Staunton, March 5 – Sixty-five years ago, Stalin physically died; but he continues to live on not so much in satirical films as in the minds of Vladimir Putin and his regime for whom Stalin is “a symbol justifying and rehabilitating the use of force in which the post-communist elites again see their salvation,” Vladimir Pastukhov says.
In a major article on the Republic portal on this anniversary, the London-based Russian historian argues that what happened in the days, months and years following Stalin’s death critical for the understanding not only of why the Soviet Union and revolution collapsed but why Russia is in the shape it is today (republic.ru/posts/89793).
According to Pastukhov, “the events of the cold summer of 1953 were fateful for Russia [and] the military coup organized by Khrushchev and carried out by Zhurkov remain an underrated act of Russian history,” one of the key turning points of the last century and far more important that Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956.
If one uses “present-day language,” the historian says, “Stalin died without having carried out Operation ‘Successor.’ After his death at the top of the pyramid of power were three leaders each of which in equal degree could pretend to the role of leader – Beria, Malenkov and Khrushchev.”
Beria had all the advantages but one over Khrushchev, Pastukhov says; but Khrushchev had one over him: morality and opposition to the use of terror against the elites. Beria was cleverer and more ready for reforms; but Khrushchev played on the fear of his colleagues that the secret police chief would use his powers against them personally.
“In essence,” the historian continues, “the victory of Khrushchev over Beria was the victory of hypocrisy over cynicism.” He argues that “the paradox here consisted in the fact that Beria was the only person in the top leadership who was in his own way ‘a free man,’” capable of looking at the world as it was rather than through ideological glasses.
Beria “was prepared to make concessions on ideology in order to preserve his chief privilege – the right to engage in arbitrary actions, the right to carry out reprisals against any opponent without trial or investigation and the right to instill fear.”
“Khrushchev, on the contrary, was a typical representative of that majority which had become the victim of an almost half-century-long and uninterrupted ideological processing and in the consciousness of which a healthy sense had been mixed together in a horrific way with communist dogmas.”
It was not only that Khrushchev and the others were terrified of what Beria might do but also that “they really did not understand the meaning of his proposals.” They were terrified too about his idea that Geermany should be united and neutral as a way to overcoming the divisions of the world.
Khrushchev and Beria’s other opponents, those who decided the latter’s fate at the July 1953 Central Committee plenum, “had long ago lost the ability to view the world as it was. Only when they spoke about their fears of Beria did they look at all natural.” They were thus inferior to Beria in everything except one: “on their side was historical justice.”
The question naturally arises, Pastukhov says, as to how Khrushchev could have won out. Beria seemed to have all the cards, but viewed from this distance, it is clear that “the victory of the ‘weak’ Khrushchev looks however paradoxical this may soon historically more justified than the victory of the ‘strong’ Beria would have been.”
The reason for that conclusion, Pastukhov says, is that the clash between Beria and Khrushchev was n fact less a personal one than a fight “between two political courses,” courses distinguished by their attitude toward force and truth. For Beria, “force remained the universal method of resolving tasks standing before society.”
But “Khrushchev represented those who called for the limited application of force” because “he wanted to keep the genie in the bottle. That is because he unconsciously sought not so much a reduction in repression … as the introduction of methods which would contain arbitrariness within definite political-legal frameworks.”
“Khrushchev was,” Pastukhov says, “still prepared to use terror against the population but he already could not allow anyone to terrorize ‘the party and government.’” Beria could be right on all other major issues and on many of them, he was; but “he could not offer a guarantee against arbitrary action.” That was what the party leadership and the people wanted.
That neither Beria nor Khrushchev understood that they were the bearers of these ideas, the historian says, “doesn’t change the essence of the matter.”
Pastukhov recalls Harvard historian Richard Pipes’ argument that 1953 was a revolution or counterrevolution, an insight that is extremely important. “Inspire of the words of the popular song in Soviet times that ‘a revolution has a beginning, it does not have an end,’ it fact revolutions have both a beginning and an end.”
“Beria’s so-called ‘liberal’ reforms in those specific historical conditions would most likely have led to a completely unexpected and sad result,” Pastukhov says. They would have “de-ideologized” the system and led to “a vacuum of power.” And in this situation, it is quite possible that Beria would have turned to nationalism.
More likely, however, his “reforms” would have led to the premature fusion of money and power and that would have “accelerated the inevitable destruction of Soviet statehood.” In that event, its agony would not have lasted longer than the remainder of Beria’s own life before ending in a complete collapse.
There would not have been time for any “perestroika, thaw, the romantic 1960s, the consumerist 1970s and the stormy 1980s,” all of which prolonged the agony but ensured that the system ended without a civil war, the historian says. But viewed from today, Pipes’ observation that 1953 marked the end of the Russian revolution appears “very precise.”
At the same time, however, “1953 was not only the end of one era but the beginning of the onset of another. The defeat of Beria and the victory of Khrushchev meant not only the end of the revolution but marked the birth of ‘soviet civilization’” which formed those who dominate Russia to this day.
That year marked the apogee of “the Soviet period of Russian history … [and] if one follows the logic of Spengler, then one can say that the formation of ‘the communist system’ in this culmination point was completed. After that, it could only reveal its potential and gradually exhaust itself.”
In this Soviet civilization, Pastukhov continues, people who were accustomed to one set of rules found themselves in another and found it hard to adapt. “War is horrible but children born during a war view it as normal and find it difficult to adapt to peace. In order to stop a revolution, much greater efforts are required from society than to begin it.”
“The genie is easier to release from the bottle than to be driven back in,” he argues.
The escape from revolution which relies on force generally lies through the use of force and passes through two stages. Indeed, “often the exit from revolution turns out to be bloodier than entrance into it. And this is understandable: the affirmation of a new order is a much more complicated task than the destruction of the old.”
In the first stage, there occurs “the formal denial of revolution.” The use of force on which it is based is limited. “The war of all against all is transformed into the war of the state against society;” and it is at this stage that the revolution “’devours its children.’” In the Soviet case, that began in 1929.
Then in the second stage, “the spirit of force of the revolution itself is denied. This is a double ‘denial of the denial’” in which the horrors of the first counter-revolution are rejected and then the horrors of the revolution as such. “This stage” in the case of the Soviet Union “began in 1953, the year which divides Soviet history almost precisely in half.”
Another way to look at 1953, Pastukhov suggests, is that the decision of the July 1953 plenum “can be considered as the moment of the birth of a specific and contradictory ‘Soviet constitutionalism.’” Indeed, because what happened then enjoyed the support of the leaders and the people, it was “more ‘constitutional’ than is present-day Russian constitutionalism.”
This consensus, of course, was based on an internal contradiction in the arguments of the leadership, Pastukhov says. On the one hand, by preserving “communist dogma,” Khrushchev also kept the principle that the state could use force. But on the other, Khrushchev “instinctively and following the spirit of the times moved against the use of force.”
That contradiction ultimately spelled the destruction of “’Soviet civilization,’” but after a sufficient time that no one came its defense when it collapsed. Instead, Pastukhov points out, “the death of Soviet civilization was almost as peaceful as the death of the 300-year-old empire which preceded it. It simply exhausted itself and gave up the ghost in 1989.”
Unfortunately, 25 years later, Putin and many around him would like to turn back the clock not in the name of any ideology but rather in order to be able to use force in an arbitrary fashion to ensure that no one can challenge their power. Whether they can succeed and for how long is the chief drama of Russia today.