Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
IT IS ironic that in the recent events in Poland and Hungary a leading rôle was played by one of the most favored and privileged groups in Communist society, the intellectuals. It was the students who led the Hungarians into combat and provided the most active element wherever else in the Soviet bloc echoes of the Hungarian and Polish experience were heard. It is also ironic that this agitation occurred at a time when many social theorists in the West had all but concluded that Soviet intimidation and indoctrination made uprisings of the 1848 variety impossible in Communist lands. Clearly, some reappraisal is in order of the rôle of the intellectual class in Eastern Europe. For the student of international affairs such an examination should perhaps focus on two questions: What is the nature of the ferment among intellectuals in the U.S.S.R. itself? What is its political significance?
Since at least mid-1953, Soviet writers have been actively seeking greater liberty, attempting through both their writings and their public meetings to limit the authority of their Party supervisors. The Party's difficulties in sustaining controls in the post-Stalin era became evident when it proved unable to define a firm line at the Writers' Congress in December 1954. The situation worsened in the summer of 1956 when a number of heterodox works by formerly purged writers began to appear in literary journals and when Questions of History, the leading historical journal, pressed its campaign to reëxamine the Soviet past and "reëvaluate the bourgeois historical legacy" in the face of direct Party criticism. By early 1957, the régime was confronted with direct attacks on the long-sacred doctrine of "socialist realism" both in the review Questions of Philosophy and at the Ukrainian Writers' Congress.
Even more alarming than these manifestations of discontent was the fact that the older generation of disaffected intellectuals had apparently been joined by a large segment of the student population, which was both more important to the régime and more outspoken in criticizing it. Students appear to have played a leading rôle in the Georgian riots of March 1956; and young students and technologists figured large in Pravda's denunciation in April 1956 of "degenerate" excesses in the campaign of de-Stalinization.
After the Hungarian and Polish uprisings late in 1956, student insubordination and discontent reached a new level of intensity. Both the central and the provincial press were full of reports of "demagogic" and "anti-Party" demands at student and komsomol meetings; of expulsions from universities; of the dissemination of illegal handbill-type newspapers; and of increased interest in Hungarian, Polish and Jugoslav attitudes. Numerous students from Hungary and Poland were reportedly sent home; and beginning in December 1956 a determined and energetic campaign was launched to bring to an end the "rotten moods" which were said to have infected Russian students.
Although the pattern of unrest among Russian intellectuals resembled in broad outline that of the Poles and Hungarians, there was one important difference. The Russian movement lacked a political focus or a nationalistic rallying point. Whereas the intellectuals in the satellites could unite in opposition to foreign occupation and alien ways of life, the Soviet intellectuals could hardly help but feel a deeper sense of personal involvement in the Communist experiment. As a result, their discontent has tended to be more despairing and apolitical. Indeed, for the most part they are accused not of political agitation but of "anarchism," "nihilism," "subjectivism" and "individualism."
Their activity is, nonetheless, a source of deep and understandable concern to the régime. Even more than most states, the Soviet Union is dependent on its intellectual élite because of its determination to overtake the United States technologically and the fact that its very raison d'être as a state and a system is ideological. The Soviet régime cannot afford to revert to Stalinist oppression of the intellectuals, but neither can it tolerate their growing sense of estrangement from the Soviet system. Thus, its drive to restore discipline has alternated between warnings and exhortations to the Party activs among the intellectuals.
While a combination of piecemeal concessions and appeals for Party unity may satisfy some older intellectuals who have a twilight nostalgia for Lenin and the atmosphere of the twenties, the problem of the young students is deeper. These are children of the Stalin era only. They had been taught unceasingly to believe that, no matter what, there was in their system a "magic citadel" of infallibility in which their own lives acquired meaning and purpose. With the revelations of Khrushchev's secret speech, a deep shock set in--not so much at the revelation of Stalin's use of cruel means as at the gnawing thought that the end, in the name of which all this suffering was tolerated, had itself become hopelessly corrupted. When a myth as vast and pretentious as Stalin's becomes at last dispelled, those who have lived exclusively under its spell are left numbed, disarmed and resentful. It is not surprising that the most sensitive leaders of Soviet student life should feel unable to do anything but finish the job of negation which Khrushchev had begun and begin to look within themselves and their small circle of trusted friends for something new to live by and for.
It is in the light of a profound search for some new basis for personal integrity that the unrest of the young intellectuals in the U.S.S.R. must be understood. They are, as the régime has accused them of being, individualists. Although they do not know what they want, they are united in knowing what they do not want: the impersonal, petty and pointless world of bureaucratic state Communism. Their hero is Lopatkin, the lonely and persecuted inventor who is the main character in the new and much-discussed novel by Vladimir Dudintsev, "Not by Bread Alone." Lopatkin succeeds in spite of the system and the Communist Party rather than because of them, as is the standard pattern. He retains his individuality to the end, deriving his satisfaction from his work, from a small group of friends and from listening to great music.
When the régime accuses Dudintsev and his admirers of infection with ideological "survivals of the past" it may be pointing to a deeper truth than it realizes. A reëxamination of much of the Russian past has been going on during the last year, including a marked revival of interest in the long-proscribed figure of Dostoevsky; and there can be little doubt that current ferment in the U.S.S.R. does represent in many ways a reassertion along classical lines of the unrest and searching of the old pre-revolutionary Russian intelligentsia. "Intelligentsia" is after all a Russian word, and the inclusion of it as a class alongside the proletariat and the peasantry in the "progressive vanguard" is a purely Russian emendation to Marxism.
In its classical sense, intelligentsia meant, of course, much more than mere intellectuals in the somewhat pedantic Western sense--more even than the sum total of those who live by or engage in conceptual thought. The Russian intelligentsia derived their sense of identity from a common participation in the search for truth, for pravda, in the primitive, absolute sense in which the term was understood in nineteenth century Russia. The intelligentsia never agreed among themselves or even understood as individuals precisely what they meant by pravda; but they did clearly agree and understand what it was not. And this common opposition to its denial--to the nepravda (falsehood), krivda (crookedness) and, above all, meshchanstvo (petty bourgeois philistinism) of the autocratic state--gave them a sense of anguished seeking which perhaps knows no modern Western parallel.
One of the deepest students of the nineteenth century Russian intelligentsia, R. V. Ivanov-Razumnik, gave the subtitle "individualism and meshchanstvo" to his "History of Russian Social Thought;" and the story is indeed well told as a conflict between what Russian thinkers opposed, petty bourgeois mediocrity, and what they sought, a new basis for individual integrity. Thus, when Dudintsev entitles a novel "Not by Bread Alone" and when he lets his individualistic hero upbraid the established bureaucracy with the term "meshchanskii Communist," he is in a sense reasserting the renewed validity of the intelligentsia's classical search for individual integrity in the midst of the ideological desert of contemporary Soviet Communism.
It may not be too much to say that one of the first prerequisites for a revolutionary situation is coming into being in the U.S.S.R.: the alienation of the intellectual élite. The new leadership appears to have assumed--as Stalin never did--that the Soviet system was inherently stable, and that--unlike the régimes of Alexander I, Alexander II and Nicholas II--it would not be fundamentally disturbed by liberalizing measures. Seeking to reintroduce vitality and productivity to Soviet life, the Soviet leaders have given new status and opportunities to the intellectuals, and the intellectuals have apparently chosen to become once more an "intelligentsia."
Few of the other prerequisites for a revolutionary situation appear to exist in the U.S.S.R. at present; and there is, of course, no way of knowing that an intelligentsia in the old sense can or will reëmerge as a determining political factor under the very different conditions of the Soviet system and modern technocratic civilization in general. Nevertheless, some hints of the political significance of this rebirth of the intelligentsia may be found in the past history of this curious social grouping.
Just 100 years ago this June, the first issue appeared in London of Alexander Herzen's Bell, Russia's first émigré radical journal and one which set Russia off on a turbulent period of unrest. Then as now, Russia had just come out of a period of extreme social and intellectual repression, and its rulers were ready to grant cautious and limited reforms. Then as now, reforms tended to stimulate rather than satisfy the youth, whose hopes and expectations soon outdistanced not only the plans of the régime but the intentions of the older, moderate reformers as well. Then as now, the most vigorous elements of the young generation were united in outrage that the régime laid claim to "truth" in the exalted, Eastern sense of the word, yet was hopelessly mired in pettiness and bureaucracy.
Terms of abuse like "nihilist" and "anarchist" which are currently used by the Soviet leaders were originated by their Tsarist predecessors during this period. The vehicles of protest, the monthly "thick journals" and university gatherings, are the same as they were in the 1860s. Then as now, radicalism lacked any clear political focus and was often accompanied by social non-conformism and rowdyism--now known as "hooliganism." In 1863 as now, a cruel Russian repression of an uprising in Eastern Europe created a deep sense of mortification among Russian students and a sense of identity with the common victims of the oppressive Russian state. One even senses that the current student generation shares the implausible confidence felt by the radicals of the 1860s that the only real contending forces were themselves and virtually everyone in authority, "we" and "they."
To carry the parallel through to the end, one would have to conclude that the current unrest was destined to be no more than a new series of unorganized and undirected gestures and acts which might at best prove to be a harbinger of revolutionary developments many years hence. The argument against crediting any real political significance to the current unrest is further strengthened by considering the capabilities of the Soviet state to atomize and intimidate opposition.
Nevertheless, there is one important reason why the current ferment in the U.S.S.R. might produce greater and more immediate political results than did that of a century ago. Today, in contrast to then, most Russians have been taught to read, write and--in some sense--think. When the Russian populists of the 1870s "went to the people" they could not be understood, much less supported by the ignorant and inarticulate masses. Today, more people have at least the basic literacy required to understand the issues. Accordingly, the possibility has increased of infecting broader segments of the population with the intellectuals' strivings. Dudintsev's Lopatkin may prove no less of a prophet than some of the great heroes of nineteenth century Russian literature with his statement that "once a man has started to think you cannot deprive him completely of freedom."
Of course, even if the intelligentsia were to assume the vanguard rôle that has been suggested here, there would still be many problems in freeing Russian thought from its penchant for utopianism and its unfamiliarity with democratic political programs. But the outside world would do well not to underestimate or view condescendingly the Russians' potential ability to solve these problems for themselves if ever given the chance by history. A nation which can produce Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and survive the travails that Russia has known in more recent years must have deep inner resources. Their people may well prove able to create new forms of life and society which neither they nor the outside world will have foreseen, but which will answer their restive desire for freedom.