The world's fascination with the Soviet Union

By Moshé Lewin, Le Monde diplomatique, November 1997

The USSR may have disappeared but its interest has not waned. In fact, a number of historians have been calling for a Nuremberg-style trial of communism, equating Stalin with Hitler. But their two countries had quite different historical trajectories. To assess the role of the USSR and its impact on the world, we need to look back to Tsarist Russia. One of the many things we may deduce is that Soviet Russia, much like its Tsarist predecessor, was trying to resolve problems that were specifically Russian: such things as an all-powerful central authority out of step with a backward society, and a catastrophic lack of planning….

To the historian's eye, Russia's role and the influence it has exercised for a large part of the 20th century is extremely ambiguous. Russia has played a crucially important role in the history of the world as a complex and unpredictable protagonist in an age of extremes—and was itself one of the extremes. What Russia says or does has always caused ripples in some part of the world. But if one discounts the sound and the fury that have characterised its presence in the international arena, all that Russia was basically trying to do (without much success) was to resolve problems that were specifically Russian. In a sense, one might say that Russia has been an international phenomenon despite itself.

If we read Russia's history as basically reflecting its Russian-ness, one characteristic is particularly striking: it has been a country without the means to match the extent of its empire. Already, under the Tsars, Russia lacked the resources necessary to play a role, consistently and in depth, to match its imperial status. It had lost its capacity to defend its territory. During the first world war its army even lacked rifles. Not very impressive, as empires go…

Soviet Russia did not settle for this imperial inheritance, but went on to expand its territory still further. At one moment it appeared to be on top of the situation. It succeeded in record time in restoring its ability to conduct war and defend its frontiers. But it soon found itself at sea again, trying to deal with the realities of a complex world, and with economic and technological means that were insufficient to fulfil its allotted role. But it was still powerful enough—albeit not without substantial assistance from the West—to achieve victory over Hitler's Germany during the second world war, In fact, in some fields its technology was superior to that of its adversaries. And if technology had not progressed beyond the level of the old heavy industries, the USSR would have been in a good position to maintain its status as superpower. Contrary to what some people think, it was not the arms race that led to the death of the USSR, although it may have had an effect.

The crucial factor in Russia's difficulties lies in the workings of the Soviet system. The result was the (relatively early) appearance of its cumbersome nature in the field of technological innovation, which inhibited the growth of the resources necessary for the development of standards of living and creativity in fields as varied as technology, culture and politics. All things considered, the arms race and the development of the defence industries were pursued with some success. What rendered them unsustainable in the longer term was a “historic handicap”. This affected various spheres of Soviet society and was responsible for a seizing up of the system as a whole—a systemic failure which was bound to have happened, regardless of the degree of international competition. It seems clear that the arms race actually contributed to the survival of the system just as it was, blocking the efforts of reformers intent on changes which would have been fatal to the grip of conservatism.

The backwardness that was eating at the heart of Tsarist Russia continued to dog its Soviet successors for the next fifty years following the October revolution, but it now operated in a conjuncture that was far more complex. Whereas, in the early days, the task of the new regime had only been to catch up with the West, later it found itself also having to catch up with the East. It was here that the cracks in the foundations of this old empire began to become apparent, despite the restoration work carried out during the Soviet period. And the Russia that we know today has emerged from all this barely capable of managing a territory that is now reduced to the old kernel of Slavic domination.

However, leaving aside for the moment the sorry state of today's Russia, we should take a step back to consider a key question: how are we to explain the influence which the USSR was for so long able to exert in the world?

We could address the problem first in terms of the mirrors which the protagonists of this story held up to each other, examining the images which each reflected of the other during various periods. The Western lift-off of 1921-29 reflected a Soviet Russia intent on recovery from the ravages of the civil war (1917-23), a country which was once again lagging behind in terms of development, and perhaps even more so than before. Then came the boom of the first five-year plans, which coincided with a period in which the other side was in dire straits, particularly after the 1929 stock market crash.

The fluctuating fortunes of each of the protagonists explain the changes that came about in their mutual perceptions of each other. Images bounced back from one to the other, reflecting some realities but deforming others. It could not have been otherwise in this international hall of mirrors. The Western crisis of 1929–36, which was played out against an industrial boom in the Soviet Union, thus contributed to minimising the nature and extent of the 1930s purges, as well as other defects of the regime—whereas those of the West were amplified. And each reversal of the situation (the USSR suddenly being forced to buy wheat from the West, for example) brought with it a reversal of the mechanism, magnifying the achievements of the one and diminishing those of the other.

The nationalities policy pursued by the Soviet Union within its borders was another factor contributing to the world's favourable opinion of the Soviet Union. Many people found this “internal internationalism” an attractive feature of the USSR, and in many ways it was real and authentic. The Soviet Union was an empire, inherited from Tsarist Russia, but its various ethnic components were not colonies. This went some way to enhancing the attractiveness of the self-portrait which the USSR chose to present to the world, and it is possible that it will continue to play a role in the future. In an era that was so marked by racism and chauvinism, a country preaching internationalism, and seeming to put it into practice within its own borders, had considerable appeal, whatever the distortions of reality engineered by the propaganda.

Homo sovieticus may have felt himself to be Russian, Uzbek, Tatar or Georgian, but he was also willing to accept a supra-national image of himself. Within the Soviet army you could find almond eyes and slit eyes, dark skins and fair skins, straight hair and frizzy hair—it didn’t matter, it was one single army, and it was Soviet and not Russian. Even though Stalin had crudely tried to “russianise” the country towards the end of the war, the phenomenon paradoxically continued right through till the death of the system. Despite various changes of political direction, it has remained one of the characteristics of this “international” empire and could be seen as one of the best things to its credit.

The other major event that had enormous repercussions—the defeat inflicted on the Nazi invaders in 1945—could never have happened without the industrial lift-off achieved during the first five-year plans before the second world war. Victory was won despite the terror and the mistakes of the country's despotic leadership. In fact, it went some way to covering up for the terrible misdeeds of Generalissimo Stalin. Victory seemed to justify the regime's policies, and this—at least for a while—was how the world viewed it. Later, after Stalin's death in 1953, the fact that the USSR had managed to equal the West in its nuclear and space programmes seemed proof of the superiority of planning, and acted as a further justification of the regime's policies—even though these achievements were in no sense attributable to Soviet planning.

Disequilibrium as a system

The opposite is true. This system was incapable of planning. If it had been able to plan, it would not have “planned” its own demise and the spiral of imbalances which ended by sinking it. Soviet achievements in the realms of space and armaments derived from the system's ability to use administrative means to concentrate resources on priority objectives. Whatever you like to call it, this is not planning. A planning worthy of the name would certainly have allowed for adjusting priorities where necessary, but it would not have neglected the mass of non-priority objectives (in other words the bulk of the economy, which was in fact the real priority). A number of Soviet achievements, possibly the majority, resulted from this particular style of management which was, to say the least, chaotic. It consisted of juggling priorities each time that new bottlenecks appeared, which called for new corrective measures.

These are the characteristics of war economies. The Soviet Union's strategy was built around concepts such as “priority objectives” and “key linkages”. And this political/administrative vocabulary was a feature of its management of economic growth, at least in the first stage. But there was a heavy price to pay for juggling with priority objectives to the detriment of everything else: an unending stream of new imbalances emerged, undermining and blocking the socio-political and economic spheres. To the point where, by the early 1970s, the USSR had turned into a veritable “system of disequilibrium”.

In other words, the country was being administered rather than planned, and the five-year plans were no more than indicators generating statistics and desiderata. Yet, even though the facts said otherwise, the claims made for Soviet planning were often taken at face value and played a crucial role in Soviet Russia's ideological and political ascendancy.

However, the key element of the Soviet Union's influence in the world was rooted in the idea, literally hammered out by propaganda, that the Soviet system represented a substantive alternative to a capitalism that had not previously met its match. This propaganda, which had an initial credibility, was designed for Western ears but, as the credibility of the claims became less and less convincing, it began to be directed towards the East and South-East Asia. The notion that here was an alternative system and culture, a socialism in the course of construction, or already constructed, the “Marxist state” (a phrase that one still hears)—all these are terms which have been picked up, for obvious reasons, by the right but which are increasingly being rejected by the left.

Nevertheless, they have continued to keep the Western nations in a state of alert. Without them, the phenomenon of the “play of mirrors” would have been meaningless, founded as it was on the widely accepted idea that the world stage had room only for these two actors. Tertium non datur. Russia was the only possible “other”, according to the rules of the game set in place by myth and reality throughout the period of the cold war (1947-89).

The facts and the myths, the realities and the illusions, each had a part to play in shaping the world's political perceptions of the USSR, and here the socialist nature of the Soviet regime represented the core of its role and influence. One may wonder whether there is a law capable of predicting the death of myths, but there is visibly one which helps them survive…

The fact of Russia (or more precisely its elites and some parts of its population) adopting a Western ideology of emancipation (in this instance, Marxism-inspired socialism), in order to resolve à la russe specifically Russian problems, has been a recurrent scenario in the country's history. The reigns of Peter the Great (1672-1725) and Catherine II (1729-96) were a case in point. While Russia's rulers were out borrowing progressive ideas and practices from the West, the majority the Russian population knew only increased servitude. This striking dissonance, which was also true under Stalin, was and remains Russia's historic refrain: walking on two feet, but with each in a different century.

In considering the Soviet period, we could refine the metaphor and say that Russia entered the 20th century in order to resolve problems inherited from the 19th, but using methods deriving from the 18th. And in each of these centuries Western ideas had played a role. But, given that in each case the ideas had to be filtered through Russian realities, either they ran into the sand or they found themselves profoundly reshaped in the process.

Modern industry, state absolutism

It would be appropriate, today, to examine the historic path taken by Russia in the 20th century with a view to arriving at a definition of its degree of modernisation. In the final analysis, are we talking about progress, backwardness, or a detour?

One thesis shows Russia as existing in a state of “delayed modernisation”. If this theory aspires to being a correct assessment of the “communist” period, it has first to satisfy an important condition: it has to prove that Tsarist Russia was already well under way towards modernisation, as understood according to recognisable Western concepts. It would perhaps be more correct to say that delayed modernisation was already a characteristic of state-society relations under the Tsars, in the early days of the system's final crisis.

This is not to deny the real progress which Tsarist Russia made in a whole series of sectors. Very often phenomena of crisis emerge when specific social sectors and strata show increased dynamism, at a time when most social activity and the majority of the population are lagging behind in another stage of development. In such cases, only very powerful political systems have the capacity to handle the resulting social strains. But in Russia, the regime itself was one of the most obsolete elements of the social panorama. It was thus part of the historical problem, not its solution. Already at that time, indicators, whether real or fictitious, of a modernisation under way could not be used as a means of evaluating the achievements of its successors.

The Soviet experience could be viewed as a setback for those who had believed in the possibilities for socialism in Russia. But a more pessimistic appraisal of its real potential in 1917 might have inspired an assessment more in line with reality, enabling one to predict a more “Russian” outcome for things: a state tending to the all-powerful, sitting on top of a social structure that was hybrid and underdeveloped. An overall assessment would then have to include in the picture elements that were powerfully heterogeneous.

Despite the perverse procedures adopted by its state, the new regime saved a crisis-ridden country from the deterioration that had set in, and was able to set up an industrial system, meet the requirements of war, run its huge territories and supply its population with schools and university education—all of which was a big step forward compared with the old Russia. When we look at Russia now, with the benefit of hindsight, we see a country in limbo that seems to have wasted seventy years on an “experiment”. But if we adopt the historian's method and move from the present in order to go back through time, Soviet Russia often appears as a powerful and influential reality which, for all its ups and downs, has won its place in the history of our century.

This historic mission was accomplished in a predominantly rural country which became industrialised at remarkable speed after the second world war. The crucial transition was overseen by a bureaucracy which succeeded, even before the death of Stalin and despite the dreadful calamities which it had to confront, in constructing a multifaceted monopoly power which enjoyed deep-rooted de facto rights, and means that were effective in imposing a status quo. Again, all this happened within the framework of a transition from a pre-urban reality from another age to an unbelievably rapid urbanisation. This was accompanied, in a phenomenon familiar in many so-called traditional rural societies, by a super-state which had to straddle two very different stages of historical development.

Furthermore, this state found itself lacking in ammunition, or rather lacking in “historical reserves” (a shortfall which could not be compensated for by the activities of a police state). Resources that might have been sufficient to maintain the status quo in one period were not sufficient to maintain it in the next. The system's inability to change was in a certain sense a result of the speed at which it had carried out this great historical transition. In the final event, it became apparent that its “art” of management was simply not up to the job of running an urban society in a highly dynamic international environment. (As we have said, it was no longer simply a matter of “catching up with the West”).

The basic building blocks of the Soviet system were the outcome of a high-profile industrialisation drive. They comprised a mixture of the authoritarianism which is inherent in the establishment of modern industry and a Russian tradition—the long-standing tradition of state absolutism. The socialist and emancipatory beliefs which had initially inspired the revolutionary uprising were one of its first casualties. As too, paradoxically, was the dynamism which had initially characterised the new system.

Complex historical mechanisms

Finally, one further aspect of the influence exercised by Russia in the West derives from the interplay of relations and influences between communism and social democracy in the course of the 20th century. Russian social democracy was part of the Second International, and its “communist” version stemmed from a reaction against the way in which the socialist parties, with the German social democrats at their head, had conducted themselves during the first world war and subsequently. Much has been made of the disastrous role of the Comintern in relation to the German Communist Party (KPD), but the way in which the social-democrat leaders treated their own left wing—showing no hesitancy in calling in the services of the Freikorps (1)—perhaps had a more profound impact on the German working class and German socialism than the October Revolution. After all, in 1918-19 the world really knew very little about what was going on in Russia. In a sense, the cadres of the Communist Party were the products of this political situation.

Both communists and social democrats soon lost their initial revolutionary vision. In the case of German social democracy, this development was already well under way before the first world war. Soviet Russia, on the other hand, was still using a revolutionary rhetoric, but was in fact going down another road. To use the terminology of the organisation of which they shared membership, there is no doubt that in both cases one was witnessing a shift to the right, and it is only sentimentality and ideology that have prevented people from describing the evolution of Soviet Russia in precisely those terms. Pro-communist, anti- communist, it seemed a lot easier to stick with the accepted categories and take them at their face value—even at the price of distorting the picture.

However, attempting a more objective characterisation of the Soviet system is no easy task, because of the hybrid nature of its society. On the one hand, Russia had an almost “classic” proletariat but, on the other, it lacked the traditional counterpart to be found in capitalist countries—namely a bourgeoisie. Instead, there was a ruling bureaucratic layer (in the process of becoming a “ruling class” in the generally accepted sense of the term), but in this stratum, not even the most powerful officials had ownership rights over the means of production.

When applied to Germany and the Soviet Union, the categories of right and left turned out to be rather versatile in their application, since they tended to be a function both of the circumstances and of the social forces in play. Thus, when Hitler came to power in 1933, German social democracy could clearly be viewed as part of the left—which was certainly not so true at the start of the Weimar Republic in 1919. Russia's fight against Nazi Germany also shifted it to the left on the stage of history, at least when viewed from abroad. However, its internal regime, even though it changed considerably after Stalin's death, has remained, in varying degrees, conservative, nationalistic and profoundly anti-democratic (even though it did offer support to anti-colonial movements—but beyond its own frontiers, needless to say). None of which are traditional characteristics of the left.

All this poses the problem of the comparability of the Soviet system with other creations of the right, particularly fascism and Nazism. We need to recognise that the recourse to “comparison” in both political and academic circles tends to create more quarrels over methods and less real progress in the understanding of these phenomena. It is not a question of casting doubt on the importance of the comparative approach: it is a legitimate and often invaluable tool for analysing historical phenomena. Stalin and Hitler, both of whom were dictators “sanctified” by a personality cult, clearly invite comparison. And in general terms, any attempt at classification is obviously going to involve comparison too. As a dictatorship, the USSR can and should be compared with other dictatorships.

On the other hand, to assume a priori that these two experiences were one and the same, and to pose them as identical historical phenomena, is far from legitimate. Basically, a comparative approach has to satisfy an initial starting condition: the rigorous application of an identical analysis to two objects, without assuming the conclusion in advance. The debates around the nature of the USSR, even in academic circles, have been dominated, more so than in other areas of research, by ideology and propaganda. And the history of Soviet Russia has been so rich in horrors that it has been easy to accuse it of all kinds of things, to an unreasonable degree—and for this to appear credible to large numbers of people. The terror and the atrocities were, incontestably, a massive phenomenon, and any attempt at honest research must make this clear and not minimise or ignore it. But at the same time, an honest approach needs to ensure that the realities are not over-inflated.

However, when it comes to Soviet history, this tendency has always been present, and this means that the spotlight has focused on the most dramatic periods of the country's history, presented as the sole phenomena worthy of study. This has inevitably led to a one-sided view which fails to see the complex historical mechanisms which were at work. It is undeniably true that the Soviet Union was a dictatorship. But it is also undeniable that its history was far from uniform. The different phases, the shifting orientations and the deep transformations which characterised it would justify speaking not of a single Soviet regime, but of “regimes” in the plural. And even in a situation of multiple regimes, historical development counts for far more than the words and deeds of any individual leader. This is true of any society, but it is particularly true in the case of Russia.

In the “market-place” of post-communism, there are plenty of takers for theories which argue for a basic similarity between fascism (or Nazism, in the case of the Stalinist period) and the regime of the Soviet Union. But while Stalin may have had much in common with Hitler, can one honestly say the same for Khrushchev and those who came after him. Two countries can have as their leaders tyrants who are similar in many respects, and yet develop along completely different historical trajectories. Their points of arrival and their points of departure are not necessarily identical. And the fact is that, before and after the first world war, Russia and Germany were engaged in quite different tasks.

The fact that they may have had similar characteristics in a given period should not mask the fact that their different trajectories opened the possibility of different futures. Here one might ask a simple question: what would the future of Germany—and the world—have been in the event that Hitler had won the war (or had achieved a peace settlement without his country being defeated, or had been replaced by another Nazi leader)? Would a Nazi leader have set about “denazification”? The time has come for careful consideration of what happened in Russia after the death of Stalin. What exactly were the processes at work which, post-1953, made an irreversible reality of destalinisation , seen as too timid by some and too daring by others?

(1) Germany's defeat in the first world war paved the way for the revolution of November 1918, in which the Social Democratic Party (SPD) wrestled for leadership with the Independent Socialists (USPD), among whose ranks were the Spartacists who went on to found the German Communist Party (KPD). Chancellor Friedrich Ebert was alarmed by the radicalisation of the popular movement. In agreement with Von Hindenburg, over the period from January to May 1919, he drafted in mercenaries—the Freikorps, led by former reactionary officers—to crush the Spartacists. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were murdered on 15 January 1919.