Staunton, August 25 – Most people in Moscow and the West see Russia’s current political problems as a working out of the events of 1991, a view that very much defines what they are doing and what they expect to happen next, according to Vladimir Pastukhov, perhaps the most penetrating analyst writing on Russia today
But in fact, the St. Antony’s College scholar argues, the events of 1953 are more significant not just for the 40 years that followed and the way the Soviet Union ended but also for the mistakes that Vladimir Putin’s regime is making and the consensus that is likely to emerge in the coming decades (novayagazeta.ru/politics/59626.html).
Pastukhov begins his argument by suggesting that “the extraordinary ease” with which the Soviet empire came apart in1991 was less about the decisions taken by Mikhail Gorbachev or anyone else than an event “pre-determined by another revolutionary turning point which happened 40 years earlier, following the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Stalin died without having chosen a successor, and consequently, “at the top of the pyramid of power, there were several leaders, each of which in equal degree could compete for the top post.” But what determined the outcome of that fight were less the personal characteristics of the two most significant figures than the very different attitudes they had toward the revolution and the use of force.
The widely-accepted image of Lavrenty Beria as a primitive savage drenched in blood as one of Stalin’s chief executioners and Nikita Khrushchev as a willful but clever initiator of “’de-Stalinization’” are not only “far from reality” but get in the way of understanding what happened in that year and in the decades that followed.
If anything, these two figures represented just the reverse of what most usually think. Beria took the lead in moving to overturn many of Stalin’s actions, including the so-called “doctors’ plot.’” And he pushed for a massive amnesty, limitations on the party’s interference in government and the economy, the unification of Germany, and even “the limitation of the forced Russification of the national borderlands.”
From this distance, Pastukhov says, “it is clear that [Beria’s] most radical proposals … anticipated the domestic and foreign policy initiatives of Gorbachev.”
Both because and despite these ideas, others at the top of the Soviet leadership in1953 denounced Beria for “all the mortal communist sins,” an action that allowed Khrushchev to defeat him and one that represented “the victory of hypocrisy over cynicism.”
Beria was a complete cynic who was prepared to adopt any policy as long as it helped preserve what he considered the most important thing “the holy right to the use of terror” as the chief mechanism of power and something all the other leaders at that time feared with good reason that he would use against them just as Stalin had.
Unlike Beria, these other leaders had “already long ago lost the ability to conceive the world as it was.” The only time when they appeared to be acting naturally was when they spoke about their fears of Beria, and thus even though he held more cards in the game than they did, they had “on their side historical justice.”
Consequently, Pastukhov continues, what happened in 1953 “was not so much a clash between Beria and Khrushchev personally as a clash between two political courses,” between one that wanted to rely on force as “the universal method of resolving tasks” and another that sought to “keep that genie in the bottle” and “limit the application of force.”
Beria could propose any number of “correct decisions,” but he “could not offer any guarantee of a defense against arbitrary actions.” Khrushchev and his allies could. And consequently, “if one considers this struggle from an even broader point of view, then one is talking about the continuation or the completion of the revolution.”
Beria was “prepared to sacrifice the banner of the revolution in order to preserve force,” while Khrushchev preferred to preserve “the banner of the revolution by sacrificing the spirit of force of this revolution.” Neither man would have recognized this, but that is irrelevant to an understanding of what they did and how their actions mattered.
Had Beria won and continued to use arbitrary force, the country would have suffered a rapid and destructive catastrophe” and would brought forward in time “the inevitable destruction of Soviet statehood.” Thus, Pastukhov says, “the four victorious days of August 1991 were predetermined by the four opportunist decades which Khrushchev gave Russia in June 1953.”
Those four decades and not the preceding ones are what people are referring to when they speak of “’Soviet civilization,’” a hybrid of revolutionary slogans without the kind of force that had made the system work earlier and one that was “condemned” to die “with Gorbachev or without him.”
“The Soviet system was for a sick Russian society functional in the same way that drugs are for a sick individual.” They kept the pain at manageable levels, but “when the drugs ceased to work,” the whole structure collapsed and the country had to begin again to face “the unresolved tasks” of the 1917 revolution.
That is what Russia and Russians are having to do now, the scholar says, and that is why “for contemporary Russia” what is most important is “not so much 1991 as its predecessor 1953.”
“The fourth Russian revolution still has not stopped for a second. The “wild ‘90s” were a time of revolutionary destruction “of all existing relations and stereotypes and the forcible redistribution of property and power.” When he came to power, Putin, “under the flag of counter-revolution,” did not eliminate arbitrariness but gave the use of force “a more or less organized character.”
After “more than two decades” of “unceasing terror without rights and law,” a new “political consensus against state arbitrariness” is again emerging among Russians. More than anything else that is “the real national idea of the next decade.” What remains unclear is “who and under what circumstances will become the expression of this consensus.”