Putin Against History
How His War Has Erased Russia’s Past—And Endangered Its Future
This week, after months of factional jockeying, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his colleagues will convene the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress. At the conclave's end, Xi will walk into a cavernous room in the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing, flanked by China’s new rulers.
Xi and his colleagues head the bureaucracies that manage China's economy, military, propaganda apparatus, and security organs. But on this occasion, they will appear in their most important capacity: as the members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. This group will govern China until the next party congress, in 2022.
For party leaders, this week marks another half decade in power. But it will also bring a different anniversary, which Beijing will greet without fanfare. The 19th Party Congress falls on the eve of the centenary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, the movement that led to the creation of the Soviet Union.
China's leaders are attentive students of Soviet history, and the Bolsheviks and the Soviet state they built are both a model and a cautionary tale for the Chinese Communist Party. Memories of the Soviet collapse—the trauma of toppled statues, indigent apparatchiks, and secret archives opened to public scrutiny—steel party leaders’ determination to retain power.
In 2009, when Xi was the headmaster of the Central Party School, a position that served as a steppingstone to the top, he commissioned a sprawling study of the Soviet collapse. Its conclusion: the Soviet Communist Party’s failure to dominate the institutions underpinning its power, such as the military, spelled its doom. “Why must we unwaveringly assert our party's control over the military?” Xi asked an audience at a private party meeting three years later. “Because,” he said, “this is the lesson the Soviet collapse teaches. The Soviet Red Army was depoliticized and departyized, becoming a national institution, and so the Soviet Communist Party surrendered its weapons. When those who wished to save the Soviet Union did step forward, the instrument of dictatorship had already slipped from their grasp.”
This assessment of Soviet history helps explain Xi’s aggressive moves to consolidate his personal power and assert the party’s control over ever more aspects of Chinese life. Over the last five years, Xi has unleashed an antigraft campaign to topple military and security leaders once seen as untouchable, deployed party “discipline inspection” units to detain and question cadres outside the judicial system, and proclaimed that the party cannot be bound by “constitutionalism” or “rule of law” derived from state, rather than party, institutions. Party committees and cells in factories, universities, and corporate offices are asserting themselves with newfound swagger. This week, the party will cement these prerogatives by changing its constitution and naming a new Politburo Standing Committee. Xi and his colleagues preside over the world’s largest and most successful Marxist-Leninist organization, and they are determined to ensure that it remains so.
With its vast countryside and small industrial base, late imperial China did not seem like fertile ground for the revolution of the urban proletariat that Karl Marx had forecast for western Europe. Orthodox Marxism considered China a realm of dim, timeless despotism, ill prepared for revolution. Until 1917, Marx and Vladimir Lenin were hardly known in China.
The Bolshevik Revolution quickly captured the attention of Chinese progressives. Many had become disillusioned with the Nationalist Revolution of 1911, which had swept away China’s imperial government with promises of republican democracy but brought warlordism instead. Bolshevism offered another way, thanks to Lenin's retrofitting of Marxism to suit the realities of unindustrialized countries. Like China, tsarist Russia had been largely rural, ruled by dynastic despots, and encroached on by foreign powers. Lenin’s thesis that colonial exploitation represented the highest stage of capitalism resonated with those Chinese outraged over “foreign concession zones” and unequal treaties. So did the Soviet government’s promise to return tsarist colonial possessions in Manchuria to Chinese control. Young Chinese progressives made pilgrimages to Moscow, and study groups across China consumed the growing canon of Marxist-Leninist literature that was translated into Chinese.
Leninism held that a vanguard of professional revolutionaries could bend the course of history, wielding state power to prod society through its evolution toward a communist utopia—the “shining future” proclaimed by Bolshevik propaganda, in which the state would dissolve and workers would control the means of production. The Bolsheviks believed that this required a centralized authority and an unerring adherence to the party line. As agents of history, they felt unbound by notions of propriety, tradition, religion, rule of law, and individual dignity. Lenin's commissars launched crash programs to promote popular literacy, women's rights, electrification, and public health. They forcibly expropriated property and terrorized so-called class enemies. Believing the global emancipation of the proletariat to be imminent, they fomented revolution abroad.
The Bolshevik Revolution quickly captured the attention of Chinese progressives.
In 1921, guided by an agent dispatched from Moscow, the Chinese Communist Party held its founding congress, in Shanghai. A young agitator named Mao Zedong attended. Within a few years, Mao and his comrades had established districts called Su-wei-ai (Soviets) in China's hinterland, where the Nationalist government was weak and discontent widespread. At first, the Communists were scarcely distinguishable from the millenarian sects that had arisen during other periods of state dysfunction in Chinese history. Mao and his colleagues channeled local religious practice to proselytize among the peasantry. Seeking converts among coal miners in the mountainous interior, Communist agents in the town of Anyuan paraded a bust of Marx on a palanquin normally reserved for temple gods.
In the early 1930s, Mao and his comrades pressed a Soviet-inspired program of land redistribution, women's rights, popular literacy, and pitiless violence against class enemies, punctuated by interludes of conciliation with the Nationalists. Chinese communism’s first major purge, led by Mao in 1930, was known as "Smash the Anti-Bolshevik Clique.” It claimed tens of thousands of lives, including several hundred Chinese Red Army officers branded as traitors. Such was the price of progress: in a 1927 article in the periodical Bu-er-sai-wei-ke (The Bolshevik), a cadre explained that iron discipline and centralized power were critical to the victory of the revolution.
Through the 1930s and 1940s, as Nationalist troops and Japanese invaders chased the Communists around China's vast interior, Mao steadily consolidated power, making canny use of short-term truces and guerrilla tactics. He built a reputation as a savvy strategist and a creative political theoretician. In 1945, Mao Zedong Thought, which married the theory of Marxism-Leninism to the practice of the Chinese Revolution, was enshrined as the party's guiding light. Unlike many of his comrades, Mao never studied abroad and had no direct experience of the Soviet Union. He sidelined and purged his Moscow-trained rivals, co-opting those who had acquired useful technical or political skills. The Communists survived the Japanese invasion and a civil war with the Nationalist Party to emerge as mainland China’s sole rulers in 1949.
LEANING TO ONE SIDE
After learning revolution from Lenin, China's Communists learned nation building from Joseph Stalin. In the 1950s, thousands of Soviet advisers streamed into Chinese government ministries, schools, and factories, leaving their mark on Beijing's grandiose façades and providing templates for everything from the style of army boots to the dissident-management manuals of the secret police. Mao launched a reprise of Stalin's crash industrialization program, expropriating vast quantities of grain from peasants based on fanciful production figures and executing hoarders as class enemies. In a grotesque echo of the Holodomor, Stalin's starvation of Ukraine in 1932–33, the Great Leap Forward produced history's deadliest famine.
China, Mao declared in 1949, would “lean to one side,” relying on its Soviet “elder brother,” as many Chinese called the Soviet Union. Yet Mao chafed under Soviet tutelage, and the honeymoon frayed within a decade. Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 denunciation of Stalin's purges and cult of personality shocked Mao, and the relationship soured further over disagreements about the sharing of nuclear and missile secrets with Chinese scientists. Soviet leaders dismissed Mao as unhinged; Mao charged that Moscow had abandoned true Marxism and succumbed to revisionism. Clashes along China's border with Siberia in the late 1960s nearly escalated into war.
The secretive group that sits atop Chinese politics remains recognizably Leninist today.
Although Mao's China borrowed much from the Soviets, it was never a satellite, diverging in style and substance from Moscow’s example. Mao's signature carnage, the Cultural Revolution, was a chaotic orgy of violence, a world apart from Stalin's meticulously scripted Great Terror and show trials of the 1930s.
Yet despite their differences, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao all ended their lives in power, brought by death to the same position: entombed in crystal coffins in the central squares of their respective capitals, ringed by far-flung archipelagoes of labor camps and watchful security organs. All three had unified their fractured homelands and claimed to have liberated the downtrodden, at a staggering human cost.
THE SHINING FUTURE
After the deaths of their charismatic leaders, the Chinese and Soviet revolutions took different paths. The Soviet Union, more industrialized than China, floated along on a sea of foreign exchange reserves from energy exports until economic sclerosis and the consequences of reforms in the 1980s ushered in its collapse. The Chinese Communist Party, its hierarchy and ideology shattered by the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, had more room to reinvent itself. Under Deng Xiaoping's initiative to build “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” China's leaders mutilated Marxism almost beyond recognition.
Yet the secretive vanguard that sits atop Chinese politics remains recognizably Leninist today, as do the party, security, and propaganda organs that enforce its will. Although the newest members of the Standing Committee are more likely to tweak interest rates or adjust soy imports than to order the liquidation of landlords, the party’s sense of destiny, of an absolute right to reach down and change the course of China's history, is intact. Its rejection of liberal democracy is born not only of Chinese chauvinism but also of a Leninist contempt for bourgeois niceties such as the rule of law, freedom of conscience, and individual dignity. In the party’s eyes, this ideology is a tool: like railways or the military, it has been successfully Sinified and now serves China better than it ever did the Soviet Union.
For Xi, an institutionalist whose father was a senior cadre, reasserting the party’s control over society represents a natural return to its Leninist roots. Over the past half decade, Xi has appointed himself chair of the party committees overseeing many key portfolios, including cybersecurity and economic reform, sidelining the government functionaries who traditionally fill such roles. He has toured newsrooms and television studios, bluntly reminding media organs that “your surname is Party” and that their loyalty must be absolute. The security services have launched the harshest crackdown on civil society in a generation, complete with televised confessions and florid denunciations of conspirators in the People’s Daily, a party newspaper. Over the next week, Xi will help select the next generation of party leaders and may write his own “thought” into the party constitution, as Mao did in 1945. His choices could reveal whether he intends to remain in power beyond the ten-year term customary for Chinese leaders.
Facing the Great Hall of the People, across the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square, sits the National Museum of China. The Road to Rejuvenation, its main permanent exhibit, was the site of Xi’s first public appearance after taking power at the last party congress, in 2012, and the place where he unveiled his signature slogan, “the Chinese Dream.” The exhibit’s account of China’s history begins with ancient greatness, moves through decline and colonial humiliation, and then climbs inexorably upward, in an arc that any Bolshevik would recognize. But the destination has changed: instead of a borderless proletarian paradise, Xi’s “Chinese Dream” promises to restore a once mighty civilization to its rightful glory under party rule. This mix of native-soil nationalism and iron discipline is an attractive alternative to representative democracy for ambitious authoritarians around the world, from Turkey to the Philippines. In China’s model, many see a shining future of their own.