The Long Shadow of the Anti-communist Russian Revolution
The armed attempt to save the USSR failed 30 years ago: why it is relevant to the world today
Soon thirty years ago the Soviet Union, and most of state socialism in the world, ceased to exist. The liberalisation process leading to that had been started by Mikhail Gorbachev. The desperate die-hard communist putsch that briefly removed Gorbachev from power in August 1991 failed and precipitated the process Gorbachev had initiated.
Correcting that simplistic version of history one should start by saying that Gorbachev was resolutely and stubbornly fighting against the dissolution of the Soviet super-state until the very end. He also consistently defended its ideology. Having watched many hours of archive footage while making a documentary series for ARTE about the last years of socialism in Europe («Farewell, Comrades!»), including dozens of Gorbachev’s speeches and statements, I must report three essential points about the last Soviet leader’s worldview. Firstly, he was definitely against the break-up of the vast country which inherited most of the non-Russian provinces of the Russian empire, saying specifically that the Russian people had paid a high price for putting that empire together. Secondly, he was against the dissolution of the state socialist control of property, warning against privatisation. Thirdly, he was generally convinced that communism was Russia’s future, promising at the end of 1987, that in 2017 the USSR (and “all progressive people in the world”) would triumphantly celebrate the centenary of the Russian revolution. “We shall never deviate from this path!” (of communism) — he said to thunderous applause.
As it happened, on the cold and windy November day of that centenary the former imperial capital where the revolution had taken place (Leningrad at the time of Gorbachev’s presidency) was again called St Petersburg, by its arrogant (and foreign-sounding) tsarist name, a synonym of oppression for many a progressive Russian before the revolution. And there was zero evidence of any revolution ever happening there. The native of the city, Vladimir Putin was now presiding over a country with huge, truly capitalist income inequality. It was Putin, however, who famously, or infamously, depending on your politics, said that the fall of the Soviet Union had been the greatest catastrophe of the XX century. Well, the darling of the world’s liberals, Gorbachev most likely agrees with the liberals’ evil incarnate Putin on that important point.
There are many more similar paradoxes that are difficult to come to terms with unless one is prepared to suspend, at least for a time, certain political stereotypes, even if they seem to form the basis of the worldview of most well-meaning people, in the west, but also, in many ways, in Russia. The revolution that begot the communist super-state was, historically, just a revolution that had similarities with other revolutions in the western world. Like both the English and the French revolutions it killed the monarch, as well as many of its own “children”, and “fellow-travellers”. A civil war followed, or was, rather, a part of the revolutionary process. There were certain similarities in the figures, or the roles, of Cromwell, Napoleon and Stalin. All those revolutions had their restorations, even if the Russian one took a long time to come — 74 years, but all the features of a restoration it did (and still does) bear: the comeback of the prestige of aristocracy, the influence of the church, the denigration of the revolutionaries. But at the same time, there were very deep differences between the Russian revolution and the major western ones.
The last Russian emperor abdicated in early March of 1917 in favour of his brother and after the latter declined the offer, the country became a republic. That is in itself referred to as a revolution, but the world-famous Russian revolutionaries such as Lenin and Trotsky had nothing to do with it (Lenin got the news of that revolution in Switzerland well after the event.) The manoeuvres within the imperial family were largely a formality, as most influential Russian politicians were hostile to monarchy, and so, in many ways, revolutionaries. Many changes the new republican government introduced seemed radical. Even the police were, to use today’s terminology “defunded” and “cancelled”. But in the Soviet historiography, that revolution was called “bourgeois”, and the new anti-monarchist government branded “ministers-capitalists”. Some of the “ministers-capitalists” had clearly a left-wing background, and so the stand-off between their Provisional Government and the Bolsheviks had parallels with the conflict between social-democrats and Spartakists/communists in Germany.
But in Russia communists (the Bolsheviks) did win. And even some seriously “far-left” non-Bolshevik factions, such as left socialist-revolutionaries (the left “SRs”), who had risked and sacrificed their lives assassinating the tsar’s officials, were crushed in the process of Lenin’s consolidating power. The goal of the Bolsheviks was to completely uproot the capitalist system. That uncompromising focus on economics, materialism, if one wishes to call it so, was the basis of all tactics and strategies of the Bolsheviks. Lenin’s leftist opponents could have earned a lot of credit for having fought the old political order, but that did not guarantee their ability, or desire, to destroy the bourgeoisie economically. To follow through on such a programme the Bolsheviks had to be not only an ideologically consistent, but also politically ruthless force. The Bolshevik leaders had plenty of precedents and theories to study, and plenty of time to do it. And so with the ferocity the likes of Hegel and Marx were only able to put into writing, the Bolsheviks set about putting into action perhaps the most radical change of a society the world had seen.
The communists were successful because it was natural for the Russian peasant population, who, unlike their landlord masters, had never heard of Hegel, to identify their hopes of freedom with that anti-bourgeois drive of the communist leaders (some of whom, including Lenin were personally very middle class; a pedantic professor, as professor Bertrand Russell, said on meeting him. Such a superficial paradox is nothing new, however. Most radical ideas come often to professors, memento Nietzsche). The ordinary Russians could, theoretically, have been seduced or coerced into agreeing to moderately exploitative employment in a capitalist system capable of some reform, but the Bolsheviks used all the disruptive factors of a country at war and without an effective authority of any kind, including moral, to exclude any compromise with the bourgeois societal and economic paradigm. Following the complete military victory five years after seizing power in the northern capital city the communist government did allow temporarily some private enterprise (NEP), but the ideology of radical independence from big capital, and, crucially, international capital, became the raison d’etat. Importantly, a broad cultural rebellion against the old order, the nobility and the church was not simply orchestrated by the new government, but fuelled by the deep resentment of the people many of whom were grandchildren of serfs.
And so the Russian revolution was a uniquely radical people’s revolution, and the Russian people’s revolution at that (not to undermine the role of ethnically non-Russian peoples). Now such a view is not shared by many in Russia today. Two groups, which are ideological enemies of each other’s on other fronts, would not agree with me: the liberals and the ultra-conservatives. Neither believes that the revolution was “democratic”, in the sense that the Bolsheviks were nothing more than a gang that seized power in a coup. For the liberals it was a gang of far-left fanatics (and criminals), for the conservatives it was a gang of Russophobes and traitors (and criminals) paid by the Germans, but serving the interests of the Brits, the international Jewry and so forth. The ultra-nationalist camp expounding the latter views is less influential (for now) and less important for the overall point I am trying to make here, so let us focus on the liberals.
As one part of the liberal intelligentsia rejects my thesis that the Russian revolution’s uniqueness, in contrast to bourgeois revolutions of the west, was in its expressing the will and the soul of the ordinary people, another part of the liberals is saying that the thesis might actually be correct, but that changes nothing in the fact that the revolution was evil and so the people, the uneducated populace, are responsible for it. But in August 1991, when it became obvious even to the populace what the communist experiment had led to, some die-hard communists attempted to reverse the course of history. That is the interpretation of the Russian liberals, but also, in essence, of the whole of the political mainstream of the west. And yet there is a barely, at first, perceptible difference. “Anti-communism” smacks of something slightly unpleasant to the western liberal taste, but not to the Russian. And it is more difficult for a western liberal to feel entitled to dismiss the Russian revolution as just a coup and not as a result of centuries of oppression and exploitation of the working majority by a parasitical clique of landowners and, later, capitalists.
I say “liberals” in full awareness that there is a multitude of shades of them, of which one may be my very own. But generally speaking, the Soviet Union represents a tragic historical and philosophical paradox. The successful communist revolution was a materialisation of the cherished idea of utopia, second in its influence only to Christianity, but it was a western idea, while Russia’s place in Europe, and Russia’s ability to understand the western cultural language, had always been under question. And so the hostility towards the Soviet Union had a hidden paradoxical aspect to it. The western socialists would resent Russia for screwing up their hard-wrought, beautiful idea, which was, for many, the most important intellectual project with the roots in ethics, philosophy, psychology and other sciences. That resentment, however, had to be half-suppressed as regarding the Russians as incapable of managing socialism came unpleasantly close to national socialism viewing them incapable of managing just about anything. Of course, there were intellectuals who would openly, or tacitly, or subconsciously, defend the USSR, but all in all the Soviet Union was a kind of Agamben’s Homo Sacer, an outcast, or even criminal, with sacred status. It was possible to try and kill it but not sacrifice it in a higher cultural context.
All changed with the serious cracks in the structure of the communist state’s edifice which was a result of the increased pressure from western conservative hawks and the growing liberal dissent from inside. One can of course mention economy, but I would not do it in some allegedly “objective” terms, applied to nations without considering their specific circumstances, culture and history. The cracks in the structure were to do with cultural and therefore creeping ideological, acceptance of capitalism inside the USSR. Stalin is supposed to have presided over the industrialisation of a backward agrarian country, but the most remarkable result of his rule was an unprecedented degree of a nation’s independence from international capitalism, something Lenin had of course in mind too. All that wining today about the injustice of capitalism while being inextricably stuck in its matrix, was not on while the USSR was there, even in the west, because the USSR was showing a real alternative. Big companies and banks are not omnipotent, no! We can have a proud full life, our own culture science, sports, we can have our own non-religious spirituality, without your sepulchral unbreakable hierarchies, brain-killing advertisement, your nauseous bourgeois hegemony in all spheres of life. And after the USSR’s defeating Nazi Germany, and then testing the atomic and hydrogen bomb, and then sending a man to space — there seemed to be an alternative on a truly global scale.
Paradoxically, it was the educated class, the intelligentsia, the liberals inside the USSR that were the least interested in that alternative to world capitalism. They were interested, on the contrary, in what capitalism had to offer, and in what would now be called the issues of human rights, traditional morality, religion. It was, for the most part, not a cynical combination, as is sometimes the case now. The spoils of capitalism were supposed to be the proof of its efficiency and even justice, compared to the unjust Soviet system, as egalitarianism was seen as an injustice, let alone the nomenklatura’s privileges. So morality and materialism (in a non-philosophical sense) were going hand in hand and became the basis for the unstoppable assault on and the victory over the Soviet state. But here we’re back to our question of the difference between the western and Soviet-Russian liberals. The latter were, quite simply, victims of capitalist propaganda, which sometimes was simply a result of negating the communist propaganda the Soviet citizens were exposed to. The Soviet liberals were convinced that they were materially entitled to the highest standards of living in the world. Why? Because the communist propaganda was showing abject poverty in, for example, non-socialist “third world”, and that was seen as a trick to divert the Soviet audience’s attention from the fact that the capitalist west was so rich. If the propaganda was doing that, it must have been lying to us on all counts, and we could have lived as upper-middle-class people do in the richest western countries. The Soviet propaganda emphasis on racial discrimination in the U.S. was also annoying for a Soviet liberal, as it did not, ultimately, concern us “us the whites”.
But the propaganda problem was of course not just homegrown. When British tourists in Leningrad would hand me, a teenager, a glossy magazine “about the life in England” in the Russian language, I would learn it by heart and share it with as many peers as I could until the well-bound thing fell apart, so that quite a few young Soviets would learn that the life in England was all about the rock-n-roll, hanging out in quaint pubs and driving convertible sports cars with the steering wheel on the wrong side. Despite the Soviet anti-western propaganda, I didn’t find out anything about another England, until I physically got there, where whole families were taking the same bath saving on heating and water bills (both were virtually free in the USSR), washing their children’s hair with a washing-up liquid and having canned spaghetti on toast for a special Sunday lunch after mass. What I also hadn’t heard about, before I got to England, was the notion of abuse, which often took place in those poor families. A father, for example, would sometimes treat his children harshly, and this was because he was somehow evil, and not because he was poorly educated and was actually working very hard physically to feed the family, not welfare scrounging, and was still poor. And even later I found out about the financial parasitism of the City, off-shore tax “minimisation” and preferential schemes used by the Queen and the Prince of Wales, and the whole rentier economy that we were so bored to hear about at school back home, but which in reality had become even greedier and more insidious since Marx’s times.
Call it dialectics, or irony, but the minimum of economic security socialism had given the majority, as well as a sense of equality, created a cultural and intellectual focus on the problem of evil devoid of any economic analysis (the mentality that persists in Russia until now). That problem was key to the worldview of those who fought and killed the USSR. The ultimate evil for the Soviet-Russian liberals was of course Stalin. His evil roots were of course in the evil revolution (another possible distinction from the western view, which can hold Stalin evil without condemning the revolution per se), but in Stalin, the evil had made a qualitative leap. All dialectical thinking was thereby out of the window. In reality, Stalin consolidated his power by the late 1920s, just over five years after the end of the brutal civil war in which the western armies fought on the anti-communist side. Fascists had been in power in Italy for roughly five years too. Less than five years later Hitler became chancellor. If the Soviets won in the civil war, when the western powers were just emerging from the devastating WW1 and themselves had revolutionary situations at home, so that western workers sometimes tried to prevent the troops from being sent to fight communist Russia, the odds changed for the USSR for the worse by the end of 1920s. Stalin is often ridiculed and condemned by the liberals for his thesis that the class struggle intensifies with the successes of socialism, but the international struggle and risks for the USSR certainly did intensify.
This is not a place to argue about the role of Stalin, which is a perpetual source of the clash of intra-Russian ideologies. Suffice to say that by the time Germany (together with half a dozen European nations) invaded the Soviet Union and reached the outskirts of Moscow by the end of November 1941, the USSR was an industrialised country, a result of just twelve years under Stalin. The nation wouldn’t have stood a chance against Wehrmacht if not for those economic programmes, quite apart from all the “subjective” factors of Soviet heroism. And despite the Anglo-Saxon claims of having defeated Germany without much help from the USSR, it is difficult for any sane person to imagine what the consequences of Hitler’s victory in Russia would have been.
Could there have been a more humane way of modernising Russia in just over a decade? It is easy, and “politically correct”, to say “yes”, but that may not be entirely honest. Perhaps, theoretically, one could have done it, in another way, in another country and another system — a highly developed capitalist one, for example. That would be the vision of the Russian liberals. Capitalist Russia would have then been even better at defending itself against an enemy, according to such logic. But if Russia had to be Stalinist, Stalin being much worse than Hitler, as many of our liberals seriously maintain, it wouldn’t have been such a bad thing if Hitler defeated Stalin. The western powers would have then defeated or reformed national socialism but a victory over Stalin would have saved Russia (and Eastern Europe) forty-five years; that glorious moment of August 1991, when the communists were crushed after their last stand in Moscow, would have come so much earlier.
That might sound delirious, but it is not if you know the Russian intelligentsia well. Not only Stalin is worse than Hitler, according to some, but Putin is too. At least that’s what signs they carry in street rallies say. That may, or may not, be their legal right. They get sometimes detained for that, but not really imprisoned, as far as I know. What might seem even more surprising to my German readers, however, is that in October 1941 as the Red Army was desperately trying to hold the German advance towards Moscow, some members of the Russian intelligentsia in the city were expressing hope that Hitler would win. One artist wrote to a friend:
„I hear you‘re preparing to leave Moscow. Have you gone mad? I am sorry to be so rude, but who are running to and who are you running from? Do you really believe our despicable propaganda? In Kiev the Germans have set up a Social-Revolutionary government. They are supporting the arts! After all, they are the most cultured nation in Europe. (…) We will have free contact with Europe! I‘ve burnt my certificates, threw all compromising material out of my flat — Marxist classics, the portraits, and the rest of the Bolshevik trash. Good Lord, it seems like it‘s finally coming to an end!“
Labas, Juliy, Chornyi sneg na Kuznetskom, Rodina, №6, 1991, p. 36–37)
The artist did not get shot or imprisoned for authoring such a letter and died peacefully many years after the war. And today the Russian liberals consider one of their biggest mistakes, after they crushed communism in 1991, not to have eradicated the wretched „victory cult“ Russia inherited from the USSR.
The people had all the right to feel elated on 22 August 1991 when the communist state of emergency failed but already then some disturbing inferences could be drawn. The putschists had, actually, tried to do, what Gorbachev himself wanted: to save the Soviet Union and socialism. What the putschists did specifically was illegal, but so was the declaring the USSR dissolved by Yeltsin and two other heads of the Soviet Union republics in a Belorussian forest in early December that year. In an extraordinarily obsequious (if not treacherous) move, the first official Yeltsin’s people informed about what they had done to the USSR was the U.S. President Bush, who, based on this call from Russia, declared the American victory in the cold war. Yeltsin didn’t bother to tell Gorbachev before Bush about finishing off the country Gorbachev still formally headed.
Yeltsin was democratically elected (57%) president of Russia in June 1991, but she was still a part of the Soviet Union then, as a Soviet socialist republic. In a referendum in March that year the overwhelming majority of the Soviet citizens (the Baltic countries, Georgia and Moldova did not take part), including the republics (Ukraine and Belarus) whose leaders dissolved the USSR in a semi-secretive meeting with Yeltsin in the forest, voted for the preservation of the union of socialist republics. Yeltsin did not really have a mandate to cancel the state he did not head. In 1993 he infamously shelled the parliament of Russia, killing scores of people, in 1994 started a disastrous war in Chechnya, and at the beginning of the next election campaign in 1996 his approval ratings were the pitiful 6% (according to some sources, as low as 2%). He miraculously won, but even many liberals admit the electoral process was flawed and unfair.
In the 90s, under Yeltsin, before Putin that is, Russia was a democracy only in one peculiar sense, where the term essentially signified an anti-communist (liberal, “democratic”) ideology, and not at all representation of the people. Putin is both a product of that kind of “democracy” and is trying to overcome its schizophrenic disconnection from the people in a handful of ways available to him. Contrary to the capitalist-liberal minority, the majority of the Russian people did not approve of the destruction of their grand socialist project; it was not, unlike 1917, their revolution. The 1991 revolution threw away the enormous psychological reserve, the accrued capital, to use the term paradoxically, of a unique non-bourgeois civilisation (which, by the way, is much better suited to containing consumers’ greed in climate change, despite a poor Soviet record on the protection of the environment), turning Russia into an eclectic mediocre new province of world capitalism, and thus ceding a big part of her national sovereignty and identity which greatly overlapped with the socialist project. Trying to extricate herself out of capitalism now is like pulling oneself out of a mire by one’s hair, and so all there is left for Putin and the people to do is reconstructing sovereignty in one form or other.
The Russian pro-western oppositionists are often frustrated by the insufficient support people like Navalny get and blame it on the government’s restrictions and propaganda. Well, the restrictions are indeed being imposed on the organisations like that of Navalny (after many years of them operating in total freedom), but in today’s age of the Internet and with many popular Russian media firmly anti-Putin, no propaganda would be enough to stop the majority from supporting Navalny, if the people felt his Putin’s corruption narrative reflected their deepest grievance. And why doesn’t it? There was of course plenty of “corruption” under Yeltsin, except that it may be better-called daylight robbery, but even that is not the most important. The key is that condemning Putin while holding the west for the example to follow (as the liberal opposition does) is seen by the people as attacking attempts to undo at least some of the effects of the anti-communist revolution.
But that still changes nothing in the fact that the struggle for regaining sovereignty is a game on a foreign turf of world capitalism, and, the world’s political culture and media. The resulting frustration is chronic in Russia and soul searching for the reasons of a catastrophic historic defeat is cramming the nation’s collective psyche. Unconscious even to many Russians in their routine, this sounds irrelevant to anyone else, but, as Germans would appreciate, the hurt pride, humiliation, despair in some nations might not be potentially a purely internal affair.
Am I saying Russia reminds me of the Weimar republic? There are rough similarities. But this, at any rate, is not what the liberal opposition is saying. According to them, Russia is already governed by a Hitler. Those who call Putin’s regime fascist praise Yeltsin, the 90s and capitalism, while it is Yeltsin’s kind of capitalism which Russia was, undemocratically, thrown into and dragged through with the help of the west, that was the Russian people’s defeat preceding the Russian Weimar. And so those who call their political opponent Putin “Hitler” are in reality mistaking someone like Goerdeler for Hitler.
The ultimate irony, or simply dialectics, is that Navalny is, in the western ideological scale, to the right of Putin, and showed himself in multiple slurs to be the racist Putin is not. Theoretically, if Navalny ever comes to power he might surprise his western sponsors with an unpleasant post-putinist kind of nationalism, just like the sponsors of Afghan mujahideen resistance to the Soviets were confronted with anti-western Islamism in the post-communist world.
For us in Russia fascism is a purely moral notion, some extreme flaw of character, and some people are just supposed to develop it, if not born that way. But those western liberals who consistently deprive some news from Russia of the context of economics and history (and thereby make factual mistakes as well) should know better. That is a deeply conservative, if not reactionary, position, with a soupçon of Sartrean bad faith, hence so much confusion today about the political colours of the corporate media that were considered left-wing during the cold war, but often share that moralistic conservatism in their international reporting today (the Guardian, Le Monde etc).
Saying today’s Russia is a bit like the Weimar republic is a warning, not a prediction. We, the Russians, should not shift responsibility onto anyone, should be vigilant, and critical of ourselves. But that includes the liberals. Seeing pure evil, even if only in Putin, hails from a flawed logic which is also a basis for accusing others of moral inferiority, including some other peoples, and one’s own “populace”. That, unfortunately, is a Russian tradition too. Criticism of one’s own people can be healthy, but only as a part of dialectical critical thinking, which does not spare one’s own (bourgeois, mostly) class, nor the real power there is in the world, which today is not in the Kremlin. An undialectical accusation of the less powerful alone can only result in further inflaming the hurt pride. The less powerful won’t capitulate this time and their response may turn ugly but it will be the liberals’ self-fulfilling prophesy.
The reason why I have focused on the Russian liberals here is that their discourse is extremely pro-western (they are, as Dostoyevsky said, more western-liberal than the liberal west) and that seems to give the west a channel to insinuate its blueprint for a more amenable Russia. That seemed to have worked in the 90s. Counting on a new version of that revolution is the most dangerous course the west can take.
18 August 2021