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Under the Volcano

Stalin’s Secret War

by Nikolai Tolstoy
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 463 pp., $18.50

Confiscated Power: How Soviet Russia Really Works

by Hélène Carrère D’Encausse, translated by George Holoch
Harper and Row, 401 pp., $19.95

USSR: The Corrupt Society

by Konstantin M. Simis
Simon and Schuster, 316 pp., $14.95

Notes of a Revolutionary

by Andrei Amalrik, translated by Guy Daniels
Knopf, 343 pp., $16.95

When during the late war British military observers were first allowed to visit the Soviet Union and see the armed forces in action, a number of them came back appalled by what they had seen. War equipment was primitive, as was the cartography, the supply system was rough and inadequate, the troops looked backward, and so forth. It was difficult for them to understand why such an army appeared to be winning. But it was. What the British generals had failed to grasp was that the strength of the Soviet system of rule lay precisely in its ability to live with and to survive the chaos of the society which it ran. Primitive equipment was the only kind that was suitable for use by what was still largely a peasant army. That the regime worked amid the disorder and the confusion was ensured in large measure by its skill in concentrating on essentials, and in leaving the rest to muddle through. But as Count Tolstoy shows in his new book, a large element in the survival was the terror that Stalin unleashed against his own people, in his “secret war.”

Of course, there were other reasons too for Stalin’s immunity against the upsurge of popular resentment that was evoked by the Soviet Union’s involvement in a war with a country that, until the day before, had been portrayed as a reliable ally. There was the inertia that a system of terror creates of itself—it is a common observation that revolt against tyranny only becomes a real danger once tyranny is relaxed (a fact that became particularly relevant after the death of Stalin). An important factor was the wise decision of Stalin to reduce to a minimum appeals to communism and to replace them by traditional themes rooted in Russian history, by patriotic calls, and by the Orthodox church. Most important, perhaps, was the savage brutality of the invading German forces, which soon put an end to the initial hope and welcome by the population. The optimistic expectations (encouraged by the NKVD, presumably) that things would be quite different after victory also played their part.

But Tolstoy has done a great service in describing and documenting a much less publicized aspect of the war on the Eastern front—the time when Stalin suppressed a real or imaginary threat to his own survival from the population on which, for the previous ten or eleven years, he had inflicted so much suffering. The story in itself is not new, but it is told in this book with great dramatic skill and vigor. Like other Russian rulers before him, Stalin lived in constant fear, not only for his personal safety from assassination—this has often been described—but in panic that the whole ramshackle edifice of Soviet power would collapse under the onslaught of a wild, anarchical rising of the millions of camp inmates and national minorities. Tolstoy shows the extent to which this fear dictated Stalin’s policy—for example, he argues convincingly that the murder of Polish officers by the NKVD at Katyn was motivated not so much, or not only, by the desire to eliminate the elite from a future communist Poland, but by apprehension that the Polish officers in the Soviet Union could prove effective leaders of a slave revolt.

This book supports the view of those who hold that Stalin cannot be regarded as mad. Perhaps the most perceptive picture of Stalin’s personality is still to be found in Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. His brutality and cunning, as well as the hatred and the vengefulness, were those of a primitive and coarse man of the people. He was enabled by the system that he inherited from Lenin to exercise absolute domination without any restraints whatsoever. His instinct for power, like that of Lenin before him, told him that a Russian ruler lives on a volcano that is liable to erupt—the volcano that Pushkin described as “the Russian revolt, senseless and pitiless.” But, unlike Lenin, who combined the concessions of the New Economic Policy with the terror of the CHEKA and of Communist Party tyranny, Stalin increased his problems by his policy of forcible collectivization and breakneck-speed industrialization.

Tolstoy’s book, in general, offers little support for the view of those (like Trotsky) who dismiss Stalin as incompetent in everything except political intrigue and personal survival. Nonetheless his misjudgment of Hitler was monumental. Of course, the close kinship of the two systems made it tempting for Stalin to believe that he could trust his fellow tyrant more than the treacherous Western politicians—the eternal imperialist enemy for whose ultimate defeat the revolution in Russia came into being. As Count Tolstoy eloquently demonstrates, Stalin was until the last minute supplying Hitler with vital war materials, and refusing to listen to the overwhelming evidence of an impending invasion. About this, Tolstoy has an original explanation. “All in all,” he says, “Stalin regarded himself as Hitler’s junior partner, and was prepared to believe anything his Führer told him. Whether Hitler lent a personal hand in deceiving Stalin over the coming invasion may never be known, but seems more likely than other explanations of Stalin’s delusion.”

Count Tolstoy has made good use of the documents on the war period in the Public Record Office in London which have become available, and he has read widely. The result is that he has provided the fullest account we have of Stalin’s policy immediately before and during the war. He is not, incidentally, sparing of the Western side in his indictment. He attacks the dishonest or stupid fellow travelers who helped Stalin to create a myth about himself. Above all, in a carefully researched chapter on the repatriation, along with Soviet citizens, of prisoners of war who were White Russians and never Soviet citizens, he lays the blame for the decision on the deceitfulness of two leading British statesmen and a general. He writes with a keenness not only of style, but of mind, with awareness of the true nature of the Soviet system and free from the smokescreens of deceit which sixty-five years of Soviet rule have endeavored to cast over the reality.

What is that reality? Mainly twofold. A society that is at the same time primitive and ramshackle in many respects, and capable of considerable material achievement, mainly for war purposes. A system of government that has learned how to live with the haos, disorder, and brutality, which are never far below the surface, and, above all, to survive. Professor Carrère d’Encausse is concerned in her new book to examine the Soviet scene as it appeared when the Brezhnev era was drawing to a close.

If the Soviet leaders learned one thing from the Stalin period, it was the danger which such a one-man system presented to themselves—not just to millions of peasants and thousands of intellectuals. But Khrushchev, who briefly aroused some apprehensions that he was acquiring too much personal power, was mainly an object lesson in the perils faced by the mainspring of the Soviet regime—entrenched privilege—from overenthusiastic attempts at reform. Brezhnev inherited serious economic problems which Khrushchev had failed to resolve. He could have embarked on overall reform of the system, “loosening the grip of centralization and granting some degree of initiative and power to the entire social body.” But this would have “attacked the rights and privileges of the ruling class” and was therefore rejected. On the other hand, increased coercion was inconsistent with “the security that the ruling class had managed to guarantee for itself.” And so Brezhnev chose the path of “absolute immobility” which ensured that the structure of privilege so eloquently and elegantly documented by this book remained unimpaired from the earliest days (not so far as Lenin was concerned—he preferred power to the more popular trappings).

But immobility at home was accompanied by dynamism abroad, in Africa and in Asia. True, this dynamism has been made possible, in large measure, by Western weakness and lack of will. (“Who will be the first, the USSR or the West, to be defeated by its own decline?” is the question with which Mme. Carrère d’Encausse ends her book.) Foreign successes give legitimacy to a regime which very few believe in, to bolster its right to rule. The author also thinks that expansion abroad helps to discourage any mass discontent that might be brewing by making it appear that the regime has the military power to crush it. (I doubt this, because it is not the army but the “Praetorian Guard,” the troops of the KGB, that are used to put down occasional popular movements of protest.) She believes that the secret of the stability under Brezhnev and his colleagues was that they “recognized the importance and the interests of every group” (as Khrushchev did not) and that they avoided “any debate or decision that might change the distribution of power.”

Mme. Carrère d’Encausse has not been fortunate in her translator—a full member of the Central Committee is not a “titular” member, nor is the occupation of the military intelligence organization, the GRU, “information.” But she has written a shrewd and illuminating book, which sheds much necessary light on Soviet society.

Mr. Simis draws on his experience of seventeen years as an advocate in Soviet trials to portray what he describes as “the secret world of Soviet capitalism”—in other words, the corruption that pervades Soviet society from top to bottom. The great value of this remarkable book is that it is based not on gossip, but to a large extent on personal observation. Where it depends on information supplied by others, Mr. Simis was able to satisfy himself that the source was reliable. The picture he presents is quite extraordinary, and would be incredible if it were not for the obvious integrity and moderation of its author.

The real point of his story is not the extent and spread of corruption but the way in which it is interwoven with, and inseparable from, Soviet society. Since the state apparatus is corrupt at every level, it imposes the necessity of bribery on virtually all who come into contact with it. Above all, the chronic shortage of goods and services, which is endemic in all communist-run economies, enables those who have the power to give or withhold them to exact tribute. Action is taken from time to time against corrupt officials—many of the examples cited by Mr. Simis derive from reports of scandals which have appeared in the press. But according to Mr. Simis this action is often ineffective—particularly against those in the higher ranks—both because corruption is rampant throughout the apparatus and because “those who possess ultimate power are themselves predisposed to this or that degree of corruption.” It is, as it were, one of the prizes of office. Perhaps the over-whelming reason for much of the bribery and fiddling is the degree of alienation from the regime which is found in all strata of society. The enormous black market, the underground capitalist entrepreneurs, and the like, may be quite rightly seen as a movement of social protest against an economic system that is irrational, inefficient, and contrary to basic human nature. As Mr. Simis says, “Soviet society cannot rid itself of corruption as long as it remains Soviet. It is as simple as that.”

After this dismal chronicle of brutality, inefficiency, corruption, and hypocrisy, one turns with relief to Andrei Amalrik’s memoirs, because of the strong moral dimension that pervades them—the stubborn defense of the individual against the totalitarian destructive onslaught. Amalrik published his Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? in the West in 1970, and suffered imprisonment and exile for it. In his latest book he does not appear to support his original prediction that the Soviet Union would disintegrate as a result of its internal contradictions. In 1976 he was, in accordance with Andropov’s practice with dissidents who are well known outside the Soviet Union, allowed to emigrate as an alternative to returning to the labor camps. He made innumerable friends in the US and elsewhere. His humor, acute intelligence, and enjoyment of life fascinated all those who met him. His death in 1980, in a motor accident in Spain, was a great loss to the cause of freedom, as well as a bitter blow to his friends.

These memoirs, completed shortly before his death, describe the last ten years of his life in the Soviet Union, in prison camp, in exile, and outside. They are witty, observant, shrewd, redolent with courage and moral integrity. In an excellent translation, they give the best picture I know of what it is like to be a dissident in the Soviet Union—a human being brave enough to try to defy the machine. The dissidents, he says, “are inspired precisely by a belief in the ability of the individual to oppose the system. And we have seen how the fate of Anatoly Shcharansky, a ‘private citizen,’ aroused world public opinion, whereas the dismissal of Podgorny, the president of the most powerful totalitarian state, was forgotten in less than a month.” Communist leaders like Stalin understood this—there were no Shcharanskys to be heard of during his reign of terror.

Stalin’s most recent successor comes from fifteen years of heading the KGB. A close protégé of his has succeeded him in the KGB, and another KGB colleague has been immediately promoted to the Politburo. There seems little doubt about who is running the country now. The questions that come to mind most urgently are these. Will the new regime drain the quagmire in which Soviet society finds itself? Will Andropov’s regime put an end to the immobility which characterized that of Brezhnev? Will the new administration be able significantly to improve the USSR’s debased economic situation?

The evidence that emerges from the books under review offers little encouragement for positive answers to these questions. Corruption and the black market are too much integrated with Soviet society for any attempt to eradicate them to succeed. And will Andropov try very hard? There will be some show of attempt, no doubt, some rolling of heads. But the new general secretary is far too skillful and experienced to carry the process too far, because none is better aware than he of the risks that would arise for the survival of the regime from a genuine drive against the black market economy and the bribery, if indeed such a campaign can be envisaged. As for immobility, the insoluble dilemma between decentralization and coercion, as formulated by Professor Carrère d’Encausse, still remains. It is unlikely that the new regime will put its own survival at risk by endangering the position of the elite on whom it depends by embarking on either of the two possible courses, each of which is likely to have that result. Nor are the factors that put paid to the economic reform by decentralization of 1965 any different today. Such a course, the Soviet leaders are firmly convinced, can only lead to a weakening of Party control—and this cannot be contemplated for a moment.

Of course, there are unpredictable factors. One of them is the extent to which the new leader will be able to resist the pressure from the middle ranks of the Party for reform that many students of Soviet conditions claim to discern. Again, Andropov is clearly a more ingenious man than his predecessor with, no doubt, many tricks up his sleeve. One can only deal in possibilities, and in the experience of sixty-five years of Soviet reality. And here I return to the generals who were so wrong about the Soviet armed forces. The reason why they were so mistaken was that they did not realize that the main strength of the Soviet system is its ability to survive the muddle and the chaos which are an integral part of its essence. And it is precisely by immobility, by letting well enough alone, by avoidance of overzealous reform, by concentrating on the military essentials and letting the rest ride, that it has survived so far—and will probably survive beyond 1984.

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