Kennan’s Warning on Ukraine
Ambition, Insecurity, and the Perils of Independence
IT might be supposed that as a result of so many years of Stalinist conditioning the new Soviet man would be a new creature, as different from his Western counterpart as the Soviet system differs from Western forms of government. But this has not, in fact, turned out to be so. In so far as recent conversations of mine with students, clerks in shops, taxi-drivers and stray acquaintances of all sorts can convey a just impression, the result is a kind of arrested infantile development, not a different kind of maturity.
In the Soviet Union today one finds the conditions that are often found to prevail in organizations in which degrees and types of responsibility are very sharply defined--strictly disciplined schools, armies or other rigid hierarchies in which the differences between the governors and the governed are extremely precise. Indeed, the chasm between the governors and the governed is the deepest single division noticeable in Soviet society; and when one speaks to Soviet citizens it soon becomes quite clear to which of the two groups they belong. Honest public discussion, either of the ends for the sake of which the new society supposedly exists, or of the more important means supposedly adopted for the forwarding of those ends, is equally discouraged on both sides of this great dividing line. The work of the ant-hill must be done, and anything that wastes time or creates doubts cannot be permitted. But the consequences in one case are somewhat different from those in the other.
Let me begin with the governed. Those who have no ambition themselves to become governors, and have more or less accepted their position in the lower ranks of the Soviet hierarchy, do not seem to be deeply troubled about public issues. They know they cannot affect those issues in any case, and discussion of them is, moreover, liable to be dangerous. Hence when they touch upon them at all they speak with the gaiety, curiosity and irresponsibility of schoolboys discussing serious public issues outside their ken, more or less for fun, not expecting to be taken too seriously, and with a pleasing sense of saying something daring, near the edge of forbidden territory. Such people cultivate the private virtues, and retain those characteristics that were so often noted as typically Russian by foreigners before. They tend to be amiable, spontaneous, inquisitive, childlike, fond of pleasure, highly responsive to new impressions, not at all blasé, and, having been kept from contact with the outside world for so long, essentially Victorian and prudishly conventional in their outlook and tastes. They are not as terrified as they were in Stalin's day, when no one knew what might not happen to him, and no effective appeal to any institutions of justice was possible. The tyrant is dead, and a set of rules and regulations rule in his place.
The rules are exceedingly harsh, but they are explicit, and you know that if you transgress them you will be punished, but that if you are innocent--if you live a very careful and circumspect life, take no risks, see no foreigners, express no dangerous thoughts--you can reasonably count on being safe and, if arrested, on a reasonable chance of clearing up the misunderstanding and regaining freedom. The justice of the rules themselves is not, one finds, much discussed. The question is not asked whether they are good or bad. They appear to be taken for granted, like something from on high, on the whole disagreeable, and certainly not believed in with the kind of religious devotion expected of good Communists, but, since they are clearly not alterable by the governed, accepted by them almost like the laws of nature.
Taste remains simple, fresh and uncontaminated. Soviet citizens are brought up on a diet of classical literature--both Russian (which is almost unrestricted now) and foreign--mainly of authors held to be of "social significance:" Schiller, Dickens, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Zola, Jack London, plus "boy scout" novels celebrating the social virtues and showing how vice is always punished in the end. And since no trash or pornography or "problem" literature is allowed to distract them, the outlook of the pupils in this educational establishment remains eager and unsophisticated, the outlook of adolescents, sometimes very attractive and gifted ones. At the marvellous exhibition of French art in the Hermitage in Leningrad, Russian visitors (according to at least one foreigner who spoke to several among them) admired few pictures after the eighteen-fifties, found the Impressionists, particularly Monet and Renoir, difficult to like, and quite openly detested the paintings of Gauguin, Cézanne and Picasso of which there were many magnificent examples. There are, of course, Soviet citizens with more sophisticated tastes, but few and far between, and they do not advertise their tastes too widely.
Students are encouraged to take interest in scientific and technological studies more than in the humane ones, and the closer to politics their fields of study are, the less well they are taught. The worst off are, therefore, the economists, modern historians, philosophers and students of law. A foreign student working in the Lenin Library in Moscow found that the majority of his neighbors were graduate students, preparing theses which consisted largely of copying passages from other theses that had already obtained doctorates and, in particular, embodying approved quotations from the classics--mainly the works of Lenin and Stalin (still Stalin in 1956)--which, since they stood the test of many examinations, represented the survival of the fittest. It was explained to this foreign student that without these no theses could hope to pass. Evidently both examinees and examiners were engaged in an unspoken understanding about the type of quotations required, a quota of these being a sine qua non for obtaining a degree. The number of students reading books was very small in comparison with those reading theses, plus certain selected copies of Pravda and other Communist publications containing quotable official statements of various kinds.
In philosophy the situation is particularly depressed. Philosophy--that is, dialectical materialism and its predecessors--is a compulsory subject in all university faculties, but it is difficult to get any teacher of the subject to discuss it with any semblance of interest. One of these, perhaps in an unguarded moment, went so far as to explain to a puzzled foreign amateur of the subject that under the Tsarist régime a clergyman was expected to visit every form in the school, say, once a week, and drone through his scripture lesson, while the boys were expected to sit quiet. They were scarcely ever asked to answer questions; and, provided they gave no trouble, did not interrupt or give vent to aggressively anti-religious or subversive thoughts, they were by tacit consent permitted to sleep through the hour--neither side expecting to take the other seriously. The official philosophers were the cynical clergy of today. Lecturers on dialectical materialism simply delivered their stock lectures, which had not altered during the last 20 years--ever since debates between philosophers had been forbidden even within the dialectical materialist fold. Since then the entire subject had turned into a mechanical reiteration of texts, whose meaning had gradually evaporated because they were too sacred to be discussed, still less to be considered in the light of the possibility of applying them--except as a form of lip service--to other disciplines, say, economics or history. Both the practitioners of the official metaphysics and their audiences seem equally aware of its futility. So much could, indeed, be admitted with impunity, but only by persons of sufficient importance to get away with it: for example, by nuclear physicists whose salaries are now probably the highest of all, and who apparently are allowed to say, almost in public, that dialectical--and indeed all--philosophy seems to them meaningless gibberish upon which they cannot be expected to waste their time. Most of those who have spoken to teachers of philosophy in Moscow (and a good many Western visitors have done so by now) agree that they are one and all passionately interested to know what has been going on in the West, ask endless questions about "Neo-Positivism," Existentialism and so on, and listen like boys unexpectedly given legal access to forbidden fruit. When asked about progress in their own subject, the look of guilty eagerness tends to disappear, and they show conspicuous boredom. Reluctance to discuss what they know all too well is a dead and largely meaningless topic before foreigners who are not expected to realize this is almost universal. The students make it all too clear that their philosophical studies are a kind of farce, and known to be such, that they long to be allowed to interpret and discuss even such old-fashioned thinkers as Feuerbach or Comte, but that this is not likely to be found in order by those in authority. Clearly "the governed" do not seem to be taken in by what they are told. The philosophy students know that the philosophy dispensed to them is petrified nonsense. The professors of economics, for the most part, know that the terminology they are forced to use is, at best, obsolete.
At a wider level, it is difficult to find anyone with much belief in the information that comes from either their own newspapers or radio, or from abroad. They tend to think of it as largely propaganda, some of it Soviet, some of it anti-Soviet, and so to be equally discounted; and they avert their thoughts to other fields in which freer discussion is possible, mainly about issues of personal life, plays, novels, films, their personal tastes and ambitions and the like. On all these subjects they are fresh, amusing and informative. They suffer from no noticeable xenophobia. Whatever they might be told by the authorities, they hate no foreigners. They do not even hate the Germans, against whom there really was strong feeling of a personal kind in 1945-46, and certainly not the Americans, even though they fear that because of the quarrels of governments, the Americans may make war upon them; but even this is viewed more like the possibility of an earthquake or some other natural cataclysm than something to which blame attaches. Those who ask questions about current politics usually show little bias, only the curiosity of bright, elderly children. Thus the taxi-driver who asked his passenger if it was true that there were two million unemployed in England, and upon learning that this was not so, replied philosophically, "So they have lied about this too," said so without the slightest indignation, not even with noticeable irony, very much like someone stating a fairly obvious fact. It was the Government's business to dispense these lies, he seemed to say (like that of any Ministry of Propaganda in wartime), but intelligent persons did not need to believe them. The amount of deception or illusion about the external world in large Soviet cities is not as high as is sometimes supposed in the West--information is scanty, but extravagant inventions are seldom believed. It seems to me that if by some stroke of fate or history Communist control were lifted from Russia, what its people would need would be not reëducation--for their systems have not deeply absorbed the doctrines dispensed--but mere ordinary education. In this respect they resemble Italians undeluded by Fascism, rather than Germans genuinely penetrated by Nazism.
In fact, the relative absence of what might be called Communist mystique is perhaps the most striking fact about the ersatz intelligentsia of the Soviet Union. No doubt many convinced Marxists exist in Poland and Jugoslavia and elsewhere; but I cannot believe that there are many such in the Soviet Union--there it has become a form of accepted, and unresisted, but infinitely tedious, official patter. What writers and intellectuals desire--and those who have made their protests at recent meetings of writers' unions and the like are symptomatic of this--is not so much to be free to attack the prevailing orthodoxy, or even to discuss ideological issues, but simply to describe life as they see it without constant reference to ideology. Novelists are bored, or disgusted, with having to put wooden, idealized figures of Soviet heroes and villains into their stories and upon their stages; they would passionately like to compose with greater--if still very naïve--realism, wider variety, more psychological freedom. They look back with nostalgia to what seems to them the golden age of the Leninist twenties, but not beyond, which is different from seething with political revolt. The writers--or, at any rate, some of them--wish to discuss or denounce bureaucracy, hypocrisy, lies, oppression, the triumphs of the bad over the good, in the moral terms to which even the régime ostensibly adheres. These moral feelings, common to all mankind, and not heterodox or openly anti-Marxist attitudes, are the form in which the Hungarian revolt seems to have been acclaimed or condemned, and in which the new novel (almost worthless as literature, but most important as a social symptom) that has stirred everyone so deeply--"Not by Bread Alone," by Dudintsev--is written and discussed.[i]
The governed--the subject population--are for the most part neither Communist believers nor impotent heretics. Some, perhaps the majority, are discontented; and discontent in totalitarian states is ipso facto political and subversive. But at present they accept or at any rate passively tolerate their Government-- and think about other things. They are proud of Russian economic and military achievements. They have the charm of a sheltered, strictly brought up, mildly romantic and imaginative, somewhat boyish, deeply unpolitical group of simple and normal human beings who are members of some ruthlessly ruled corporation.
As for the governors, that is a different story. Individually ruthless and anxious to get on, they seem agreed that Communist language and a certain minimum of Communist doctrine are the only cement that can bind the constituent parts of the Soviet Union, and that to modify these too greatly would endanger the stability of the system and make their own position excessively precarious. Consequently they have managed to translate the thoughts in their heads into a reasonable imitation of Communist terminology, and seem to use it in their communication with each other as well as foreigners. When you ask them questions (and it is always clear whether or not one is talking to a member of the upper tiers of the hierarchy or someone who is aspiring to get there, if only from his looks and the tone of his voice and the clothes he wears and other less palpable things) they launch into something which at first seems a mere propagandist turn; then gradually one realizes that they believe in what they are saying in much the same way as a politician in any country can be said to believe in a performance which he knows that he manages well, which he has adjusted to his audience, upon which his success and career depend, which has patently become bound up with his whole mode of self-expression, possibly even to himself, and certainly to his friends and colleagues.
I do not believe that a double morality prevails in the Soviet Union: that the Party leaders or bureaucrats talk in the consecrated mumbo jumbo to their subjects, and then drop all pretense and talk cynical common sense to each other. Their language, concepts, outlook are an amalgam of both. On the other hand, again perhaps like that of the Russian bureaucrats of old, and of certain types of political manipulators and power-holders everywhere, their attitude toward their own official doctrine, but still more toward the beliefs of the outside world, is often skeptical and, indeed, cynical. Certain very simplified Marxist propositions they certainly do hold. I think they genuinely believe that the capitalist world is doomed to destruction by its own inner contradictions; that the proper method of assessing the power, the direction and the survival value of a society is by asking a certain type of "materialistic" economic or sociological questions (taught to them by Lenin), so that the answers to these questions play a decisive part in the conception and formulation of their own most crucial political and economic policies. They believe that the world is marching inexorably towards collectivism, that attempts to arrest or even modify this process are evidence of childishness or blindness, that their own system, if only it holds out long enough against capitalist fury, will triumph in the end, and that to change it now, or to retreat too far simply in order to make their subjects happier or better, might mean their own doom and destruction, and--who knows?--perhaps that of their subjects too. In other words, they think in terms of Marxist concepts and categories, but not in terms of the original Marxist purposes or values: freedom from exploitation, or coercion, or even the particular interests of groups or classes or nations, still less in terms of the ultimate ideals: individual freedom, the release of creative energy, universal contentment and the like. They are too tough and morally indifferent for that. They are not religious; but neither are they believers in some specifically proletarian morality or logic or historical pattern.
Their attitude towards intellectuals can be compared in some degree to that of political bosses everywhere: it is, of course, largely conditioned by the tone set by the leaders--the members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The majority of these, in addition to their suspicion of those who are concerned with ideas in any form as a perpetual source of potential danger, feel personally uncomfortable with them, and dislike them for what can only be called social reasons. These are the kind of reasons for which trade unionists in all countries sometimes feel a combined attitude of superiority and inferiority to intellectuals-- superiority because they think themselves more effective, experienced and with a deeper understanding of the world gained in a harder school, and inferior socially, intellectually and because they feel ill at ease with them. The group of roughnecks who preside over Russia's fortunes--and one glance at the Politbureau (now called the Presidium) makes it clear that they are men happier at street corner meetings or on the public platform than in the study--look upon intellectuals with the same uneasy feeling as they look on the better-dressed, better-bred members of the foreign colony--diplomats and journalists--whom they treat with exaggerated and artificial politeness, envy, contempt, dislike, intermittent affability and immense suspicion. At the same time they feel that great nations must have important professors, celebrated artists, cultural trappings of an adequate kind. Consequently they pay the topmost practitioners of these crafts high salaries, but cannot resist, from sheer resentment, an irresistible desire to bully and, from a deep, jealous sense of inferiority, the temptation to knock them about, kick them, humiliate them in public, remind them forcibly of the chains by which they are led whenever they show the least sign of independence or a wish to protect their own dignity.
Some intellectuals do, of course, themselves belong to the upper rungs of the hierarchy; but these are looked on by the bulk of other intellectuals either as semi-renegades and creatures of the Government, or else as blatant political operators or agitators, required to pose as men of learning or creative artists. The difference between genuine writers who can talk to other writers in normal human voices, and the literary bureaucrats--a difference, once again, between the governors and the governed--is the deepest single frontier in Soviet intellectual life. It was one of the former--the governors--who, talking not ostensibly about himself but about intellectuals in general, told a visiting American journalist not to think that Soviet intellectuals as a class were particularly keen about the granting of greater personal freedom to the workers and peasants in the Soviet Union. He said, in effect, that if they began giving liberties too fast, there might be too much unruliness--strikes, disorder--in the factories and the villages; and the intelligentsia, a most respected class in Soviet society, would not wish the order from which they very rightly get so much--above all, prestige and prosperity--to be jeopardized. "Surely you understand that?" he asked.
So far, then, have we travelled from the nineteenth century, when the whole of Russian literature was one vast, indignant indictment of Russian life; and from the agonies and enthusiasms and the bitter, often desperate, controversies and deadly duels of the twenties and early thirties. A few pre-Stalin men of letters survive, great names, but few and far between; they are half admired, half gaped at as semi-mythical figures from a fabulous but dead past. Bullying and half-cynical semi-Marxist philistines at the top; a thin line of genuinely civilized, perceptive, morally alive and often gifted, but deeply intimidated and politically passive, "specialists" in the middle; honest, impressionable, touchingly naïve, pure-hearted, intellectually starved, non-Marxist semi-literates, consumed with unquenchable curiosity, below. Such is Soviet culture, by and large, today.
[i] Nor does the "oppositionist" literary almanac Literaturnaya Moskva do more than this: it is neither for "pure" art nor for some alternative political policy, however covertly. Its "suspect" articles cry out for human values.