Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
IT may be useful, on the eighth anniversary of Stalin's death, to review some of the misconceptions and mirages that have plagued Western efforts to interpret the changing Soviet scene under his successors. A stock-taking, even though brief and incomplete, may help Americans to understand better the international environment in which a new Administration will have to cope with old and new challenges to its hopes and purposes.
One persistent theme of Western analysis has been the concept of a debilitating and perhaps fatal struggle for supremacy within the Soviet apparatus of dictatorship. One widespread view runs somewhat as follows. A totalitarian system, by its very nature, cannot be legitimate. It cannot provide for the orderly transmission of absolute power. It is bound to be caught in a dog-eat-dog struggle for supreme control. On this premise, the top Soviet leadership is inevitably riven by a continuing and desperate rivalry among competing leaders and cliques. Hence, it is assumed, Khrushchev is constantly engaged in a struggle against multiple challengers within his own apparatus, and the function of "Kremlinology" is to identify his rivals for power by reading the obscure portents of personnel changes and turgid ideological hints.
One extreme interpretation of this alleged instability was current in May and June 1960. Supposedly, Khrushchev's vehement behavior at the abortive summit conference was dictated to him by unseen forces within the top Soviet hierarchy, perhaps by a ganging up of military leaders and Stalinist ideologues. Supposedly, Khrushchev had initially been willing to overlook the affront of the U-2 flights, with its drastic violation of the Soviet passion for secrecy, and proceed with the summit meeting and President Eisenhower's visit to the Soviet Union, but was forced by a coalition of rivals within the Party apparatus to take a stiff line. According to this view, he was actually enjoined to read to the Paris press conference a statement prepared for him in Moscow, while the Minister of Defense, Marshal Malinovsky, sat beside him to make sure that he did not deviate from the text!
Undoubtedly, a genuine struggle for the succession took place after Stalin's death. The arrest and execution of Beria was an important step in the downgrading of the power of the secret police which had been used by Stalin for many years--at least since 1934--as a personal instrument of terror against the Party. And the political police had undoubtedly used its role to dominate Stalin by playing on his many fears and phobias. The demotion of Malenkov, in January 1955, and the dismissal of Malenkov, Molotov and Kaganovich in June 1957, served to consolidate Khrushchev's control. The gestures that Marshal Zhukov made toward promoting his own political prestige and his own control over the army were followed by a swift downfall, in October 1957. Probably the decisive building up of Khrushchev's domination over the Party's instruments of power took place approximately between mid-1954 and late 1957. A decisive stage in this process was marked by his famous denunciation of Stalin's arbitrary and cruel rule over the Party, at the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956.
Basically Khrushchev's structure of rule is very similar to Stalin's, but his "style" of administration differs from Stalin's in some important respects. Like Stalin, he has and uses his full power to appoint and remove the members of the Party Presidium, the central drive-wheel of decision-making, as well as the members of the Central Secretariat. It is clear, at least since late 1957, that Khrushchev's choice of this body of close collaborators is entirely his own; it is not determined by any factions or cliques operating outside his control. He has strengthened the Party's, i.e. his own, control over the military establishment and the secret police. Similarly, through appointing a long roster of Party Secretaries in the various Republics and oblasts, Khrushchev has established securely his control over the Party machinery. Through the Party's regional machinery he also determines the composition of the Party Congresses, and it is his handpicked Party Presidium that selects the membership of the Central Committee of the Party. Whether he has reverted to Stalin's single-handed manipulation of the secret police, or whether he shares control over it with the Presidium, remains obscure. In any case, neither the Presidium nor the secret police is likely today to offer any foothold to would-be challengers to his leadership.
If the structure of control remains basically unchanged, in what ways and why has Khrushchev changed the style or atmosphere of Soviet rule? Clearly Khrushchev allows a much freer expression of views within his entourage, and genuine discussions now take place on many issues before he hands down his decisions, as illustrated in the discussions of agriculture in the January 1961 session of the Central Committee. In this respect Khrushchev has apparently reverted in fact, as he claims, to a more Leninist style of work. New and important decisions, such as those on reducing the size of the armed forces, on raising the rate of investment in agriculture, on changing the requirements for admission to higher education, are often preceded by fairly open discussions and disputes in public channels, even though the basic work of decision-making is carried on within the Party Secretariat, the Council of Ministers and the Party Presidium, all of which are ultimately appointed by and responsible to Khrushchev.
Does this somewhat enlarged tolerance or even encouragement of more detailed and more frank discussions of ways and means of implementing Soviet purposes and programs mean, as some analysts have stated, that Khrushchev has allowed the reins of power to slip from his hands? Or that decisions are now made by counting votes within the Presidium? Or that Khrushchev can be outvoted by colleagues whom he has appointed? Or that members of the Presidium are free to trade votes on various issues and to form alignments or factions for and against Khrushchev? In the absence of firm information on this highly secret sphere of Soviet inner politics, many shaky assumptions have been given wide currency. Sometimes, it is Suslov, supposed guardian of ideological purity, who is touted abroad as leader of an anti-Khrushchev, Stalinist intrigue. Sometimes other names, such as Marshal Malinovsky's, are mentioned as potential rivals even though Malinovsky is not even a member of the Presidium.
As an absolute ruler Khrushchev needs frank discussions of ways and means to achieve his purpose. But as head of the Soviet party, he certainly knows how to suppress "factions" just as effectively as Lenin and Stalin did. Unlike Stalin in his later years, Khrushchev has seen the need to lay down broad purposes and then to leave the details to his principal subordinates, subject to his constant threat to check on their performance. But to assume from this useful and necessary subdivision of labor and partial delegation of operating responsibilities that he has carelessly let the reins of control slip from his hands and has somehow become a puppet buffeted by contending factions is clearly to underrate his experience and his willpower, and to underestimate the power that he wields. It can also lead to underestimating the skill and determination with which he is pursuing Soviet aims abroad.
The notion that Khrushchev's power is far from absolute or secure has been zealously spread abroad by Soviet emissaries, in supposedly confidential talks. "Our leader faces strong opposition at home in his effort to bring about a relaxation of tension with America" (or Great Britain, or France, as the case may be). "He needs something concrete to prove that he is right and the Stalinists wrong." From this it is but a step to implying that the West can safely abandon some of its positions and programs--West Berlin, the plans for strengthening NATO, Formosa--in order to assure the political survival of the "coöperative" Mr. Khrushchev and forestall the rise to power of some unnamed and supposedly more militant rival.
In the past, whenever a genuine struggle for power has been taking place within the Kremlin hierarchy, Soviet spokesmen abroad have been the last to refer to this dangerous subject. In those uneasy circumstances they have tiptoed about, avoiding tête-à-têtes without witnesses, and strongly denying all signs of dissension at home. The recent whispering campaigns seem designed to pave the way for one-sided concessions by the West, rather than representing an unprecedented rending of the veil of Soviet secrecy. The versatility displayed in this new tactic is, I believe, a sign of stability and great self-assurance. Only a very strong and confident Soviet leader can afford to turn to his profit self-launched rumors of his political vulnerability at home.
One beneficial feature of Khrushchev's new style of rule has been a greatly lessened reliance on the day-to-day use of political terror. Khrushchev has gained great popularity, within the ranks of the Party apparatus and among the Soviet population at large, through the greater sense of individual security and the spreading expectation of a somewhat more impartial justice. From this, however, there is a long jump, which many commentators in the West have not hesitated to take, to assuming that the system of political pressure and even of repression has simply disappeared. In this over-optimistic view, there are now no obstacles to a continuous evolution of the Soviet system toward a status of full freedom of person and opinion and, eventually, of active political liberty. Does this idyllic picture correspond to reality?
Today, factory managers, collective farm chairmen, artists and writers, Party officials of many ranks no longer fear sudden disappearance, whether through imprisonment or execution or exile to labor-camps or to forced residence. To a great extent the atmosphere of terror has been lifted. Some important improvements have been made in the administration of justice. To a considerable extent, the reforms of the past two years have separated the functions of investigation, prosecution and trial. Instead of being investigated, arrested, tried and sentenced by the secret police, an ordinary citizen can now expect that the evidence gathered by the police, secret or conventional, will be examined by a separate prosecutor's office, which decides whether to bring him to trial. And the trial will be conducted usually by courts which are separate in administrative "line of command" from the police and the prosecutor's office. Of course, all three arms of justice are controlled by the government, under the direction of the Party apparatus; all three are subject to appointment and removal from above. All three are responsive to the Party's demand for "vigilance," whether against hoodlums, embezzlers, speculators in dachas or cars, or disseminators of "Western propaganda."
Although the defendant is entitled in theory to the services of counsel, these may or may not be available in practice and defense attorneys are sometimes punished by the Party for an excess of zeal in defending their clients. Outside the system of state courts, the military tribunals are still empowered to judge cases in complete secrecy. Sentences are seldom published, except as a public warning to other potential offenders. Still, with all these defects, intolerable in a true system of law, the new conditions of justice offer a vast improvement over those of Stalin's days, especially for nonpolitical offenders.
In the past, a number of well-run autocracies, without a trace of democratic ideology, have also endeavored to provide their subjects with a regular and safeguarded system of justice, for injustice is a source of serious waste to the state itself. Each person wrongly condemned constitutes a direct loss of resources to the state. And the dread of unpredictable punishment brings with it many other losses, such as fear of taking responsibility, widespread resort to deception, apathy among the people and corruption within the government apparatus.
The new Soviet leadership has not, as many abroad prematurely assume, laid down its "punishing sword." Its secret police are still active. "They" are still watching and writing things down. The ordinary Soviet subject, especially anyone over 35, can recall earlier periods when police pressure, but not police vigilance, has been relaxed. And he knows that seemingly innocent remarks and even imputed motives can be brought up against him at a later time, when the pendulum has swung back toward renewed "vigilance."
In the past two years the Soviet state has unsheathed a new weapon against those whom it regards as "anti-social" elements. By the vote of a neighborhood or block meeting assembled and dominated by Party members, any "unproductive" member of society can be expelled from his place of residence and ordered to live at a distance of not less than 100 kilometers. In recent months, newspaper articles and letters have been demanding the more frequent application of this form of "vigilante" law. Apparently, this type of "exile by popular decree" is designed to supplement the specific provisions of the code by holding the threat of ostracism over socially "undesirable elements" and dissenters. The picture of a Soviet system that has chosen, or been driven--by what forces?--to abandon its police controls and to leave the way open to all kinds of initiatives welling up from below is a most appealing one, but one that can hardly stand the light of Soviet day.
But, it is frequently argued, the steady if unspectacular rise in the Soviet standard of living is bound, sooner rather than later, to undermine the dictatorial character of the régime. As people become more prosperous and better fed, housed and clothed, they will raise their spiritual demands. They will exact a right to form their own opinions and eventually to tell the authorities what to do.
The rise in Soviet living standards since 1953 is an important and highly desirable development. Since Stalin's death there has been a very substantial improvement in the supply of food. The enormous waste of time through waiting in line has been reduced. Above all, the Soviet housewife is now confident that she will find in the shops the wherewithal to feed her family. Food costs remain high in relation to average earnings, and the variety and quality are poor in relation to Western standards and Soviet desires. In the major cities clothing is available in relative plenty, and prices, though still high, have been reduced almost by one-half; the quality has also been improved, in large part through importing superior goods from China, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. In Moscow a customer can now shop around for quality and style instead of taking whatever is offered. Mark-downs and bargain sales, once decried as examples of inferior capitalist management, have been instituted in some lines, such as TV sets, radios and shoes.
Housing, long a blight on Soviet comfort, is being built on an impressive scale, especially in some 150 principal industrial cities. At last, under the program instituted in 1957, millions of citizens are being moved from old, dilapidated housing, and from a one-room-per-family standard, to new and clean if not very elegant apartments of two, three and even four rooms. Nothing can give greater satisfaction and pride than to see and participate in these benefits.
Soviet people are enjoying their increased purchasing power to the full. The peasants receive a much larger cash income and are demanding more good things to buy. A reform instituted in 1956 has given old-age pensioners, formerly condemned to slow attrition, an adequate basic income, buttressed by nominal rents and free medical care. A parallel measure to raise the minimum wage to 300 rubles (30 new rubles of 1961) has, it is estimated, improved the purchasing power of almost one-third of the employed urban population. On the other hand, successful collective farms are still pressed to share their profits with weaker neighbors, and there have been few major reductions in prices since 1955. Still, Soviet incomes on the average are rising markedly and will continue to do so as personal income taxes are gradually eliminated--though not the much more onerous sales taxes. All this can only bring rejoicing that the Soviet people, hard pressed so long and bitterly tried in a very destructive war and its aftermath, are now enjoying a larger share of the fruits of their labor and their forced savings for investment.
For the outside world, however, one major question still remains: Will the improved standard of living build up pressure on the Kremlin to modify its general line of policy, at home or abroad? Will it cause it to abandon its international ambitions, which have been restated so eloquently in the Declaration of 81 Parties, in December 1960, and by Khrushchev in his program speech of January 6, 1961?
Soviet resources are subjected to multiple and conflicting demands, and since 1953 the Kremlin has given a bigger though modest cut of the pie to the needs of the people. Following his tour of the United States in 1959, Khrushchev promised substantial increases in the allocation of capital for the production of consumer goods; he also announced larger allocations in January 1961. These additional resources, human and material, can be found only by making adjustments in other sectors of the plan, for example in heavy industry, in military programs or perhaps in the still modest program of foreign economic aid. It must not be forgotten, however, that light industry is growing more slowly than heavy industry.
In 1960 a Soviet newspaper took the unprecedented step of printing a "Letter to the Editor" which asked if it would not be better to spend less on sputniks and more on housing. Of course, the propaganda machine denounced the unnamed author and denied that there was any conflict. Soviet citizens, having received first installments of the long-promised good life, are eager for the day when the Soviet living standard will, as Khrushchev assures them, overtake that of the United States. Indeed, they would be more than pleased to see it equal that of West Germany or even Czechoslovakia. "Prosperity" and "peace" are powerful slogans in Soviet society as elsewhere, but the effect of their popularity seems quite different there than in countries of free and representative institutions.
One obvious result of the improvement has been to raise Khrushchev's popularity to a peak Stalin never knew. His eagerness to go out among the people, his willingness to explain his policies frequently and at length, his "folksy" manner, are all valuable assets. A further consequence has been to increase enormously the credibility of Soviet propaganda among the people generally. Formerly, when Stalin proclaimed that the Soviet Union enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world, his subjects were instinctively on the alert for new sacrifices or new pressures. Aside from the steady rise of the professional and managerial groups to a distinctly superior way of life under Stalin, most of the people saw no evidence to confirm these lofty claims, and their skepticism about domestic propaganda often carried over to the sphere of international politics.
In general, so public opinion analysts tell us, people are best informed about events in which they participate or which they observe at first hand. They find it somewhat harder to form independent judgments about national affairs. And, except in countries where they have access to a continuing and abundant flow of authentic and contradictory information, they find it still harder to form reliable opinions about events and problems in the external world. The increased confidence with which ordinary Soviet people now accept the leader's word in domestic affairs seems to have a strong carry-over in the enhanced faith with which they accept his picture of world events. Far from raising a stronger demand for freedom of information and opinion, the rising standard of living seems, from personal observation by many visitors, to have raised the level of popular trust in the Party's propaganda. It has positively enhanced Khrushchev's ability to mobilize his people's energies and loyalties behind his foreign as well as his domestic programs.
If the effect of the slow but steady spread of greater material satisfactions has been to relax one of the major sources of tension between the leaders and the led, will not the ideological grip of the Party be gradually undermined by the remarkable spread of middle and higher education to more and more layers of Soviet society? Some analysts have asserted that the Soviet régime is thereby "digging its own grave." The expansion of education will, they believe, not only equip its beneficiaries to serve the system better but will "inevitably" give rise to a spirit of questioning, independent reasoning and critical judgment that will sooner or later destroy the Party's ideological control.
Certainly there have been some signs, visible even through the strictly regulated Soviet press, of some stirrings of skepticism and dissent. Apparently, many students--at least in Moscow and Leningrad--were shaken by the events of 1956 in Hungary. Some expressed doubts of the Government's explanation that the popular uprising had been provoked solely by "imperialist intrigues." The much freer interpretation of Marxism within Poland has not been without some echoes within the Soviet Union. In the largest cities foreign delegates and tourists are now a commonplace sight. Officially sponsored channels of information, such as the Polish Art Exhibit and the American Exhibition of 1959, have had a wide impact, despite the official effort to discredit the Sokolniki display even before it opened.
Khrushchev's outburst of November 1958 against doubting or dissident students was surely not without cause, and he is not unmindful of the tendency, especially within a part of the younger generation which has grown up since the last period of purge and repression, to press beyond the permitted framework of official dogma. Very often students have shown their boredom with the Party's ideology and their eagerness to seek information through other than official channels. Khrushchev's demand, in 1958, that all students should have a two-year period of productive labor in a factory or on a collective farm, before proceeding to their higher education, was only one expression of his resentment and alarm at the attitudes of a part of the students. However, by the time his proposals were transformed into practice, beginning with the academic year 1959-60, the labor requirement was pretty much waived for students of engineering, pure sciences and medicine, as well as for technologists of all kinds.
The full impact of the new barrier has fallen on those seeking admission to higher training in the ideologically sensitive fields--social sciences, humanities, law and journalism. The most important provision of the new rules is, of course, the requirement that each candidate, after working "at production" for two years, must present a political recommendation by a "social organization," meaning the Party or its Young Communist League. As Khrushchev exclaimed in 1958, any student who is dissatisfied with the Soviet system ought to be expelled, so as to make room for the son or daughter of a peasant or worker who will value to the full the state-conferred benefit of higher education.
A spirit of inquiry, dissatisfaction or even dissent can arise even under a totalitarian system, for the demand for individual judgment, for sincerity, lies deep in each individual. This urge may stem from many causes, including boredom, family memories, the influence of Russia's great literature, or the impact of injustices. But the problem of harnessing scientific progress with ideological conformity is not a new one for the Soviet régime. It has persisted, in varying forms, from the beginning. The Party and its instruments have developed many ways of shepherding the young toward productive and orthodox careers well rewarded by the state, and away from dangerous thoughts. The controls can never work perfectly, and repression of potential dissent exacts its price today, even though that price is probably far smaller than in Stalin's time. The problem of making a uniform and "non-discussable" propaganda interesting or even palatable to young people after it has lost its initial savor of scientific infallibility is a continuing one, as witnessed by the Party's long and boring decree on propaganda, issued in January 1960.
By and large, foreign observers are left with the impression that any substantial spread of intellectual questioning is pretty much confined to a few major cities, and primarily to the sons and daughters of fairly well-placed and responsible Communists. It often takes the form of wanting to read everything and examine everything for themselves. It reflects a growing suspicion that the Party's choice of information may not be very complete or intelligent. For some it takes the form of wishing for more variety and color in a drab way of life, or of a fascination with the far wider range of literary, artistic and intellectual stimuli available in the West and even in such "friendly" states as India. For others it takes a less attractive form among the post-adolescent stiliagi, or "teddy-boys," who attempt to ape the manners, dress and haircuts of their Western contemporaries of a few years ago. Naturally, Soviet propaganda tries to equate all interest in the West with the fads and fashions of the stiliagi, and then to lump the latter with "hooligans," an American word which has long since been naturalized in Russian as "khuligany."
With the extreme official and popular emphasis on conformity--extending even to local puritanic attempts to forbid bright-patterned sport shirts and women's slacks on the otherwise fashionable promenades of Sochi--it would be strange if some high-spirited youths did not assert their "differentness" in various ways, some of them more intellectual than others. On the whole, however, Soviet youth seems highly conformist. For one thing, the college-level study of politically dangerous subjects, such as history, economics and law, is confined to a relatively few and carefully supervised students. The great majority of students, and often the ablest, are attracted by good stipends and promising careers into technical and scientific fields. For them, the study of world history or foreign literature, even in its carefully selected doses, ends at about 15. What goes by the name of "social studies" after that is simply Party history, Party theory and the current Party program of "do's" and "don't's." The widely noted apathy on the part of youth toward the cramming of Party ideology into their heads by dull propaganda hacks is probably far more serious than any conscious dissent.
The system of controls and incentives through which the Party promotes conformity with its views and goals is reinforced by a strong sense of national pride, even chauvinism. Soviet students are amazed when told that the Moscow subway was not the first one ever built. They assume that the sputniks have "proven" the superiority of the Soviet system. Most Soviet citizens accept as natural and desirable the extension of the Communist system to other countries, and they are unaware of the methods of control that have been applied or the deep-set hatreds those methods have implanted. They cannot imagine other systems, for example those that allow a genuinely free choice. While often displaying a greedy envy of Western comforts, gadgets and cars, they proclaim with full sincerity the superiority and inevitable triumph of the Soviet system. Needless to say, they are well briefed on American defects, such as economic fluctuations and unemployment, unequal access to higher education, and regional resistances to equal status for citizens of Negro descent. But they seem totally unequipped to reason critically about possible defects in the Soviet system; those that exist have either been removed by the post-Stalin régime or are bound to disappear with the spread of material plenty.
If anything, the slightly widened access to Western information and the presence in their streets of Western tourists makes ordinary Soviet people less aware than before of being cut off from contrary or thought-provoking information. Even the flow of casual foreign sightseers appears to confirm their confidence that Khrushchev is doing everything he reasonably can to reduce tensions and strengthen the prospects for peace.
Despite occasional outbursts of fear and resentment, as in the case of Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago," the Soviet system of control seems confident of its ability to identify, contain and, if need be, repress such expressions of doubt or dissent as appear among a small minority of its youth. In handling a problem that has plagued it throughout its existence, the Party is alert but not unduly alarmed by its newest manifestations. Unlike some wishful analysts abroad, it is confident that it can train a very large part of its youth to serve the state, especially in engineering and the natural sciences, without letting many of them stray from the approved paths of ideological orthodoxy, reinforced as it is today by national pride and arrogance.
What does all this add up to? First, that the Soviet system with which the West will be dealing in the 1960s is likely to retain a high level of political stability, based on premises and methods very different from ours. The dictatorship is not likely to be torn to pieces by internecine struggles at the top, to lose control over its people or to surrender its ideology. The Party structure is better equipped today to ride through a new succession crisis than it was in 1953. No doubt, names and labels will change, but the concept of a single party, justified in its absolute rule by its monopoly over "truth" and foresight, has been strengthened.
Second, the Soviet leadership will not abandon its ultimate power of life and death over its subjects, even though it now exercises this power with new moderation. Its leaders will resort to terror again if they find that necessary to their aims, but they doubt it will be necessary. The farther the Stalinist brand of terror recedes in memory, the more active the confidence and the more energetic the coöperation they can hope to elicit from their people. Any minor movements of dissent can be contained by partial relaxation of controls over intellectual life, combined with methods of repression less cruel than in the past.
Third, the shared desire of the Party and the people to raise the standard of living is relaxing very old tensions between the two, is lessening the contrasts between life in Russia and in the West, and is likely to evoke ever greater individual efforts to share in the enlarged rewards offered by the régime for hard work and "right-thinking" loyalty. Finally, the spread of education may create some annoying worries for the ideological purity of the new generations, but it is not likely to endanger the stability of the régime or its ability to pursue the goals which its leaders set for the Soviet people at home or abroad.
It would surely be comforting if an analysis of the evolution, recent and prospective, of the Soviet system could lead us to a confident conclusion that it contains the seeds of inevitable and desirable changes, and that we have only to fold our hands, lower taxes, buy a third car and wait for this development to occur in the fulness of God's time. Unfortunately, such is not the prospect. During the decade of the 1960s we shall, under present prospects, be dealing with a Soviet system that is growing rapidly in economic, scientific and military strength and which will have fewer rather than more difficulties in preserving political stability and an adequate measure of ideological uniformity. These growing strengths, not offset by equivalent new weaknesses, will enable its leaders to devote greater rather than smaller resources and political determination to achieving the worldwide purposes that have been proclaimed in an evolving pattern of interpretation by Lenin and Stalin and now by Khrushchev.