Glasnost in action

Glasnost in Action: Cultural Renaissance in Russia

This book – now nearly 25 years old – is in one sense a relic of a different era. A time when the idea that the Soviet Union would cease to exist would have been treated as fantastic and even that its basic “socialist” character would crumble as unlikely.

But it is also a reminder of other things – that hopes were high, of when Boris Yeltsin was a heroic reformer and not a corrupt drunk, when a whole country began to step into the light of historical truth for the first time in more than sixty years, when people were allowed to tell the truth about their suffering in the Great Patriotic War and not just salute “the victors” in that most desperate and yet so necessary fight.

A friend suggested to me that the reason I loved this book so much is not because it takes me back to a time when every new day brought an exciting revelation and when we could dream of the end of the threat of imminent nuclear confrontation, but because it just reminded me of being 23 again… maybe there is some truth in that, but I think there is more to it.

The days since “the end of history” was proclaimed with the collapse of the Soviet Union have hardly ushered in peace and plenty – perhaps there were other routes that could have been taken – not least the Gorbachev-sceptics in the west could have been dismissed as what they were – leftovers from the Cold War. One doesn’t have to regret the passing of the Soviet Union to regret the manner of its passing – the collapse into a void that means that of all the successor states only three – in the Baltics – have emerged as fully successful liberal democracies and only another three – Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine – have even seriously tried to follow that path.

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Blood on all their hands

Economic History of the USSR

This map shows the 1974 geographic location of...

This map shows the 1974 geographic location of various ethnic groups within the Soviet Union. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The past is always with us, it’s not even past.” In the case of this book, this is very true: I bought it in 1989 or 1990 read a few pages, put it down and then “lost” it. I genuinely don’t know where it has been for most of the intervening years, but just a few weeks ago I noticed it, in close to pristine condition, on the top shelf of a bookcase and – having read Applebaum on Eastern Europe – I thought the time had come to finish the job (or restart it – I don’t claim to recall the pages I covered three decades ago).

Since 1989 both the Soviet Union and Alec Nove have passed on, but Nove is surely the greater loss to humanity: as the book makes very clear, murder and Soviet economics went hand in hand from the very start.

Nove’s work is powerful both because he was Russian (his family were Mensheviks I believe) and so has read in the original, and he’s on the left. This is not to say that the objective facts change from a political perspective but to know that his work is impervious to the claim of anti-Soviet propaganda.

The bulk of the book describes the terrible years of Stalin’s long rule – most Soviet citizens (the ones who survived) were poorer in 1950 than in 1913 (and while the struggle of the Great Patriotic War was plainly a major factor in that, the book shows it is not a good enough excuse). But from the very start we see that Lenin and Trotsky too were all in favour of brutal methods. Indeed the Stalinist plan for “socialism in one country” bears a great resemblance to the Trotskyists “primitive socialist accumulation“: treat the peasants (80% of the population in 1928) as the class enemy and squeeze them for all they are worth.

Of course the Stalinists did more – mass deportations of the “Kulaks” and engineering a famine in the early 1930s – but how can the Trotskyists claim their hero would have been better? The man who urged the Red Army to shoot the Kronstadt mutineers “down like partridges” has no moral clothes to hide behind. (Though it is difficult to disagree with Nove’s view that the Stalin famine was a crime against peasants, many of whom were Ukrainian rather than a crime against Ukrainians, many of whom were peasants.)

Further, Nove shows how a lack of democracy and debate worsened the economic situation. One only has to look at how Trotskyists behave – to one another never mind those they have a fundamental disagreement with – to know that democracy and Leninism do not mix.

The book feels strange because it is written with  the Soviet Union in full existence and even – in 1989 (the year of my revised edition) – before the nationalist pressures in the Baltics and the Caucasus were widely visible. Nove writes that we will need to wait to the 21st century to be able to make a critical examination of the impact of the Gorbachev reforms.

The history of the post-Soviet states is a mixed one. The Baltics have become liberal democratic republics – though lies have been told about the role of many of their citizens in Hitler’s murders and they treated many within their borders as second class citizens. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have struggled to make the transition to democracy and liberalism but with limited success (though hope should not be abandoned for any of them). Russia and the rest are in varying degrees authoritarian failures. But no one can read Nove’s book and wish for a return of the USSR.

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