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Slutsky & History

To the Editors:

As someone with good memories of Boris Slutsky’s public reading of his poetry in Moscow during Khrushchev’s “thaw” of 1962, I appreciated Aileen Kelly’s commemoration of his career [NYR, March 9]. But she goes well beyond this to place on him a burden of historical interpretation that his stature simply cannot sustain. For the “dissident” status she assigns him was stricly a posthumous, post-Soviet discovery—as in the far more important case of Dmitri Shostakovich.

Nonetheless, she claims Slutsky’s example shows Soviet society “was evolving, even maturing…evidence [that] should be borne in mind by those who believe the Soviet file should now finally be closed,” in the negative, that is. I am the central example she gives of such insensitive foreclosure. By contrast, Sheila Fitzpatrick and Stephen Cohen are held up as defenders of a more open and positive view.

To make this dubious point, moreover, Kelly caricatures my position in terminology taken from her two authorities’ “revisionist” Sovietology. Thus: I consider Soviet society an “ideological monolith,” both “static” and “all-encompassing” in its social “control.” This monolith was held together by a “logocratic spell” broken only when the dissident intelligentsia seized the opportunity offered by glasnost under Gorbachev to carry out Solzhenitsyn’s famous injunction, “Refuse to live according to the Lie.” Indeed, the “spell” was total until 1989-1991, with only up-front dissidents escaping it—a view “belied by Slutsky’s poetry” and supported by the pluralistic picture of Soviet life Fitzpatrick gives in her Everyday Stalinism. In short, Kelly objects to my viewing communism in terms of what her authorities decry as the “totalitarian model.”

But what alternative exists to this universally used shorthand for the unique amalgam of Communist Party-state, command economy, secret police, and mandatory ideology? For Soviet history was not centrally about workers’ power or overcoming backwardness. It was about “building socialism,” defined as the suppression of private property, profit, and the market. And it aimed to achieve this “highest goal of history” through the liquidation, by “class struggle,” of all “kulaks,” “petty bourgeois” NEP men, “wreckers,” and other “enemies of the people.” Thus, under communism, ideology, though not everything, was the sine qua non distinguishing it from more prosaic forms of modernization. Nor was the system static. Its culmination was the Stalinist Thirties, its “maximalist version…and defining moment,” as Kelly quotes Fitzpatrick’s characterization.

Totalitarianism” properly understood thus does not mean the Soviet people were mindless automatons controlled from a single center. And this was made clear long before Slutsky or Fitzpatrick by waves of dissident émigrés, samizdat writers, banned Nobel laureates, and Jewish refusniks.

Such dissent, of course, could not be expressed openly because it would reveal the Communist emperor had no clothes—which indeed occurred with Gorbachev’s glasnost gamble. But when the system was functioning properly everyone had to use Party-speak publicly (the archives reveal that the leaders themselves used it behind closed doors). Hence Solzhenitsyn preached liberation from the language of “the Lie” as the first step toward liberation tout court. And real dissent is public—and perilous—as his example illustrates. Until the collapse of 1989-1991, therefore, most disaffected intelligensia were closet cases, cautious “Galileos” as opposed to foolhardy “Giordano Brunos.” So Slutsky confined his protest to writing “for the drawer.”

To Kelly’s authorities, of course, any suggestion of ideocratic power acting “from above” is cold war calumny. Soviet development, rather, was driven by social forces acting “from below.” Yet in making this partially valid point, they transmogrified their predecessors’ position into a straw man called “monolith.” In reality, there is nothing essential in Fitzpatrick’s picture of disaffection under Stalin that was not already highlighted in 1958 by the “totalitarians”’ patriarch, Merle Fainsod, in his Smolensk Under Soviet Rule.

Yet “revisionism” was not just a matter of historical methodology. Its subtext was advocacy for the enduring legitimacy, founded on “social mobility,” of the Soviet regime (Fitzpatrick) or anticipation of eventual “socialism with a human face” (Cohen). These ideological expectations, however, perversely caused the revisionists to get the Soviet dynamic backwards: they mistook the post-Stalin loosening of the system for liberalization, when in fact it denoted decomposition leading to collapse.

Communism as ideocracy can readily account for this outcome: no Lie, no system. Social maturation, however, draws a blank. For if Soviet society was “evolving” as nicely as Kelly and her authorities maintain, then why is it not still there? Surely, this is the overriding historical problem posed by the surreal Communist epic—not the now pointless celebration of Soviet “pluralism.”

Martin Malia
Berkeley, California

Aileen Kelly replies:

Some of Martin Malia’s comments on my review make me wonder whether he has read it or just been told about it by friends. For example, he does not need to insist that Slutsky’s “dissident” status was “a strictly posthumous…discovery”: this fact, and the reasons for Slutsky’s conformism, were at the heart of my piece. Unlike Malia, however, I don’t believe that this external conformism automatically detracts from the quality of Slutsky’s insights into the workings of Soviet society. What does it mean to say that Shostakovich’s case was “far more important”? That his music conveys a sense of his tragic age far better than Slutsky’s poetry? A debate on their relative merits could be interesting, but Malia is apparently not concerned with my discussion of Slutsky, which he seems to interpret as a mere pretext for the real subject of my review—a veiled attack on Malia’s own views about the Soviet system. His suspicion is based on just two points at which I suggest that Slutsky’s portrayal of the evolution of Soviet society is relevant to a continuing debate among US academics on the nature of the regime. In this debate Malia currently has a high profile, thanks to his recent book, Russia Under Western Eyes, and his New York Times polemic with Stephen Cohen: hence my reference to both men by name. Malia’s reaction to my summary of the positions expressed in their publications reminds me strongly of the ideological origins of these polemics in cold war passions, when the fervent anticommunists of the “totalitarianism” school did not hesitate to question the intellectual independence and integrity of those whom they suspected of any sympathy with the opposing camp.

The authentic flavor of this polemical style (one of the last legacies of the Soviet period) is conveyed by his incantatory references to the “revisionist authorities” whose mouthpiece he believes me to be. He includes among them Sheila Fitzpatrick, despite the fact that I criticized her for downplaying Stalinism just as the “totalitarianism” school downplayed de-Stalinization. Although he may not have intended it, he gives the impression of believing, in the style of Lenin, that all “revisionists,” however much they may appear to disagree among themselves, are in secret collusion against the one true version of history.

I argued that the discovery of Slutsky’s rich picture of Soviet society should make us more wary of all prescriptions or predictions about Russia’s future that ignore or underestimate the complex heritage of her recent past. Malia dislikes the implication that he is guilty of such an insensitive foreclosing. He is not, as it happens, the main target of this remark, but the attitude I had in mind is well illustrated by his claim in Russia Under Western Eyes that with communism’s collapse “the reputedly world-historical turning of October was annulled and all its results were repealed…. It was as if 1917 had never occurred.” (p. 406)

He complains that I use the standard terminology of my “authorities” to caricature his views. Here his memory seems to have let him down somewhat: as demonstrated in his book, the following terminology to which he objects is his own. The reference to a “logocratic spell” broken by Solzhenitsyn’s injunction is on p. 407 (see also p. 397); on p. 309 Soviet Marxism is described as an “all-encompassing state tyranny.”

I do not think I have caricatured any of Malia’s views, but his method of ideological typecasting certainly caricatures mine. While I do not share his belief that the Soviet Union was brought down by a tiny number of dissidents, I have never attributed to him or to any other historian the absurd view that the party-state had turned most of its citizens into automata. I merely think he takes far too little account of the cumulative results of the disillusionment and disaffection of ordinary Soviet people over seven decades. I have never held the view that Soviet Russia was evolving “nicely,” which is why I was so impressed by Slutsky’s portrayal of its last years as a society adrift, searching for direction with only the experience of past tragedy and past errors to guide it.

Malia refers to Slutsky’s poetry and the testimonies collected in Fitzpatrick’s volume simply in order to claim precedence for the “totalitarianism” school as having been the first to tap such sources. It is depressing to see these firsthand accounts of often terrible experiences being used to refuel old ideological disputes which are increasingly meaningless to new generations. We would do better to learn from these testimonies what Slutsky learned: that ideologies are disastrously incapable of explaining historical processes and moral experience.

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