Russia in Transition
Six times in the past thirty years, ERNEST J. SIMMONS has visited the U.S.S.R. He did research there before World War II, and his two big books, LEG TOLSTOY and RUSSIAN FICTION AND SOVIET IDEOLOGY, are the result of working on firsthand sources. Last summer he returned to Russia for his most recent surrey.
IN THE Soviet Union, at the end of World War II, there was widespread hope of relief from the excesses of Stalinism. That hope quickly died as Stalin, virtually deified by every instrument of propaganda, moved through a series of Draconian decrees, intensified all forms of intellectual controls, and ended his career in the final insanity of the “Doctors’ Plot.”
Stalin’s death on March 6, 1953, opened the way for reform. The revolt of prisoners in the huge slave-labor camp at Vorkuta in July, 1953, violently dramatized the distress of millions in the Soviet Union. For in these coal mines, beyond the Arctic Circle, thousands of slave laborers, emboldened by the news of the leader’s death, Beria’s arrest, and the outbreak in East Germany, defied the prison authorities by declaring a strike. The strike was broken only when General Maslenikov, who had been sent from Moscow, ordered his MVD troops to machine-gun hundreds of workers. Reform in the operations of the political police greatly mitigated, if it did not entirely eliminate, the universal sense of terror, and this in turn inspired a degree of freedom of expression and action which had not existed since the days of Lenin. In the rapid process of de-Stalinization, many other reforms were initiated: the liberation of masses of slave laborers from concentration camps, a new pension system, revisions in legal procedures and in the harsh Stalinist labor code, raises in the lower category of wages and salaries, successive price cuts in consumer goods, and a return to free higher education.
Malenkov’s prompt emphasis, when he came to power, upon an increase in the production of consumer goods was not solely a bid for popularity; it was also a recognition of the fact that the sacrifices demanded of the people throughout Stalin’s rule could not safely be prolonged. He correctly believed that the endless bright promises of a future economy of abundance had lost their magic. And although his policy was reversed by Khrushchev, he, too, quickly discovered that the masses could not live by heavy industry alone. Now Khrushchev is also insistent upon raising the standard of living. In this effort, however, the welfare of the people is not his only concern. Improved living conditions have also become a factor in a foreign policy designed to show the liberated colonial countries and underprivileged people in general that the Soviet way of life is a short cut to material prosperity. In the last few years measures have been taken to improve purchasing power and the quantity and quality of food, clothing, housing, and services.
Despite these gains, a traveler from the United States making his first trip to the Soviet Union would tend to agree with much of what he had read and heard back home about the drab existence and low standard of living. There is, in fact, a large differential in per capita income in favor of the West. The average income of the unskilled factory worker in the United States is about eight times greater than that of the unskilled laborer in the Soviet Union. And many vital consumer goods are still in short supply, scanty in choice, and the few quality products among them are beyond the purse of all but the highest-salaried individuals.
For the average Soviet citizen, however, such contrasts are not as important as comparisons of his standard of living today with what he has had to endure over the whole course of his working life. In these terms he cheerfully recognizes that his present situation represents a marked advance, and an American visitor would agree with him if he happened to have had more or less continuous contact with the Soviet Union over the last thirty years. Instead of arriving in a poky and rather dilapidated train, lie now lands at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow in a streamlined jet, flying at 550 miles an hour. The busy airport is filled with tourists. There are thousands of tourists in Moscow now, whereas only a few years ago they were a rare sight.
The contrast in external appearance of the Moscow of thirty years ago and that of today is startling. The city has extended in all directions in vast building projects: office buildings, huge apartment house clusters, thirty-story hotels, a new skyscraper university, and various structures designed for exhibitions, entertainment, and culture. Many old buildings, including churches, have been restored or renovated; parks and boulevards have been laid out and streets widened and macadamized. The inefficient old transportation system has been replaced by sleek buses and electrified trains to the suburbs. Taxis are available, and Soviet-made trucks and automobiles are in sufficient abundance to cause minor traffic problems (two or three automobiles bumping over cobblestone streets were the most one would see in a day in the shabby, dirty, listless Moscow of 1928).
Living conditions for the teeming population of the city have improved enormously over the early years, when beggars showing the naked scarified stumps of mutilated limbs, homeless children, and drunks lying in the gutters were familiar sights, and when endless difficulties in obtaining even minimal housing, food, clothes, and fuel discouraged and wearied the average Muscovite. Now food, clothing, and housing are almost lavish compared with the early years. In the principal shopping centers relatively well-stocked stores are filled with eager buyers. Slot machines vending various commodities, cafeterias, and new devices for staple food distribution help to cut down the waiting time. And the many places of entertainment and culture— movie houses, theaters, concert halls, the circus, the zoo, museums, the race track, parks, and sports stadiums — are never lacking in crowds eager for amusement and apparently with plenty of money to spend.
Moscow, to be sure, is the showpiece of the Soviet Union, intended to impress visitors from all over the country as well as foreign travelers. Villages and provincial towns, of course, lack the capital’s metropolitan glitter and modernistic attractions. All the evidence indicates, however, that intensive economic activity goes on throughout the whole country and that advances in living conditions have been registered in other areas.
IT IS these steady improvements in the material conditions of life that impress the hard-working, good-natured people. One detects in their conversation a new sense of well-being, a quiet satisfaction over their improved lot, and a confidence in the future if war does not come. Though they represent a real force in public opinion since Stalin’s death, they have no more interest in politics than their ancestors did in the days of the czar. If left to their own devices, perhaps no greater percentage of them would vote in an election for the Supreme Soviet than their counterparts in the United States in a congressional election. Through incessant propaganda they are made aware of the achievements of their country in industry, science, education, culture, and international diplomacy. They know that under the Soviet regime Russia has been elevated to the position of one of the two greatest powers in the world. The backward Russia of the past which lagged a hundred years behind the industrially advanced countries of the West now finds itself competing with them on equal terms. There is no mass emotion greater than pride in supreme national achievement, even though it has been realized at the frightful cost of much human suffering and indignity. By and large the people of Russia are proud of their country and deeply patriotic.
Though several of the post-Stalin reforms may be interpreted as efforts to ameliorate inequities in the social structure which Stalin policy deliberately fostered, only another revolution, it would seem, could bridge the chasm that divides the two broad classes that have developed over the years in this so-called classless society. A huge income differential of 350 rubles to 15,000 rubles a month symbolizes the disparity between the majority of workers and what has come to be labeled as the “privileged class.” This privileged class, made up of the ruling bureaucracy, the industrial managerial group, and the intelligentsia, has its own way of life and lives on a much higher level than the average citizens. If anything, it is more conservative, for it has a vested interest in perpetuating the regime which has given it so much status. In marriage, social intercourse, and career-making the people in this group rarely go outside their class. In an economy of scarcity in luxury goods and with an income tax system that favors accumulation, one of the problems of this class is to find satisfactory ways of spending large salaries. They are also concerned with how best to transmit the privileges they enjoy to their children. There is still, however, a high degree of class mobility in the Soviet Union, and this new privileged class is constantly being increased by additions of workers and peasants of ability who take advantage of the opportunities provided by the system to get ahead.
In contrast to a terrorized, driven public under Stalin, people today seem to have settled down to a stable existence, reasonably free from fear. The improvements and reforms of the post-Stalin regime, along with accrued advantages of years of widespread education, scientific achievements, and an amazingly rapid multiplication of contacts with the West, are contributing to a climate of well-being that results if one can believe the Soviet press — in expectation of more and more benefits from the government.
As a matter of fact, the Western observer is surprised to find in the Soviet Union today vigorous signs of a reaching out for the amenities of life and for an intellectual and artistic freedom which are more generally associated with a nonCommunist order of society.
The bulk of those who betray such desires and nonconformist tastes comes from the new privileged class. Though the young men and women have been singled out for special reprobation for their erring ways, their unconventional tastes and behavior have been inspired by their parents, often high-salaried bureaucrats and directors of industrial enterprises. These parents love fine clothes and rich food, have well-furnished country homes and automobiles for their private use. The husbands buy their wives expensive fur coats and on business trips abroad bring back foreign finery and glittering gadgets for the household. They have access to technical libraries, whose shelves strangely enough stock cheap foreign fiction, motion-picture magazines, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and the British periodicals Housewife and Modern Women. “Bourgeois vulgarity and plain shamelessness” warns the press exposé protesting this squandering of state funds. But the director of the library of the Ministry of Foreign Trade, one of a number of offending institutions, cynically explains; “literature of this kind is bought for language practice.” Indeed, the Soviet press is a main source of information on the misuse of power by bureaucrats, the diversion of state property to improve or beautify the homes of managers of plants or to reward friends who have done them favors, the padding of expense accounts, and the frequent practice of well-placed fathers and mothers in using their influence to obtain special privileges for their children.
The sons of this Stalinist generation of leading citizens, in revolting against their fathers, reveal simple truths not accounted for in Marxism: man is not infinitely malleable, and human nature tends to escape from history. The relatively sheltered existence of these youths, the absence of personal hardships, adversity, and struggle have played an important part in their development, even though they have been indoctrinated by a national youth movement which aims at the prevention of such anti-Soviet behavior. Nostalgia for the freethinking, revolutionary pre-Stalin period besets these young men and women. Surfeited by the lifeless stereotypes of socialist realism in art, they revert to the artistic ebullience of the early revolutionary period of experimentation, or they seek inspiration in the honest realism of the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century or in the art and literature of the West, which they are eager to visit. In the lecture halls of institutions of higher learning, these youths have boldly questioned their professors’ Marxian explanations of the Poznan and Budapest revolts.
The regime’s counterattack has cleverly stigmatized these tendencies as the bourgeois aberrations of a few stilyagi: Soviet dandies. However, the actions of the stilyagi - their aping extreme Western fashions in dress and hairdo, blackmarket operations with foreign tourists to obtain luxury items, passion for foreign jazz music and dances, and thefts and moral offenses — are but an overt manifestation of a revolt against antiindividualism, Communist ideology, and Soviet Victorian morality. A writer in Izvestia, in commenting on the theoreticians “who see in the jazz mania the spirit of the times,” unwittingly reveals the existence of a prevalent attitude which Soviet authorities would like to think was exceptional.
POST-WAR reforms and improvements in livingstandards have also contributed to the creation of a climate of both dissatisfaction and expectation among talented members of the Soviet intelligentsia. In the long night of Stalinism such men and women, in order to exist at all, were compelled to surrender their individualism and violate their creative imagination by a regime unwilling to accept the elementary truth that it is impossible to deceive in art. Now they are trying to regain their artistic self-respect and in the process often look longingly toward artistic innovation and freedom in the West.
The muffled opposition that had been building up among the Soviet intelligentsia over the years of Stalinism exploded after his death in what has come to be designated as the “period of the thaw.” The continuity of the libertarian spirit of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia as well as the release of pent-up forces brought about by improved standards of living may be discovered here. However, the explosion was in no sense a political revolt or even a rejection of the Party’s right to be concerned with things of the mind and spirit. Rather it was the plca of intellectuals and artists to be permitted to show their loyalty to the regime in the free expression of thought and creative activity unencumbered by the constant interference of Party controls. It was also a protest against the condemnation of genius because it was or threatened to be heretical.
From 1953 to 1957 a group of distinguished older writers, joined by a number of younger ones, published a substantial amount of fiction, poetry, and drama, of which Ehrenburg’s The Thaw and Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone were the examples publicized in the West. These works exposed some of the ugliness of Soviet life which had been concealed for years. In the spirit of post-Stalin reforms the printing of such works had become possible and perhaps, for a time, seemed desirable to the new leaders if confined to exposures of Stalinism. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was written in this spirit and in the expectation of publication in the Soviet Union.
Composers, painters, and sculptors joined the writers in insisting upon freedom of expression and the artist’s right to experiment in form and content. In The Thaw, Ehrenburg contrasts two painters, one who achieves success by submitting to the official demand for canvases idealizing Soviet life and the other whose artistic integrity is maintained at the price of neglect and poverty.
The Party has employed every means to drench the people in an atmosphere of culture. Artists are among the most favored and highly remunerated citizens, and in the performing arts they have won world renown. The art of the past has been carefully preserved; ancient art objects and fine buildings, especially those destroyed or damaged by the Nazis, are expertly restored; museums and their collections are well maintained and are visited each year by millions of people. Yet the leaders of this society of the future compel their own painters and sculptors to eschew all individualism, abstractionism, and formalism and return to the bourgeois art of the nineteenth century for their models and ideas. This position has been challenged in the post-Stalin period, especially by young artists who could recall with fervor that just at the time the Bolsheviks came to power the Russian avant-garde painters, such as Kandinsky, Chagall, Malevich, and Larionov, had begun an aesthetic revolution that astonished the whole art world. These Soviet nonconformists protested the backward naturalism of painters who have produced endless canvases depicting, with photographic detail, celebrated events and heroes of the Soviet Union, though always heightened by the idealizing touch demanded by socialist realism. In the quest for beauty the nonconformists realized that the artist must often rebel against reality or even reject it altogether. The exhibition of French art in the Leningrad Hermitage Museum in 1956, showing many canvases of the contemporaries of Cézanne, and the exhibition of the 1957 Youth Festival, which was made up largely of foreign abstract paintings, aroused great enthusiasm. In what seemed like a belated effort to catch up with time, the officials of the Hermitage dug out of their storerooms forbidden Cézannes, Gauguins, Van Goghs, and even a few Matisses and Picassos. This small but brilliant collection was still on view to admiring throngs at the Hermitage as late as the summer of 1958. And now it is rumored that a few Soviet artists are doing abstract paintings in secret, either for their own pleasure or for sale to private patrons with progressive tastes among the new Soviet privileged class.
BY 1957 the protests of the intellectuals and artists had spread and taken on the proportions almost of an organized movement. In certain literary works the relevance of some of the criticism of life under Stalin to life under Khrushchev seemed obvious. Prominent authors publicly denounced the insincerity and distortions of truth in their earlier writings, and in meetings of the Writers Union bold assertions were made about the artist’s right to creative freedom. The cause was widely taken up by university students, who debated the issues of integrity and experimentation in art. Leading literary, art, and philosophical journals published articles on various aspects of the larger subject of the artist’s rights and responsibilities in Soviet society. Socialist realism was attacked as an inadequate and distorting artistic formula. But the overriding concern of most of these articles, though rarely explicitly stated, was that Soviet art would never flourish under Party dictation. To what extent, if any, the Polish and Hungarian revolts, which numbered many intellectuals and artists among their principal activists, gave encouragement to this Soviet struggle will probably never be known. Nevertheless, these portentous events in the two satellite countries could not fail to have had a somber meaning for the men and women in the Soviet Union who sought to emancipate intellectual and artistic endeavors from the control of the Communist Party.
Khrushchev soon realized that a little freedom, like a little knowledge, could be a dangerous thing. He was also aware that the disaffected grown sons and daughters of privileged families were more likely to become focal points of opposition to the regime than hard-working youths on farms and in factories. And like any student of his country’s history, he knew that freedomloving intellectuals have been the leaders in Russian revolutionary movements. If he had forgotten it, the events of Poznan and Budapest would have reminded him. He concluded that the post-Stalin spirit of reform, in certain respects, had gone too far.
The Communist Party regards literature and the arts as important instruments in controlling the minds of Soviet citizens. Khrushchev now personally directed the move to reassert those controls in an emphatic and sweeping manner. In a series of speeches to gatherings of writers and artists, which were summed up in an article in Kommunist (August, 1957), Khrushchev laid down the law: there could be no substitute for Party controls in literature and the arts, and he would not hesitate to apply pressure to any creative artist who got out of line; in depicting Soviet society, creative artists must balance the dark aspects with the bright ones, but the bright ones must predominate; and editors who allowed works to be published which were false to the spirit of socialist realism would face dismissal. The seriousness with which Khrushchev regarded the whole dissenting movement is suggested by the analogy he drew to “the lesson of the Hungarian events, in which the counterrevolution used certain writers for its dirty ends.”
The Party’s cultural politicians, who by favoring the least talented perpetuate mediocrity in the arts as a measure of self-protection, had long been unsuccessfully opposing dissenters. Now, with Khrushchev’s uncompromising support, they immediately swung into action. Meetings of the Writers Union were held all over the country to acclaim the leader’s position on the arts. It was decided that the unions in the arts would be organized on a republic basis in order to end the influence of the opposition in the powerful Moscow and Leningrad organizations. Public recantations were forced from several dissenters who were members of the Communist Party, and prominent editors of leading journals in literature and the arts, who had supported the protest, were removed. Although the Party has reestablished its controls, the “conspiracy of silence” among well-known writers and creative artists and the widespread press campaign at present to persuade them not to be afraid to deal with themes of contemporary Soviet life suggest that a strong undercurrent of discontent still persists.
THAT the intelligentsia should even question the Party’s right to dominate any aspect of the lives of the people appears to have become a matter of vital consequence to Khrushchev. One reason for the incredible vehemence of the attack on Pasternak is that, in an apotheosis of individualism, he allowed characters in Doctor Zhivago to ridicule the pretensions of the Communist Party to dictate the thoughts and actions of men. There has been much evidence lately that Khrushchev has declared war on all protesting members of the intelligentsia among the well-to-do privileged families, professors and students in the universities, and writers and artists. Rarely does he lose an opportunity in his speeches for domestic consumption to contrast industrious and patriotic workers and peasants with querulous intellectuals. Perhaps prejudiced against intellectuals by virtue of his own rise from the working class, he is not only at his best in talking to workers and peasants, but he obviously sees in them the real basis for the future stability and progress of the country. He has set himself up as the protector of the common people against the abuses of their superiors. The recent enactment into law of increased trade union powers which he advocated gives the factory trade union committees of workers the legal right to take a direct part in drafting production plans and to hear reports from managers on the fulfillment of them; to submit proposals to government and economic bodies for improving the working conditions, amenities, and cultural services for workers; to participate in all wage regulations; to be consulted by the management before any worker is dismissed; to raise with appropriate bodies the question of dismissing or penalizing managers who do not carry out the obligations of collective agreements; and to be consulted by the management before any appointments to executive posts are made.
Further, though Khrushchev’s proposal for rcorganizing the school system may well have been dictated by a need for increased labor forces to implement the new Seven Year Plan, the requirement that all students work on farms and in factories before embarking on higher education, and also during their period of advanced study, quite possibly reflects his distrust of the educated person, who is likely to question authority and to drift into nonconformism. The memory of revolting Hungarian students and the rebellious mood of many Soviet students at that time may have influenced Khrushchev’s thinking. In his report to the Presidium of the Party Central Committee on the subject, he observes that only thirty to forty per cent of those enrolled in Moscow institutions of higher learning are children of workers and collective farmers. “The rest of the students,” he acrimoniously adds, “are children of office employees and of the intelligentsia.” Despite what he describes as “the haughty and contemptuous attitude toward physical work” among both students and their families, he insists that all students should learn to respect manual labor. “I repeat that there must be no exception in this matter, regardless of the status of the parents in society or the posts they hold.”
WITH reason, the Party has regarded dissenting elements among the youth and the intelligentsia over the last few years with the utmost seriousness. For it no doubt perceives that a connection exists between better living standards and increasing contacts with the Western world and the need of intellectuals to express their ideas freely and of members of the new privileged class to satisfy changing tastes and material demands.
With this situation in mind, one naturally wonders what will happen in 1970, five years after completion of the new Seven Year Plan, when, according to Khrushchev’s enthusiastic prognostication, the Soviet Union will have the highest standard of living in the world. Even if the results fall below this figure, the advance is likely to be most substantial. And future Soviet intentions appear to call for greatly expanded contacts of all kinds with the Western world and a vastly increased two-way tourist business. Will the high degree of material well-being and enlarged knowledge of the world outside sap the discipline under which the people have labored for so many years? Can a passion for world Communism contend successfully with ruble worship, with the desire for a second car in the garage, and with an urge to keep up with the Ivan Ivanoviches? And will Party control in the arts fade before an irresistible demand for the 1970 equivalent of abstractionist painting, twelve-tone symphonies, and fictional Lolitas?
The problems of increased national prosperity seem to have entered the consciousness of the Soviet leaders. For one thing, in a period of de-Stalinization and enlightened reforms, Khrushchev has felt compelled to return to a form of Stalinist regimentation in quelling the demands of a segment of the intelligentsia for freedom of expression. The justification he used was the necessity of the Party to control and guide all expression. And it is through devotion to the Party by both Communists and non-Communists that the leaders hope to maintain discipline among the people in every eventuality. It is significant that on the eve of the all-out drive to achieve Khrushchev’s seven-year economic goals the Party should announce, in the November issue of the Central Committee’s official journal, Party Life, a nationwide campaign to promote loyalty, dedication, and discipline in Soviet society. And it is clearly indicated that the success of this campaign will depend upon the efforts of Communists and workers.
However, the Soviet Union cannot stand still, nor is the Communist Party immutable. Nations, like people, grow strong in adversity. Will the sense of struggle, of permanent insecurity, which over the years has enabled Soviet leaders to frighten their people, vanish with an economy of abundance? Khrushchev has already rejected the old notion of capitalist encirclement, because the balance of forces in the political, economic, and military spheres has shifted in favor of the Communist bloc. Will he soon be announcing a policy of containment against the capitalist world in order to prevent his economically secure and softened populace from succumbing wholesale to the ideological, cultural, and material blandishments of the enemy? However that may be, the Soviet leaders have now embarked on a full-scale competition with the United States for the highest standard of living. In this respect, as well as in the struggle to achieve world Communism, they firmly believe that time is on their side. But time, in the sense of advancing prosperity, may also be their enemy.