Russia: Successes and Failure

Service (opening words, reading, closing words) to an address by Marion Harper, Melbourne Unitarian Church January 30, 2011.

Please note that these words were censored from the church website by the Church Committee of Management.

Opening Words

One does not have to share the average newspaper reader's incultured belief that the USSR is a bottomless pit of grinding poverty and gruelling dictatorship and human misery to recognize factors we have not had in a large scale in America to date: A one-party press, limits to free speech, large scale treason trials, counterevolutionary violence, biased and harsh justice to political prisoners, secret police, imprisonment of thousands in periodic party purges.... do not dismiss these facts of repression... do insist on seeing them in the full context of Soviet life in the world and in history. There is no excuse and there is great peril in tolerating illiteracy about the Soviet Union today and tomorrow.

Stephen Fritchman from the address 'A Forgotten American: Eugen V. Debs', March 22, 1953


Robert Conquest is a British historian, educated at Oxford University who became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1937. Whilst working for British intelligence during the second world war in Bulgaria, he became disillusioned with Communism, writing two seminal books, The Great Terror, the first comprehensive research on the purges in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and The Harvest of Sorrow, writing of the terror-famine of the Ukraine.

In The Great Terror Robert Conquest estimated that there were twenty million people 'excess deaths' during the purge and the state-caused famine. When the archives from the former Soviet Union were opened and the figures checked, confirming a high degree of accuracy, a publisher asked Conquest for a new title for a reprint of the book. Conquest famously responded "How about 'I told you, you fools'?"

The following is from Robert Conquest's review of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Montefiore, published in The Atlantic in July 2004.

Sebag Montefiore's treatment of the greatest horrors of Stalin's rule — the terror-famine of 1933, the "Great Terror" of 1937-1938, and the postwar terrors, with their climax in the antiSemitic "Doctors' Plot" — likewise makes able use of newly available sources. At the time and for decades afterward the Soviet position on the famine was simply to deny it; merely to speak the word, even in the affected areas, was a crime.... Historians were therefore in a strange position: before the collapse of the Soviet Union we had to learn what we could of its past from an accumulation of unofficial testimonials, against a background of official silence, distortion, or denial. A great deal of probable evidence was available, but much of it was rejected in the West as unreliable or indirect....

The impact of the terrors on Party members and other elites has long been known. Our most substantial gain in understanding the Stalinist era concerns how and to what extent they struck at the general population. This is now decisively documented, in papers signed by Stalin and specifying quotas for death and imprisonment by category and locale; these decrees resulted in nearly 770,000 executions in 1937-1938.

There is no longer much serious dispute about what the terrors unleashed, or about the extravagant falsification practiced by the regime. If anything is still missing in Western understanding, it is a full recognition of the mental degradation inflicted by the regime. The entire population was forced to accept a supposedly all-explaining dogma, along with the notion that it was living in a social and political utopia — when what it actually experienced, of course, was the opposite.

One aspect of the Soviet experience whose after effects are still manifest was the progressive lowering of mental standards. The attack on the intelligentsia is well known: from writers to scientists, they perished in droves. At the same time, society experienced, at every level, a loud and insistent influx of the narrow, the hysterical, and the untrue. Stupidity reigned at the highest levels — evidenced, for example, by the propagation of pseudo-science, the chief instance of which was the biologist Trofim Lysenko's uninformed doctrines of agricultural genetics. And members of the apparat class proper, including the political elite, were mentally so constricted and desensitized that they were largely unable to operate intelligently. The intellectual mediocrity of Leonid Brezhnev and the clumsy activism of Nikita Khrushchev were direct legacies of Stalin's rule.

The most remarkable thing about the Soviet phenomenon, however, was not its complete control over the minds of Soviet citizens but its extraordinarily successful effort to instill its falsifications in the minds of many abroad, who were under no compulsion to accept them.

The Western misreading of the Soviet system was largely the product of a simple reflex. The Soviet order — indeed, the practice of communism everywhere — was seen as a form of "progressive" hostility to established Western politics and, particularly, economics. It seemed to represent a new system that had rid itself of the market, of exploitation. Whatever its doubtless temporary — or invented — faults (so the thinking went), the Soviet ideology stood for a better world. Thus many Western writers .... spoke out in defense of the purges.

In the United States a number of authors, poets, professors, and artists ... signed a manifesto attacking the Dewey Commission — a body formed in 1937 to examine the charges against Leon Trotsky, and whose findings were an unsparing, irrefutable indictment of the realities of the Soviet system. From 1939 to 1941, Soviet sympathizers went so far as to oppose the effort to stop Hitler. After Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, Stalinist devotees in the West simply switched their stance on Nazi Germany. Even today some of their survivors imply that their anti-fascism was never interrupted.

The Holocaust stood clearly as a monstrosity from the start. The communist record was more blurred, more polymorphous; and for a long while it retained remnants of its initial luster (something that National Socialism never enjoyed outside Germany). As a result, many Western intellectuals, though no longer approving, remained nonjudgmental for many years.

There will probably always be an alienated intelligentsia, especially in tolerant, democratic societies. But the extent to which this stratum was penetrated, misled about reality, and to some degree fanaticized by Moscow's manipulations is striking. William James wrote that philosophical opinion is largely a matter of temperament. This applies to political and other types of opinion as well. The sort of temperament we have seen during the twentieth century, combining at its worst a blend of zealotry and unteachability, can be found in earlier eras. It will doubtless always be lying in wait for us. Knowledge of its recent embodiments, although useful, will not eradicate it. The evil will, alas, simply take new forms.

Closing Words

The closing words are from from dissident socialist Max Schachtman, chairperson of the Independent Socialist League, in a debate between himself, and Earl Browder, former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the America, on the topic "Is Russia a Socialist Community?". The debate was adjudicated by famous sociologist C. Wright Mills on March 30 1950 at New York City’s Webster Hall.

It is absolutely true that by their revolution in 1917 the Russian working class, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, took the first great, bold, inspiring leap toward a socialist society... [But] Look at what they have done to the great emancipating principles of the Russian Revolution! They butchered the whole revolutionary generation... There were just twenty-two members of Lenin’s Central Committee in October, 1917, the eve of the insurrection.. : three of them died more or less normally – Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, Uritsky; two are still alive – Kollontai, Stalin. Five out of the 22. Where are the other 17, where are the other 17 who founded the Russian Revolution? Seventeen others shot as mad dogs, as fascists, as spies, as wreckers, as counter-revolutionists, as enemies of the people, as enemies of the working class, enemies of socialism....

... Suppose this same Browder, who calls Russia socialist, were in Hungary or Bulgaria, what would be his fate? When I saw him standing there at the podium, I said to myself: Rajk was the general secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, and was shot, or hanged, or garrotted. Kostov was the general secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party [and executed with ten other lifelong communists after a show trial]. And when I thought of what happened to them, I thought of the former secretary of the American Communist Party, and I said to myself: There - there but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse!