Russia’s Missing Peacemakers
Why the Country’s Elites Are Struggling to Break With Putin
Astonishing events in Czechoslovakia were only the latest in a series of changes in the communist world that took the outside world by surprise. The thaw and Hungarian rebellion of 1956, China's break with the Soviet Union and immersion in internal convulsion, and even the rejection of Russian control in Rumania-all were largely unforeseen (with only a few exceptions) even by expert opinion in the West, Like military planners who prepare for the last war, commentators on communist affairs in their preoccupation with accounting for the last surprise have often left the public unprepared for the next one. The concept of monolithic totalitarianism, based on parallels between Hitler and the later Stalin, ill prepared us to expect rebellion in Hungary; preoccupation with the Sino-Soviet split (which was only belatedly thought to be important, and then rapidly promoted into being the controlling factor in the divided communist world of the sixties) distracted us from any expectation of liberal deviation in Czechoslovakia.
There are many reasons for our continuing failure of perception besides simple unfamiliarity (too often disguised and in high places) with either Eastern cultures or communist politics. But two enduring intellectual prejudices are worth pointing out: the tendency to look for political factions rather than underlying forces to explain events; and to make short- term predictions of what national leaders will do rather than seek a strategic perspective on where they stand or an inner understanding of who they are.
Preoccupation with short-term political analysis has been particularly marked in the study of Eastern Europe; but recent events there have demonstrated the inadequacy of many of the familiar guides to factionalism- such as the simple juxtaposition between "Stalinist" and "reformist." Both the bête noire of the Czech reformers, deposed Premier Novotný, and one of their principal foreign foes, Polish Premier Gomulka, have been basically Khrushchevian "reformers," while the Rumanian party, which supported Dub?ek, has been among the purest creations of the Stalin era and a most faithful guardian internally of "Stalinist" emphases on heavy industry and police discipline. Nor is there much validity in the once-useful equations: training in Moscow equals subservience to Moscow; or a partisan background means an inclination toward independence. Dub?ek was Moscow-trained, while Gomulka and a number of other East European opponents were "nativists," many with partisan experience. Attempts to identify pro-Soviet and pro- Chinese factions have always been largely beside the point. There are probably more convinced Maoists among the people of Western than of Eastern Europe. A Rumanian critique of Soviet action against China-like a Chinese critique of Soviet action against Czechoslovakia-is largely a ploy in dealing with the Soviet leaders. The idiosyncratic Albanian alliance with Maoism is a tactic for survival against Jugoslavia after that country's partial rapprochement with the U.S.S.R.
As a preliminary to some needed fresh thinking about Eastern Europe, it might be useful to consider (1) the controlling forms of power conflict in the area, and (2) the underlying forces at work on the political process there.
Since communist Eastern Europe is recognized by the West to be a Soviet sphere of influence and since Soviet physical power in the area remains overwhelming, one must look first to the U.S.S.R. to determine how long- quiescent client states on its borders, like Rumania and Czechoslovakia, were able to mount their remarkable recent moves toward independence. There are, of course, interesting parallels with the concurrent inability of the other superpower, the United States, to translate preponderant physical power into effective political pressure. But there is a special series of problems that has arisen throughout communist Eastern Europe as a result of radical changes in the political position of the U.S.S.R. since the mid- fifties.
Briefly (and necessarily somewhat overstated and oversimplified), the Soviet Union has moved (1) from being the recognized leader of revolutionary forces in an essentially bipolar world to being a centrist and increasingly traditional great power in a world with many new power centers; and, at the same time, (2) from one-man dictatorship within the U.S.S.R. and direct control over foreign communist clients to rule by committee at home and through consultative bodies abroad.
(1) How is the U.S.S.R. a centrist power in world affairs? It has, first of all, returned again to its old fear of simultaneously facing enemies in both East and West. In his historical subconscious, every Russian knows that the only time Russia fell apart politically (the descent into the 200- year "appanage" period in the thirteenth century) was when the Teutonic knights and the Mongol hordes assaulted simultaneously. He remembers that even a generation ago Russia might not have survived had the Japanese (who had brought disaster and revolution to Russia in 1904-05) joined the Germans (who had brought a second wave of the same in 1914-18) in simultaneous assaults on Russia during World War II. In ways that foreigners can hardly appreciate, Russians fear the threats they see developing simultaneously from an ideologically resurgent China and an economically resurgent Western Europe-both regions confronting Russia with a cultural self-confidence which she envies and potential population pressure that she fears.
Ideologically, the long use of Leninist language for perpetual political rationalization has created an addiction to the chiaroscuro technique of using darkened "left" and "right" deviation to set off the contours of their own changing party line in pure and unmistakable white. The Soviet leaders' self-image has always been one of steering the true course between left adventurism (or dogmatism) and right opportunism (or revisionism). This centrist image now offers a new kind of psychological consolation at a time when passionate commitment as well as inner integrity have vanished from ideology. The image has also derived some plausibility from the relative stability of Soviet society, which has enjoyed an unprecedented quarter-century free from foreign war or internal convulsion.
Its leaders may now see their country as a kind of fulcrum supporting an increasingly teetering international seesaw. On one side are the forces of revolutionary change (China, Cuba and the unpredictable revolutionary extremists in both underdeveloped areas and overdeveloped universities) with whom they share rhetorical and historical links as well as many common enemies. On the other side stand the United States and its allies, with whom they share an increasing similarity of practical concerns, growing common interests and a greater sense of ethnic and cultural identity. Nevertheless, both China and the United States seem to represent too much social change and internal violence for a nation whose aging, conservative leaders have seen more than enough of both.
(2) Most important for Eastern Europe is the way in which the U.S.S.R. has become a centrist power within its own area of control. By its inertial drift into committee rule at home and coordinating councils abroad, the current Soviet leadership has in many ways become the object of conflicting pressures within its own sphere of influence rather than a center of clear policy delineation. The very determination of Khrushchev's successors to break with his subjectivism and arbitrariness has subtly helped many in the Soviet empire to adopt a new attitude toward the Muscovite center of power. Rather than pliantly reshaping themselves in accordance with unpredictable pressures from the hard dictatorial center, local leaders are now tempted to harden their constituencies in order to become shapers of pressure on the soft oligarchical center.
The ability of local leaders to sustain pressures on the power brokers in Moscow depends on their maintaining a solid front internally. To do so, they must resist the traditional Muscovite tactic of opening up divisions within any force that seeks to exercise discomforting pressures upon the Kremlin.
Thus, in the early sixties, a united (albeit crypto-Stalinist) Rumanian leadership was able to establish an independent position within the bloc that a more independent-minded but less united Hungarian leadership had been unable to sustain five years earlier. Thus, in 1967 and early 1968, a dwindling but purposefully united secret police establishment was able to gain new power and influence first in Russia and then in Poland in defiance of a much larger and ever-growing intellectual community which was, however, unable to coalesce into a united pressure group.
To be sure, pressure for repression probably also came from the secret police and military constituencies within the U.S.S.R.; but some elements of (or impulses within) the Soviet leadership were probably not altogether unhappy to see these pressures being combatted by an historically friendly country within their sphere of influence.
What happened within the Soviet leadership to tip the precarious balance in favor of invasion of Czechoslovakia may never be known-and can hardly be assessed on the basis of scattered reports soon after the invasion. But the drastic, unprecedented decision to invade without either a credible pretext or a prepared political alternative seemed to indicate a sudden collapse of confidence in the leadership's ability to find a middle road between conflicting pressures. Failing to wrest major concessions from the Czechs in peaceful confrontations,, the Soviet leaders had lost stature, credibility and-perhaps most important-their own collective self-image as the controlling arbiter of events. Having focused international attention on the confrontation, the Soviet leaders were made to realize that the Czech leaders had simply stolen the spotlighted position. All eyes were now on the Czech effort to steer a course between authoritarian Russian pressure from without and liberalizing popular pressure from within. Soviet power was simply being balanced against popular pressure within Czechoslovakia; and the urge to regain the initiative by applying Soviet force against the countervailing popular force in Czechoslovakia became irresistible. Deprived of their own political role, the Soviet leaders sought simply to cut out their frustrating political rivals; and to move directly against the "objective forces of counterrevolution" which already were apparently counterpoised against Soviet power in the Czech political equation. Vacillating moderates may well have been converted to this course at the eleventh hour through the classical Leninist hope that forceful action would create a situation in which some of the Czech reform program could be taken over and repackaged as Soviet largesse, after killing or humiliating politically those who had granted reforms as concessions to uncontrolled popular pressure.
If the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia brought into focus the crisis of centrist, conciliar political rule within the Soviet empire, the Czech experiment that preceded the invasion brought into focus the workings of three trans-national-in some ways even trans-political forces-in Eastern Europe. All of these forces operate within the U.S.S.R. and the other invading powers as well, and help account for the extreme sensitivity of orthodox communist leaders to the Czech evolution. They also resemble and at times interact with forces at work in Western Europe and even the United States. Having arisen in a decade of relative peace, increasing boredom and suddenly rising expectations, these forces are not clearly encapsulated in organizations and parties; they spread more by contagion than by conspiracy or conscious design; and, for these reasons, they are as hard for the outside observer to chart as they must be for a politician within to control, canalize or combat. But they were all involved in helping create a new political climate in Czechoslovakia before the Soviet invasion and they remain the stuff out of which the new politics of Eastern Europe will have to be forged.
These forces can be roughly categorized as psychological, economic and philosophical; more concretely, they can be defined as the rebirth of nationalism, the drive for economic efficiency and the search for new ideals; or stated in simpler, universal terms, they represent a new determination to be someone, to have something more, to believe in something higher.
The foremost force for change in Eastern Europe is the striking revival of nationalism, even within countries subject to traditional internal divisions such as Czechoslovakia and Jugoslavia. Communists have been underestimating the appeal of nationalism ever since Marx wrote in his "Communist Manifesto" on the eve of the passionately nationalistic revolutions of 1848, that "the working men have no country . . . national differences and antagonisms between people are daily more and more vanishing."
Nationalism is not a fixed ideology, but a psychological compulsion that is compatible with a variety of different policies and approaches. What is common to nationalism in Eastern Europe-and in some of the more neglected sections of Western Europe as well-is a shared feeling of having been treated as semi-colonial, faintly inferior and-worst of all-historically irrelevant second-class Europeans. Like the advocates of Black Power who argue that a period of separate identity and development is a prerequisite to full and dignified participation in the broader community, each East European country is anxious to exercise full self-determination for a time, in order to feel fully able to participate in the broader European community. There is no definite pattern for achieving this sense of having become somebody, but in recent years the Albanians, Rumanians and Czechs have each experienced this awakening under differing banners.
Interestingly enough, the struggle to achieve national identity in asserting past tradition and present independence seems in many ways just as strong in the Soviet Union as it is in the small East European states. Having lost their prized role as the vanguard of a world revolutionary movement, Soviet leaders have tried to establish a kind of national identity in outer space; and now, in this period between the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1967 and the hundredth anniversary of Lenin's birth in 1970, they are lifting the veneration of Lenin to almost trinitarian proportions.
There is a near-universal search for national identity throughout Eastern Europe. After nearly twenty years of Soviet-enforced uniformity, people are discovering traditions in their pasts as different as the economic resources they possess in the present. The Czechs have rediscovered Masaryk and a national democratic tradition; the Poles, on the other hand, have in a sense rediscovered Pilsudski and the tradition of romantic authoritarian dictatorship. Thus, the tendency to turn back to national tradition for sources of fresh inspiration can lead to a new conservatism rather than to the Czech example of liberalism. The Czech tradition of liberal democracy was an exception rather than a representative example prior to World War II. The outlines of a new reactionary nationalism can be seen in the revival of anti-Semitic appeals in the anti-Czech propaganda of Poland and East Germany; and more subtly in the xenophobic anti-intellectualism recently cultivated by Soviet and Bulgarian youth leaders, partly as an antidote to youthful admiration of the West. At the ninth congress of the Bulgarian Party late in 1967, the first party secretary, Todor Zhivkov (who two years earlier had faced an unprecedented attempt at a military coup within his country), expounded a crudely nationalist set of "theses on youth." He scored the prevalence of "national nihilism" within his party and insisted with a crudeness reminiscent of an earlier era that "admiration for everything foreign . . . must be eradicated with a red-hot iron."
In the long run, the fact that almost every group in Eastern Europe seeks a new sense of dignity and self-respect will probably work against the forces of conservatism and centralized control There are too many nationalities for total control to be exercised by any one. Nationality tensions encouraged some federative decentralization and liberalization in two of the three multinational states of Eastern Europe-Jugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. The situation of the last and mightiest of the multinational empires, the U.S.S.R., is of course far different in view of the numerical preponderance of Great Russians and much older traditions of Russian imperial hegemony. Nevertheless, sympathy with the Czech experiment among Ukrainians and the quiet resurgence of the desires of many minority peoples for distinct self-generated patterns of development may have been a factor in inducing Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. The present Soviet policy of token concessions will probably prove increasingly unacceptable to many ethnic and national constituencies throughout Eastern Europe as they are exposed to increased communication and rising expectations.
Another striking fact of life throughout Eastern Europe is the growing popular demand for consumer gratification and economic efficiency. The demand for what Khrushchev called "goulash communism" is partly the result of the decline of ideological ardor within the Soviet communist empire and of less tense relations with the West. The new, more pragmatic and anti- ideological attitude toward economic problems is also, however, partly the unintended result of Stalinist policies. For the massive imposition of forced-draft industrialization on Eastern Europe and of a new, technological education has produced a no-nonsense technocratic mentality among a group that might be called the efficiency-seeking intelligentsia.
Count Henri de Saint-Simon, who fought in the American Revolution and became in the early nineteenth century the first utopian visionary of the industrial revolution, believed that the beaver rather than the lion should be the king of the beasts for the future technocratic society; and that the only class division would be between the oisifs (the lazy and parasitic soldiers, priests and politicians left over from outmoded controversies) and the industriels, by which he meant those who were both industrious and committed to industrialization.
Under their new leadership, the Czechs were the beavers and industriels par excellence of the communist world. They are not a dramatic people, but a deeply industrious one who watched their advanced industrial state slowly run into the ground over a period of twenty years by one of the most parasitic and oisif of all communist bureaucracies. The Czech experiment began with the sweeping economic reform of 1967; and the high intelligence and comprehensive thinking of the leading Czech reformers clearly raised throughout Eastern Europe as many hopes among innovators as it raised fears among entrenched party bureaucrats concerning their own technological irrelevance.
In the long run, one may perhaps harbor doubts about the liberalizing effect of the desire for more goods and more economic efficiency. But for the immediate future in Eastern Europe, the rise of an efficiency-seeking intelligentsia remains one of the most hopeful agents of change. This is, in many ways, the anti-ideology of the first postwar, post-ideological generation. It is probably not accidental that the two most politically restive as well as economically ambitious East European states in early 1968, Rumania and Czechoslovakia, were the only two communist states in the world led by men in their forties. Nor is it beyond hope that the U.S.S.R., which was immersed in mass technological education two decades earlier than most East European states, may well have the deepest thirst of all for shedding remote goals and doctrinaire planning methods.
A final force at work in Eastern Europe which transcends not only national but continental boundaries is the vague longing among young people for a new humanism. Turning sometimes to the young Marx and his early writings on alienation, sometimes to older literary and even religious traditions of Eastern Europe, the student generation has sought to bring fresh poetic ideals to a prosaic age. Student protest in Prague in the fall of 1967 began the chain reaction that led to the establishment of the new régime in Czechoslovakia, and student leadership was at the forefront of both the new journalism and initial passive resistance to the Russian occupation.
Within the student generation one sees more than just an extreme example of the general revolution of rising expectations. There also seems to be a revival of some of the characteristics of the old "truth-seeking intelligentsia" alongside-and at times in conflict with-the aspirations of the efficiency-seeking intelligentsia. The longing for a new spiritual freedom (rather than a new efficiency in material production) is an infectious enthusiasm of young people in the overdeveloped world generally, and moves easily from nation to nation in Eastern Europe. An important catalyst in the Czech ferment was the dramatic decision of the Czech Writers' Union to read and publicly endorse the appeal for repeal of censorship that the Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn had addressed in vain to the Soviet Writers' Union. The reaction to the Czechs' action critically escalated when the once liberal Polish leadership was panicked into an anti-intellectual pogrom by the sight of Polish students striking and demonstrating in support of the Czechs.
If the ferment of youth is unpredictable in its short-term political consequences, its long-term effect will almost certainly be to erode if not erase the authoritarian features of the Soviet system in Eastern Europe. Lenin claimed that the future belonged to those with youth on their side; and this is the group most profoundly alienated from official ideals. It is probably not accidental that a principal bastion of reaction in the Soviet Union in recent years has been the former leaders of the massive but moribund Young Communist League-Shelepin and Semichastny-who then "graduated" into leading positions in the secret police. The ability of such men to increase their power in recent years serves as testimony to the possibility that the long term may be a long time in coming; that every revolution of rising expectations produces what might be called a counterrevolution of increasing resistance. The simultaneous existence of youthful rebels in the West, moreover, serves to remind one that the disquieting impact of this new and unpredictable force-and indeed of the other two-will not be confined to Eastern Europe in the years ahead.
A final force that will affect all the others in Eastern Europe will be the policies of the West itself, which needs to broaden its range of perceptions if it is to respond creatively to new opportunities. Whatever political problems arise, cultural and economic contacts should be maintained and wherever possible expanded. They will help us keep in touch with underlying forces of change and avoid becoming prisoners of preconceived geopolitical grand designs or mere voyeurs of political intrigue.