The document that follows is an analysis of the Soviet Union written in August 1932 by George F. Kennan, then a twenty-eight-year-old member of the Foreign Service, stationed in Riga, Latvia. Mr. Kennan has supplied the background to the document in the following note written for The New York Review.
In August 1932, American recognition of the Soviet Union and the establishment of an American embassy in Moscow were still about one and a half years in the future. For reporting on conditions in Russia the State Department then relied upon a special section of the American legation at Riga, staffed by officers who had had some special training in Russian matters, and who sent in reports based almost exclusively on careful study of the Soviet press and other legitimate sources of information.
Having received years of academic training in the Russian field, I was a member of this subordinate unit of the Riga legation. In response to some sort of request from the chief of the mission for an estimate of how the first Soviet Five-Year Plan, then just recently announced, would affect Soviet opinion, I offered the document in question. In it, as will be readily perceived, I not only brought forward my own view of Russian communism as it then existed, but sketched out my vision of what Russia, and particularly the state of its youth, would be like when, as I confidently expected, the Soviet regime, having exhausted its resources, would come to an end.
For seventy years this document slumbered, peacefully unnoted, in State Department files that were only recently made available to scholars. The credit for unearthing it belongs to Professor David C. Engerman of Brandeis University, who came across it in the pursuit of his own scholarly inquiries, recognized its significance, and had the courtesy to bring it to my attention. (I had by this time lost all memory of it.) It is, of course, now in the public domain.
The writing of this paper came at a time when the last of the Leninist leaders of the Russian Communist movement were in process of being removed by Stalin, and when the many horrors of the remaining twenty years of his life were about to be inaugurated. The full extent of these horrors I was, of course, unable to foresee. But the wording of the document suggests that, under scholarly scrutiny, certain of the fundamental deficiencies of radical Soviet policies were already apparent at this early date, and that these deficiencies were bound, in the long run, to persist and gradually to weaken the dictatorship. The paper’s importance as I now see it lies in the evidence it brings that, in the view of at least one reasonably qualified American observer of the year 1932, an ultimate failure and collapse of the Russian-Communist system, while perhaps long in the coming, was inevitable.
Enclosure No. 4 to despatch No. 650 of Aug. 19, 1932, from the legation at Riga, Latvia
MEMORANDUM FOR THE MINISTER
The question of the degree of contentment of the Russian population is obviously not one to which a general, definite answer can be given.
In a country which for nearly twenty years has lived in a continual state of extreme social and political tension,—where fifteen to twenty million people have been killed in military operations, exiled to prison camps, forced [to] emigrate, or deprived of all civic rights for political reasons,—where the ideals, principles, beliefs, and social position of all but a tiny minority have been forcibly turned upside-down by government action,—in such a country it is obvious that there are infinite degrees of attitude towards environment, varying from the most complete misery and bitterness to the most exalted enthusiasm.
It must be remembered in this connection that almost every detail in the life of every individual in Russia is regulated by a centralized political power which is unparalleled in modern history, and that this power is not at present being exercised in the interests of the welfare and happiness of the present generation. The power of the state is not even being exercised in the interests of a single group, as far as the circumstances of personal life are concerned. Life in Soviet Russia is still being administered in the interests of a doctrine: the doctrine of the inevitable violent communist revolution in all countries,—the doctrine of the limitless predominance of the class struggle in every phase of human activity. This doctrine has created and necessitated the continued hostility between Russia and the rest of the world. It has necessitated the maintenance of the Red Army and the entire industrial-military development known as the Five-Year-Plan. Indirectly it has necessitated the sacrifice of the comfort and nerves of a whole generation, which the execution of this plan entailed.
In view of all this,—in view of the fact that the Soviet Government is not yet in any sense a “government for the people,”—it is scarcely to be expected that most of the people should be as happy as those in other countries. There is no doubt that great portions of them are actively discontented and have very little to look for in life. This
applies predominantly to the older generation in general, which has naturally not been able to adapt itself to new conditions as well as the younger element. It certainly applies in a general way to the peasantry, which has been forced into a complete change of life which it never asked for and which, up to now, has brought it only a painful shock to its mental peace and a considerable reduction of its earthly treasures. It clearly applies to the objects—and the near friends and relatives of the objects—of the varied forms of political persecution with which the entire development—perhaps necessarily—has been attended. It will readily be seen that these groups alone constitute a very large part of the population.
On the other hand, there are certain elements which enjoy privileges of an economic or political nature and which are doubtlessly reasonably satisfied with the present conditions, if not actually enthusiastic. These are, above all, the army, the factory proletariat, and the urban youth all over the country. The army is deliberately kept satisfied for obvious reasons. The factory worker enjoys, under the canons of the Marxist faith, a status of unique moral purity, and is consequently accorded political and social privileges which go far to offset the material disadvantages which he may experience,—particularly since material standards are outstandingly a matter of training and habit, and have never been very high among the Russian factory class.
Finally, there is the communist youth. The attitude of this element has probably never been better described than in the recent book of the young German specialist Klaus Mehnert, Die Jugend in der Sowjetunion. In this book he shows a certain portion, at least of the young people, as being extremely enthusiastic and as happy as human beings can be only when they are completely wrapped up in tasks which have no relation to their personal life. There is no reason to doubt this. The romance of economic development has been known to inspire young people in other countries than Russia. This inspiration is all the greater in Russia, where the government has encouraged young people to ignore all other questions in favor of economic progress. Questions of sex, children, the family, personal affection, religious and
artistic expression—all of these questions have not yet been solved in Soviet Russia. They have only been temporarily regulated in the interests of the immediate tasks of industrialization and world revolution. For the younger generation this regulation has in some ways been a very happy one. It has relieved these young people to a large extent of the curses of egotism, romanticism, day-dreaming, introspection, and perplexity which befall the youth of bourgeois countries. But its permanent effect cannot be a beneficial one, for the following reasons:
There are two possibilities for future development in Russia:
(a) The materialistic phase of development,—the phase on which all energies are now being concentrated,—succeeds. What then? Industrialization and electronic ice-boxes,—all these things must have their limits in Russia, as they have in other countries. The greater the success, the more surely one may expect a let-down in the military enthusiasm, a mood of demobilization, a resting on one’s laurels, a looking-about for rewards. At that time, the young communist will be forced to turn his attention inward and to ask himself for the first time what there really is to live for.
(b) The materialistic phase fails. The policy of rapid and forced industrialization turns out to be an economic mistake. The rate of construction cannot be maintained. Collectivized agriculture cannot reabsorb the masses of transient labor released from construction projects, nor do these masses, uprooted and inspired with vague political hopes, wish to be reabsorbed by the countryside. They pile into the big cities. Discontent and increasing government expenses do their work. Foreign credit breaks down. Depreciation gains the upper hand over production. The system falls to pieces.
In either of these two cases, the world will see a disappearance of the artificial conditions which now maintain the unlimited self-confidence, mental health, and happiness of the younger Russian generation. It will see the disappearance of the militant spirit, of the immediate, concrete objective, of the ready-made philosophy. Totally untrained to think for himself, unaccustomed to fighting his own mental battles and facing his own problems, guided neither by tradition, example, ideals, nor the personal responsibility which acts as a steadying influence in other countries, the young Russian will probably be as helpless and miserable as a babe in the woods. Introspection and mental perplexity will make short work of his self-confidence, once his faith in the mystic qualities of communism is ruined. From the most morally unified country in the world, Russia can become overnight the worst moral chaos.
If it is true, consequently, that there is a portion of the population which is now in a happy and enthusiastic frame of mind, there is nothing to show that this fortunate situation is based on any permanent foundations, or holds any particular promise for the future.
April 26, 2001