A VISITOR to Russia today who has the opportunity to meet a representative cross-section of Soviet officials cannot fail to be impressed by a spirit of local initiative and self-confidence which is in significant contrast to the political style of the Stalin era. To some extent this impression may reflect Khrushchev's own animated personality. He can shift rapidly from a rather weary thoughtfulness to lively humor as he tries to gauge with his shrewd eyes the effect of his remarks, and he leaps from one subject to another with assurance and imagination. It is not without cause that in proposing Khrushchev's candidacy for premier on March 27 Voroshilov noted among many other qualifications that "his talks with political leaders of various countries and with representatives of the world press have considerably enlarged the circle of friends of our homeland and greatly increased the Soviet Union's prestige on the international scene."

The visitor need not, however, base his judgment primarily on the personality of the boss of the Communist Party. There is much other evidence of the new spirit in which Russia's affairs have been conducted since the death of Stalin. The control of economic production, which in a sense is the Party's first order of business, has undergone a fundamental reorganization. In the field of industry, 141 all-union, union-republic and republic ministries have been dissolved and their functions divided between 105 regional economic councils and the central planning bodies. In agriculture, during the past winter, the collective farms have been encouraged to purchase the agricultural machinery which in the past they have rented from the Machine-Tractor Stations. The latter are being converted into Repair and Technical Stations, which will retain their service functions while relinquishing much of the centralized control which they have hitherto exerted over agricultural production.

The basic economic changes have been accompanied by a relaxation of overt police terror and apparently a significant depopulation of the slave labor camps. There has also been a marked increase in the frankness of public statements, and still more in unpublished speeches, as witness Khrushchev's attacks on Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress. A flood of foreign tourists has been admitted since 1955, and there is good evidence of a willingness to engage in extensive exchanges with the United States and other Western countries of students, artists and delegations representing a wide variety of professions.

The significance of these changes inevitably raises the question as to how far the assumptions about the Soviet political system that have been so firmly fixed in the thinking of the Western world in the past generation are still valid. Does the Party still have a firm hold on political power? Does political activity, as reflected, for instance, in the procedures of the Supreme Soviet, show any evolution from the practice of Stalin's time? How has the nature of Party controls changed under Khrushchev? What, indeed, are the capacities of the Soviet political system for evolution, given the pressures of rapid industrialization and the traditions of Russian society?


One impression left by even a cursory visit to the Soviet Union is that the Communist Party shows no signs of relinquishing its monopoly of power. The recent elections for the Supreme Soviet provided an impressive demonstration of the Party's control. The Supreme Soviet is a bicameral legislative body, with a Council of the Union of 738 deputies elected from districts representing every 300,000 of the population and a Council of Nationalities of 640 members representing on a proportional basis the various national administrative subdivisions of the U.S.S.R. In the elections on March 16, no less than 99.97 percent of the 133,836,325 eligible voters went to the polls. Of these, only 580,641 exercised their right to vote against the régime by crossing out the names of the candidates for the Council of the Union; the number was 363,736 in the case of candidates for the Council of Nationalities. In the case of the Council of the Union, this negative vote was more than double the 247,897 negative votes cast in 1954. The 1958 figure nevertheless represents only 0.43 percent of the total number of votes, and cannot be interpreted as a significant challenge to the régime. These electoral results are achieved by the assertion of effective Party controls--not advertised, but in the last analysis frankly acknowledged by Party officials--at each stage of the electoral process.

Under the direction of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the elections are administered by a Central Electoral Commission. This body supervises electoral commissions for each of the major administrative divisions of the country, as well as for the electoral districts of each of the two Councils of the Supreme Soviet and for the voting precincts. The latter are the same for the two Councils, although the electoral districts do not coincide. These electoral commissions, which comprised a total of some 1,200,000 members in 1958, are made up of representatives of what are officially known as "public organizations," a term which includes all professional organizations of workers and employees, and organizations or societies representing coöperatives, the youth, and cultural, technical and scholarly interests, as well as collective farms and the military. Of the recognized organizations in the Soviet Union, only the churches do not play a rôle in electoral activity. Each of these organizations, again with the exception of the churches, has its Party unit which is the directing element in all political matters. Indeed, the Party normally prefers to act through these public organizations rather than in its own name, although it is also represented on the electoral commissions.

This indirect exercise of Party authority through public organizations is the key to the process by which candidates are selected. Not less than 30 days before the date of the election, the electoral commissions organize a meeting in each of the electoral districts of the two Councils of the Supreme Soviet to nominate candidates. Before these formal nominating sessions, names of candidates have been put forward at meetings of one or more of the public organizations in the district. Thus a factory, a collective farm, a military unit or a branch of the Academy of Sciences--to name only a few of the possibilities--will on the initiative of its Party units suggest trustworthy candidates. How these various proposals are narrowed down to a single candidate for each electoral district is not clear from the public record, but a talk with a local Party secretary helps to clarify the situation. The Party, he will tell you, wants respected public figures as deputies to the Supreme Soviet--persons who are popular among their professional colleagues and at the same time trustworthy from the point of view of Party and state. The Party sees to it that from one to three such candidates are agreed upon at the formal nominating session, and it also sees that all but one of them declines to run for office when invited by the electoral commission. Indeed, when more than one candidate is nominated, one or two are generally national figures nominated for many districts. When these announce in which district they will run, the appropriate adjustments are made and the list of candidates is published.

The outcome of this process of selection is that one candidate, and only one, is nominated for each electoral district. This has been the case in all elections, national and local, since the existing electoral system was established under the Constitution in 1936. The official rationale of this system is that Soviet society, unlike that of the "capitalist" states, is not divided by conflicting interests resulting from the exploitation of man by man. Since there is only one interest, there is need for only one candidate.

In so far as there is a political campaign in the Soviet Union, it is conducted during the last month before the election. The list of candidates has now been published, and every day the press carries election stories, biographical sketches of the candidates, reviews of the régime's accomplishments since the last election in 1954 and accounts of the meetings at which the candidates are presented to the voters. The number of times a candidate is able to appear in public will depend on how busy he is at his regular occupation, but he will at least put in an appearance at one formal meeting organized by the electoral commission in his district.

At a typical meeting of this sort in a provincial town, half a dozen speakers--including perhaps a scholar, a worker, an army officer, a housewife, a collective farmer and even one or two school children--will extol the merits of the candidate. The candidate himself, who is seated on the stage with members of the electoral commission, then reviews the accomplishments of the government and promises to work for higher production and better living conditions. The audience has been brought together by the distribution of free tickets to the public organizations, and it claps politely at the end of each speech. There is no spontaneity or enthusiasm, however, and indeed there is an audible murmur of whispering and gossiping during the speeches. Even the candidate himself may chat and joke with his neighbors while his achievements are being praised a few feet away. The whole ceremony does not take more than an hour, and is followed by a concert or a variety show which seems to attract more spontaneous interest than the political part of the program. Climaxing these provincial meetings are those in Moscow, where the First Secretary of the Party and his principal colleagues give their pre-election addresses.

After all of this careful preliminary work, the election day itself holds little suspense. Elections are held on a Sunday with the polls open from 6:00 a.m. till midnight, and by noon most of the voters have cast their ballots. The cynics say that this gives the Party 12 hours to round up the rest of the voters. However this may be, it is a risky business to refrain from voting. Except for those who have avoided getting their names on the registration list (and this may be a sizable number in the larger cities where many are said to flaunt the strict limitations on residence), there is no more public way to defy the Party than to refrain from voting. Each voter presents his domestic passport at the registration desk, and his name is checked on the list of voters. He is then given two ballots, one for each Council of the Supreme Soviet, with the names of the single candidate already printed on them. All he has to do is to drop the ballots in the ballot box and he has fulfilled his obligation. For those who are travelling, there are ballot boxes on trains and boats. Seven electoral districts for each Council are provided for members of the armed services stationed abroad, and even outposts in the Antarctic have their ballot boxes. Officials with portable ballot boxes visit the hospitalized and bedridden, and no stone is left unturned to get all of the voters to the polls. Considering the size of the country and the number of voters, 99.97 percent is not a bad record.

A negative vote is somewhat less hazardous than failing to vote. Booths are available--some with easy chairs and potted flowers--but only a small fraction of the voters make use of them. Some may use a booth only to write a slogan praising the Party or to sign their names, a superfluous gesture. But the 580,641 and 363,736 adverse votes in the case of the Council of the Union and the Council of Nationalities respectively were cast by actually crossing out the names of the candidates. No substitution of names is valid. To cross out a name nevertheless constitutes defiance of the Party and requires courage. No formal record is kept of those who use the booths, but it would be easy for an election official to notice who entered one. It is difficult to tell whether scratching the name of a candidate is a sign of protest against the régime itself or simply represents a dislike of the individual candidate. The Party interprets it in this latter sense, and in the occasional instances in local elections where candidates are defeated by failing to receive 50 percent of the votes the local authorities are blamed for failing to select popular and respected candidates.


The 1,378 candidates thus elected to the Supreme Soviet form an impressive cross-section of the Soviet élite. Official statements stress the popular origin of the deputies. It is claimed that 44.6 percent are workers and collective farmers directly engaged in production and that more than 60 percent are workers and peasants by social status. Another 26.4 percent are women. The Western student, however, can see the other side of the coin. About one-half of the deputies are high Party and state officials, including ministers of the union and of the constituent republics, generals, police officials, bankers and so on. Perhaps another quarter are managerial and professional personnel below the directing level, including many of the nominal workers and farmers who are in fact trade-union and collective-farm officials. At the same time, some 25 percent of the deputies are genuine workers and farmers, selected by the Party to represent their stratum (as there are no "classes") because of their local prominence.

As a legislative body, the Supreme Soviet does not bear much resemblance to the American Congress. The members keep their regular full-time jobs, which in most cases are not seriously interrupted by their work as deputies. The Supreme Soviet normally holds two sessions a year of about ten days each, but a certain amount of this time is devoted to ceremony and organization and it has been estimated that the deputies have averaged no more than seven working days a year since the first session met in 1938. Since the death of Stalin this average has increased to about ten days a year. All bills are adopted unanimously and with little debate. Indeed, so far as the general public is concerned the Supreme Soviet appears to be little more than a bureau for legitimizing the directives of the Party.

Behind the scenes, however, there is more activity than meets the eye. There are nine Standing Committees--for each of the two Councils dealing with legislative proposals, the budget, foreign affairs and credentials, and, in addition, one dealing with economic affairs for the Council of Nationalities alone. These review in advance most of the legislation presented to the Supreme Soviet at its various sessions. Their size varies, but in the newly elected Supreme Soviet some 259 deputies participate in the work of these Standing Committees, which may last for several weeks before sessions of the Supreme Soviet. Moreover, each bill examined by a Standing Committee is first drafted by an ad hoc subcommittee which includes deputies who are not necessarily members of the Standing Committee but who have specialized knowledge of the matter at hand. In addition, at the subcommittee level a wide range of governmental specialists may be called into consultation in the drafting of legislation. Only the final recommendations of the Standing Committees are published in the proceedings of the Supreme Soviet, and their procedures as well as those of the ad hoc subcommittees are not known from direct observation or official records. From the available accounts, however, it appears that at this level divergent views are expressed and divisions of opinions are recorded. It is possible that three or four hundred deputies may spend as much as several weeks in Moscow apart from the public sessions of the Supreme Soviet.

To the extent that such discussion takes place, the Supreme Soviet should perhaps be regarded not as a rubber stamp but as having the function of formulating as legislation the directives of the Party. Much of the burden of this work is performed by the secretariat of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and by the smaller secretariats of the nine Standing Committees. But the deputies themselves also play a rôle in so far as the business before the Supreme Soviet comes within their special competence. At the same time, the existence of this preparatory work does not alter the fact that the Supreme Soviet drafts legislation rather than formulating policy. While legislative initiative is vested in a variety of institutions, these institutions, like the Supreme Soviet itself, are instruments of the Party. Indeed, since the appointment of Khrushchev as Chairman of the Council of Ministers on March 27, the unity of Party and state has been if possible closer than ever.

The question is sometimes raised as to why the Party bothers with elections and a parliament. It bothers with them because they are essential instruments of Party control. The electoral process gives the average voter a sense of participation in the political process, and indeed it may in some subtle psychological fashion commit him to sharing responsibility for the Party's directives. The laws, in substance made by the Party, become public instruments through institutions in which all mature citizens participate. At the same time, the members of the Supreme Soviet are an important transmission belt for Party policy. When these respected citizens go back to their places of work after a session of the Supreme Soviet, they carry with them the prestige of the capital city. Nor are the Supreme Soviet deputies the only persons involved. In 1957, no less than 1,549,777 deputies were elected to local soviets. In addition, there are the 1,200,000 members of electoral commissions. While there is some overlapping, probably more than 2,000,000 citizens were thus associated with Party and government through the electoral process. Since many of these were not Party members, the local and national elections play an important rôle in promoting the acceptance of Party directives as national policy. Finally, the elections also provide an intensive period of propaganda for the national policies of the Party. While propaganda is a year-round process, in the month preceding the quadrennial election to the Supreme Soviet, hundreds of leading national figures in many walks of life join in a chorus of praise for the government's achievements and promises of better things to come.


The political power which is not held by the voters and is not exercised by the Supreme Soviet is found, of course, in the Party, which is still firmly in the saddle. At the same time, while events since Stalin's death have shown no weakening of the Party's control over the political system, they have given evidence of significant changes in the spirit in which Party affairs are conducted --changes which have been reflected in the Party's method of control.

In the Stalin era the political leaders operated on the assumption that not only the population at large but even the bulk of the Party officials were hostile and untrustworthy. As Khrushchev recalled in his unpublished speech, 70 percent of the members of the Party Central Committee in the late 1930s were arrested and shot. Stalin placed the entire administration of the country, including all major industrial enterprises, under a highly centralized bureaucracy in Moscow, which in turn was closely supervised by a ruthless police.

Under this system control from the center was assured, but it was bought at a very high price of inefficiency and over-bureaucratization. Since Stalin's death, control has devolved significantly from the central bureaucracy to the local organs of Party and administration. In the United States this shift has frequently been referred to as a "decentralization," but this term is not used in Russia. The Russians call it a "reorganization," and indeed it might better be referred to as a "recentralization."

This new and in many respects more dynamic centralization is achieved through the Party apparatus around the country, which like a central nervous system initiates all stimuli in the body politic. The police, through which Stalin used to terrorize local Party officials, no longer serve as the primary means of control. Khrushchev has built up his own cadres of local Party secretaries whom he is apparently able to trust. In talking with them, the casual visitor gains the impression that they understand and support the policies he has initiated. One senses that a degree of relaxation among higher Party officials around the country has replaced the paralyzing fear in which they must have lived in Stalin's day. One can imagine that they treat Khrushchev with deference when they visit him, but are able to argue with him on matters of policy without the apprehension that the police will knock on their door before the next day dawns.

Economic reorganization has strengthened the hands of the local Party organizations, and through them of the central organization of the Party as well. Similarly in agriculture, the new confidence in the collective farms reflects a great increase in the authority of the Party representatives in the collectives at the expense of the Machine-Tractor Stations, which were essentially an instrument of the central state bureaucracy.

It will take time to see how all of Khrushchev's innovations work out, but the main outlines of his political strategy seem to be clear enough. The surviving top leaders who worked for Stalin in the home office--notably Molotov, Kaganovich, Malenkov and Bulganin--doubtless shared Stalin's distrust of the larger Party organization around the country. One can well imagine their remonstrating with Khrushchev that the confidence in local Party and administrative controls implied by his innovations was bound to undermine the authority of the central Party organization. Long isolated from local officials by many layers of state and Party bureaucracy, these leaders apparently felt that the demonstrated inefficiency of Stalin's way of doing things was a necessary price for the monolithic controls underlying the security of the political system. Khrushchev, whose career has been spent in the main away from the home office, was in much closer rapport with the new generation of officials.

Like Stalin before him, Khrushchev has bypassed competing Party leaders by building up his power through appointing local Party secretaries and members of the Central Committee and its staff. Yet the differences between the two are much greater than the similarities. Not only is Khrushchev 20 years older than was Stalin at a similar stage in his career, but the style of his régime is strikingly different. The significant relaxation of tensions within the Party and between the Party and influential non-Party segments of the population would seem to preclude under Khrushchev's régime sweeping purges such as those in the 1930s. It also appears likely that the sudden demise of Khrushchev would present less of a crisis to the Party than did the death of Stalin in 1953.


If the impression is correct that the Party is now more relaxed and self-confident than in Stalin's day, and that its control of the levers of political power is as firm as ever, what is the outlook for the further evolution of Soviet politics?

The greatest handicap to Western thinking is the tendency to measure Russia by Western standards. The number of telephones, radios and cars per capita is compared with that in Europe and in the United States. It is assumed that Western democratic forms are inevitable in all modern countries, and that the longer they are delayed the stronger the opposition to the government must become. There is a whole school of thought devoted to seeking out tensions in the Soviet system, and squads of government officials try to exploit these tensions through propaganda. Tensions indeed there are in Russia, perhaps more than in most societies, and if comparable tensions existed in the West they might well cause an explosion. The struggle for power among Party leaders, especially when succession to the top leadership is in question, similarly gives rise to situations which in Western eyes must inevitably lead to widespread disorder. Yet the Soviet political system survived the death of Stalin without too much strife, and a successor to Khrushchev will doubtless be found when it becomes necessary to do so.

In thinking about Russia, perhaps only two assumptions can safely be made. One is that the traditions of Soviet politics are significantly different from those of the West, and the other is that we do not yet know enough about non-Western political systems to make any very accurate predictions about the evolution of Soviet politics. All we can do is to try to understand the ways in which Russia differs from Western societies, and to estimate the range of possibilities lying ahead.

Modern societies are produced by the interaction of historically formed traditions with the more or less universal imperatives of industrialization. Considering the significant differences between Russian traditions and those of the West, it would be prudent to expect that a modern Russia will not resemble very closely what we know as modern Western society. In many respects (to limit the comparison to the United States) Russian traditions have been the very opposite of ours. We have long been one of the wealthiest countries in the world, while Russia has been desperately poor by European standards. We have enjoyed almost complete national security between the defeat of the British at New Orleans in 1815 and the revelation of Soviet technical achievements by the sputniks in 1957. Russia, on the other hand, has been the battlefield of many nations from earliest times down to 1945. We started out with the freest institutions of Europe, while the Russians in wrestling with their problems drew on the experience of the Byzantine and Mongol empires and of the enlightened despots.

Human nature may be the same the world around, but political institutions are molded by the life experience of organized societies. History has taught the Russians that poverty can be overcome only by subordinating the individual to the group, and that unless they have a strong government they will be over-run by foreign enemies. Only the state can bridge the gap between Russian poverty and individual and national security. The history of Russian politics is the history of state power, transformed through the centuries by a variety of influences and in fact accepted by most segments of public opinion. Indeed, the recognition and acceptance by the Bolsheviks of the rôle of state power was a significant factor in their victory in 1917.

Industrialization, or more broadly modernization, has had much the same impact on Russia as on other societies. Rapid industrialization began in the 1880s under the impetus of state policy, and its inexorable pressure has been felt ever since. The proportion of workers and of city dwellers in the population has grown. The organization of political and economic activity has become more centralized, with great emphasis on capital formation. Social mobility has increased and there has been an extensive mixing of ethnic groups. Literacy and popular education have grown by leaps and bounds. This has led to a secularization of thought and a general acceptance of change. Traditional values and family ties have been undermined, and national symbols have been developed to cope with the resulting psychological insecurities.

These pressures affected the later Tsarist empire as well as the more recent Soviet period, as they have influenced all societies under the impact of modernization. Indeed, it is fascinating to speculate whether Russia would be very much different today if the Communists had not come to power. The differences would probably be far less than are generally acknowledged, although it would be difficult to convince any Russian of this today. It should at least be recognized, however, that the impact of Communism has been more on the methods of modernization than on the quantitative results. Communism as we know it today can perhaps best be defined as the Soviet method of modernization, and it may never be possible to unravel the intricate inter-relations within this ideology of Marxism, Leninism, the Russian revolutionary tradition and, indeed, the ambitions, goals and methods of Russian society in general. Each has played its rôle in forming the values and precedents which motivate Communist leadership, and each has in turn been altered by daily interaction with the practical problems of transforming Russia into a modern society.

Foreign affairs is the one phase of Soviet policy which still seems to be strongly if not predominantly influenced by the Marxism of the old-fashioned variety known to the West. It is perhaps natural that the further a problem is removed from practical Soviet knowledge, the more a solution is sought in ideology. One gains the impression in talking with Khrushchev and with younger members of the Soviet élite, even those who have visited the United States, that they have very little conception of our values and methods of work. What they see is an irrational, disorganized, confused society, with no clear table of organization and no ideology set forth in logical theses and interpreted in an official journal. They are at least as aware of the tensions in our society as we are of theirs, and they too have squads of government officials seeking to exploit these tensions through propaganda. They see a rising Soviet curve of production which must inevitably cross a declining American curve at some future time. They doubtless believe literally that Marx's predictions about the decline of what they call "capitalism" are as scientifically dependable as are the laws of natural science. They envisage a future world organized more or less the way the Soviet Union is organized today, with political and economic institutions adapted as necessary to unpredictable exigencies.

It follows that Soviet leaders do not expect to reach anything more than short-range agreement with "capitalist" governments, which are by nature transitory. As they see it, the decline of capitalism will be more rapid in an era of apparent peace than in one marked by Soviet threats. Khrushchev's disarming manner supports a policy designed to weaken NATO by removing the situation that called it into being. Encouragement of the idea of disarmament will tend to undermine the defense industries, which the Communists regard as the principal bulwark of "capitalist" prosperity. "Peaceful coexistence" is the name they give to their policy at this stage, although it might better be called "watchful waiting."

The only safe assumption one can make about Russia is that the Communist way of doing things is likely to survive for the foreseeable future. The ruthlessness of a future government is not likely to exceed that of Stalin's régime, and the degree of liberalization which may eventually result from Russia's achieving a new position of security will in all probability not be so great as to affect our policy. Perhaps the one way in which we can seriously influence Soviet politics is by seeing to it that Soviet leadership gets a better idea of what our world is like. While all peoples tend to judge the world by their own standards, and we no less than most, the Russians have a particularly narrow and doctrinaire view of foreign affairs. It may be that no fruitful negotiations will be possible until each side accepts the other as a going concern with indefinite chances of survival.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • CYRIL E. BLACK, Professor of History, Princeton University; an official American observer of the recent Soviet elections; officer in the Department of State and foreign service officer in Eastern Europe, 1943-46; author of political and historical works
  • More By Cyril E. Black