow. Issues No. 16 to 21, $10.00 a year

Let History Judge

by Roy A. Medvedev
Knopf, 584 pp., $12.50

Uncensored Russia: Protest and Dissent in the Soviet Union

by Peter Reddaway
American Heritage, 499 pp., $10.00 (to be published in March)


Underground political opinion in the Soviet Union, as revealed in the Chronicle of Current Events and other samizdat publications now available in English, is extraordinarily diverse. Under the frozen ideological tundra, all the old Russian tendencies from anarchist idealism to anti-Semitic reaction, almost Black Hundreds style, are still alive. The Medvedev brothers are themselves somewhere in the middle of the spectrum; they represent, in the new context of communism, a kind of neo-Kadet movement. They are constitutional democrats, who would keep the new communist czarism but limit its powers while expanding the rights of its subjects.

Were the lid completely lifted, the violence and variety of the opposition would prove deeper and more diverse even than that which the short “hundred flowers” period in Maoist China disclosed. Yet these oppositionist tendencies by their internal alliances and dynamic are marshaled into something that resembles a two-party system, one pro- and the other anti-Stalinist. The Communist Party officially stands between them, ideologically anemic, intensely conservative, as standpat as our stodgiest Republicans, fearful of moving in either direction, yet drawn by its bureaucratic nature toward neo-Stalinism. For the conflict raging around it is neither symmetrical nor equal. The anti-Stalinists, since the fall of Khrushchev, seem to be outside the party or silent within it, while the proor neo-Stalinists are strongly entrenched in the apparat, especially the secret police, and in the bureaucracies which ride herd on science, literature, the arts, and journalism. The tide is running toward repression.

The difficulty is how to manage a little freedom and a little law without letting them get out of hand—out of hand, that is, from the standpoint of the bureaucracy. What the bureaucracy would like is enough law and enough freedom to protect it from a recurrence of the cruel, arbitrary, and capricious terror it suffered under Stalin, but not enough law and freedom to endanger its own privileges and power. Its power rests, as Stalin’s did, on fear, and its privileges depend as in his time on the suppression of criticism. The little Stalins fear a new big one, but they fear as well that the rule of law and free speech would undermine them too. This is one basic reason why the regime wavers and cannot make up its mind.

Perhaps the most deadly revelation in Roy Medvedev’s Let History Judge is in the three pages toward the end where he sheds fresh light on the privileges and corruption of the Soviet bureaucracy. Here he is dealing not only with the past and Stalin’s crimes but also with the present. These few pages alone must have been enough to keep the book from being cleared for publication in the USSR.

The corruption of the bureaucracy set in early. As far back as October, 1923, a Central Committee circular ordered a halt to the furnishing of apartments and private dachas at state expense. A rapid rise in prices in the Twenties and early Thirties led to the creation of that system of special stores for party officials which continues to provide them at special prices with luxuries not available elsewhere. “Gradually” party officials “acquired other privileges, too: their own hospitals, free rest homes, dachas, and so on.” In that same period “a peculiar habit began to appear: the party aktiv were given expensive gifts for holidays, congresses and conferences.” In 1932, the maximums on party salaries established under Lenin were formally abolished, bringing a new increase in the real income of officials.

New privileges were nevertheless added to the old. “A system of representatives’ subsidies was established for all officials at the level of the chairman of a city Soviet and higher.” Officials also began to hold more than one job, receiving full pay for each. During the war and postwar years when worker wages fell again, official salaries continued to rise. “That was the period,” Medvedev writes, “when the disgraceful system of ‘packets’ was introduced in the higher state and Party institutions.” Each month “almost every high official would receive an envelope or packet containing a large sum, often much higher than the salary formally designated for his post.” These payments “passed through special financial channels, were not subject to taxes, and were kept secret from the rank-and-file officials of the institution.” To refuse this graft could be risky:

Some Communists found the courage to refuse these packets. E. P. Frolov tells how M. D. Kammari, an editor of the journal Kommunist, never went to get his packets from the bookkeeper’s office, which put the head bookkeeper in a difficult position. “I don’t need so much money,” Kammari used to say. “My salary is enough for me.” But he had few imitators among his colleagues. On the contrary, many of them began to look at him suspiciously, regarding his behavior as a challenge and a protest.

The venality and corruption did not end with “the cult of personality”: “the counter-measures taken since Stalin’s death have not been sufficiently effective: in 1962 the death penalty was authorized for bribe-taking.” It must be pretty widespread if such severe penalties are considered necessary to deter it.

It should not take advanced studies in dialectical materialism to see that a bureaucracy that enjoys such fat emoluments must favor continuation of the censorship, the passivity, and the fear that preserve and keep them secret. This is a major reason why it resists de-Stalinization, but Medvedev does not draw this obvious but dangerous inference. He entangles himself in contradictions, perhaps in the hope that by blurring his conclusions he might get his book published in the Soviet Union. He denies that a new class of “bourgeoisified officials” grew up in the Soviet Union but admits that “clearly defined elements of a bureaucratic oligarchy and a caste system” appeared in the higher and middle levels. The fine distinction did not help him, especially since he followed this with a savage portrait drawn by the late Konstantin Paustovsky of this new caste.

In the short-lived “thaw” after Stalin died, Dudintsev’s novel Not By Bread Alone drew in the character of Drozdov an acid picture of the typical Stalinist bureaucrat. Paustovsky declared that “the new caste of Drozdovs is still with us” and described those he had encountered in a vacation trip around Europe on the Soviet steamer Pobeda. His little Canterbury tale is a portrait in miniature of Soviet society as it is today:

In the second and third classes there were workers, engineers, artists, musicians, writers; in the first class were the Drozdovs. I need not tell you that they had and could have absolutely no contact with the second and third classes. They revealed hostility to everything except their position, they astounded us by their ignorance…. One of the Drozdovs, standing before “The Last Judgment,” asked: “Is that the judgment of Mussolini?” Another, looking at the Acropolis, said: “How could the proletariat allow the Acropolis to be built?” A third, overhearing a comment on the amazing color of the Mediterranean, asked severely: “And is our water back home worse?”

These predators, proprietors, cynics, and obscurantists, openly, without fear of embarrassment, carried on anti-Semitic conversations worthy of the Nazis…. Where did they come from, these bootlickers and traitors…? They are the consequence of the personality cult: the situation trained them to think of the people as dung to fertilize their career. Intrigues, slander, moral assassination and just plain assassination—these are their weapons, as a result of which Meyerhold, Babel, Artem Vesely are not in this hall with us today. The Drozdovs destroyed them. The cause that moved them was their own prosperity.

Their own prosperity is the cause that still moves them today, and it moves them back toward Stalinism, albeit in the hope that it can be modified just enough to protect them from a new monster. Their success is indicated by the fact that no published source is cited for Paustovsky’s speech, in spite of his eminence as a critic and his popularity as a writer; that nothing has been heard again in years from the brave and gifted Dudintsev; and that Medvedev’s book could not be published in the Soviet Union and he has been expelled from the Communist Party.1


The truth is that this, the most complete and the most outspoken history of the Stalin years to come out of the Soviet Union, was by passed by events while it was being written. The battle the book fights to prevent the rehabilitation of Stalin has not yet been entirely lost. But without wholly rehabilitating Stalin, Khrushchev’s successors are moving steadily toward neo-Stalinism. Roy is the son of a Soviet Marxist philosopher who fell victim to the terror of the Thirties. He joined the Communist Party after the 20th Congress in 1956 shattered the Stalin cult. After the 22nd Congress in 1961 reaffirmed the call for de-Stalinization, he began to write this book. But by the time he completed it in 1968, Khrushchev had fallen from power, and the Stalinists had begun their comeback.

Within a month of Khrushchev’s ouster in October, 1964, the chairman of the KGB, the head of the secret police, was promoted to full membership in the Central Committee. When the 23rd Congress met in March, 1966, Alexander Tvardovsky, editor of the liberal Novy Mir which had published Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was excluded although he was a candidate member of the Central Committee. His exclusion left no one to answer the scurrilous attack that Sholokhov launched on the liberal writers or Sholokhov’s defense of the imprisonment of Sinyavsky and Daniel. Their trial, which had just ended, and the news that the regime had begun sending radicals to lunatic asylums, indicated that the Stalinist apparatchiki were back in the saddle again.

Medvedev set himself the task of completing Khrushchev’s work. Whatever Khrushchev’s own failings, he liberated Russia from the Stalin legend as no one else could have done. Events since his fall have shown how easily Stalin’s successors might have hushed up the story of the dictator’s crimes, even though hundreds of “ghosts” returning from the Siberian labor camps were spreading the story underground. According to a disclosure Khrushchev did not make until the 22nd Congress in 1961, Molotov, Kaganovich, Malenkov, Voroshilov, “and others” on the CP Presidium of eleven objected to raising the question of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Congress in 1956. Khrushchev was able to overcome their resistance only by threatening to “let the Congress delegates decide.”2 Apparently fear of letting the fight come into the open and being defeated in the Congress led Molotov and his “anti-party” allies to give in.

But only a year later they mustered a majority in the Presidium and but for a hastily called Central Committee meeting would have ousted Khrushchev. According to an account which leaked out to the Italian Communist paper L’Unita, Khrushchev was accused—in typical Stalinist fashion—of Trotskyism.3 How easily in the good old days Khrushchev might have been arrested and shot as a Trotskyist! How happy the Communists and their fellow travelers would have been to be assured that the charges against Stalin were only a Trotskyist fabrication! How comfortable if the benign old father figure had been restored!

  1. 1

    Peter Reddaway’s book, Uncensored Russia, contains the annotated text of the first eleven issues of the Chronicle of Current Events. Page 421 contains this item from the Chronicle: “Roy Medvedev, mathematician, historian, and author of a three-volume work on Stalin Let History Judge has been expelled from the party ‘for convictions incompatible with the title of party member.’ ” The action seems to have been precipitated not by the book but by his letter in 1969 to Kommunist, “Is It Possible to Rehabilitate Stalin Today?” The letter was not published, of course, and circulated only in samizdat. A French translation appeared that same year, “Faut-il réhabiliter Staline?

  2. 2

    Documents of the Twenty-second Congress, vol. 1 (New York: Crosscurrents Press, 1961), p. 222. The quotation is from Khrushchev’s concluding speech at the Congress, October 27, 1961.

  3. 3

    Facts on File, July 4-10, 1957, p. 217, F3.

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