Understanding Soviet Perspectives and Behavior

Russia since the Communist Revolution

Robert C. Tucker, 1984

Robert C. Tucker is IBM professor emeritus of international studies at Princeton University and a former director of its Russian studies program. Among his many books are Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx, and The Soviet Political Mind. Today he shares some key developments in Soviet history as they affect the quest for peace.

Whiteley: In understanding the background of the current thinking in Soviet society, would you take us back to the Revolution of 1917, which inaugurated what's known as the communist state, and give us the setting.

Tucker: Well, I might say a word about the setting first. Russia is a country and a people that's had a hard time in history; a very, very hard time. Because way back in the 12th and 13th and 14th Centuries, the country was occupied by people from Mongolia, warrior nomads who swept across the great East European plain and overran the flourishing beginnings of a Russian civilization and stayed there for 200 years as overlords. So that when the Russian state emerged in the 14th and 15th Centuries, it emerged as a very strongly military state, and it developed a strong autocratic power at its head. And so strong and so bureaucratic, and so autocratic had this Russian structure of rule become, that in the 19th Century when the countries of Europe were undergoing liberalization, and democracy was growing, and multi-party systems, Russia, along with Turkey and a few other eastern countries remained autocratically governed. It didn't have its democratic revolution. There was the beginnings of one back in 1905 but it was abortive, and it yielded a parliament, but still there was an autocrat in control.

And then the first World War came along, and Russia, as one of the warring powers, buckled under the strain after four years of World War I. In 1917, the Tsar was deposed and a provisional government, very democratically composed, came to power. But the country was in a state of incipient turmoil and chaos. And out of that chaos, toward the end of 1917, a relatively small party of convinced Marxists, led by one Vladimir Ulyanov, who took the name of Lenin, seized power and remained in power during the ensuing four years of civil war and foreign intervention. In 1921, Lenin declared a New Economic Policy under which spontaneous forces, private enterprise was permitted in the countryside. Twenty-five million peasant farms were permitted to operate under individual control. In the small industry and the service trades, there was freedom of enterprise, and the state retained control of heavy industry, transport, minerals and so on.

Whiteley: How was that justified within a communist ideology?

Tucker: It was justified because the country was in such a bad condition by 1921 that the people were finally turning against the Lenin government. And there was an uprising at the naval base of Kronstadt in the Petrograd harbor, and uprisings elsewhere around the country of peasants and others, in a period during which money had been abolished and the country was in a state of economic ruination. Lenin realized, and his colleagues realized, that without permitting spontaneous economic forces to operate, there was no way to get the country back on its feet again.

Whiteley: So even at the inception, there was a departure from classical Marx...

Tucker: Absolutely. In the classical Marxist scheme, the so-called Proletarian Revolution comes in a country that's in the advanced stage of capitalism. A highly industrialized capitalist country. This was a backward, mainly agrarian country; 90% of the population of Russia in 1917 were peasants. A great many of these peasants were illiterate; they couldn't read or write. So it wasn't a country in which Marx would have predicted that a socialist revolution would occur. And indeed it was recognized during the 1920s that Russia was, as they said, Soviet, but not yet socialist; that it was in a transition period during which the problem was to build socialism. But there were different concepts, especially after Lenin died in 1924, as to how this should be done. There was a moderate group headed by the Prime Minister who succeeded Lenin, Rykov, and Bukharin, who believed in gradualism, and in slowly proceeding toward a more socialist society under the conditions of the NEP, the New Economic Policy. And there was a leftist opposition whose leading figure was Leon Trotsky, who believed in more rapid industrialization. And then there was a centrist group headed by Joseph Stalin, who by 1929 had been able to oust both the moderates and the people on the left, and turned out when in power in 1929 to be the most radical of them all in carrying through, by forcible means, and indeed by terror, the collectivization of the peasantry. So that out of 25 million private peasant farms that existed under the NEP, there emerged some 240,000 or 250,000 huge collective farms that were really under the control of the state. And this was part of the growth of a huge bureaucratic colossus of a state in Stalin's time.

Whiteley: Well, you were a biographer of Stalin, working on a three-volume series, and as I read through the first volume, you have remarked that the more you've come to know him, the more you've come to loathe him. What do you mean?

Tucker: Yes. Well, it seems to me that the greatest of human vices is cruelty, and I believe that Stalin was one of the most cruel rulers of our century which has seen a great many cruel rulers. And this is the reason for my strong feeling.

Whiteley: What were the effects of the era that Stalin ruled from roughly 1930 to his death in the early 1950s?

Tucker: The effects of the forced industrialization, and the forced collectivization of the peasants in the early 1930s, which were a preparation for the war that Stalin had predicted would come on in about ten years, as it did in ten years. The effects of this were that a great many of his fellow communists, his fellow Bolsheviks who had been formed in the Lenin school of thought, were profoundly - felt profound revulsion at the methods of terror that Stalin had used to impose this collectivization. It didn't seem to be moving in the direction of what they thought of as socialism, which connoted a more equal and a more free society, and instead it was going in the direction of greater inequality. It connoted a less bureaucratic society, but it was going in the direction of greater bureaucratization. And in certain respects, you might say that it was going in the direction of counter-revolution, back to this old Russian military bureaucratic state that had risen in the post-Mongolian period back in the 14th, and 15th, and 16th Centuries.

Whiteley: It was a very authoritarian base.

Tucker: And Stalin, in the course of the 1930s, went against these people in a series of purges that have become known as the 'Great Terror' of the later 1930s, in which an estimated million communist party members were destroyed, were arrested, shot or sent to concentration camps where they died slow deaths. And this period might be called the period of the Russian holocaust. It was comparable in its way to what Germany did during the second World War. And, however, the second World War did come. For various reasons, the country was not prepared for it, largely because of the havoc that Stalin's purges had wrought in the professional classes of the very society over which he had become, by then, the tyrant. However, the Russian people are very strong on the defensive, and in the course of the Soviet-German War of 1941 to 1945, with the strong help that was received from the allies, Great Britain and the United States, which opened their second front in Europe in 1944, the war came to an end victoriously for Russia and the allies in 1945.

By this time the Russian people, having endured well over fifteen years of privation and death, and having lost an estimated 20 to 30 million people during the second World War, longed for a period of peace, of greater contact with the West, of relaxation; writers longed for relaxation of censorship and freedom. And there had been quiet, rumored promises of this from the regime during the war that very badly needed the support of the people.

Whiteley: Often, people who comment about Russia's current behavior on the international scene say it's essential to understand what happened to Russia in World War II to fully appreciate their view of the need for security. Do you concur with that?

Tucker: I do concur with that, but I think it's equally important to understand what happened in Russia during the obscure period, from the end of the war in 1945 to Stalin's death in 1953 - the period of relaxation, of greater contact with the West. And especially there was an enormous fund of goodwill toward our country, as I myself remember from having been a junior member of the American Embassy in Moscow at the time the war ended. All this did not come to pass. What Stalin decreed was a new period of preparation for still more militarization and a possible third World War in the future. And instead of greater freedom, there was less freedom during those post-war years. And as a result of this and the rising terror in the atmosphere, the country gradually approached a state of paralysis by the time he had his fatal stroke and died in March 1953. Then began an entirely new period in the life of Russia. The people who succeeded him in power returned to the oligarchical kind of rule that had prevailed in Lenin's time. There has not been a tyrant, a dictator, a single man in control of Russian government since the death of Stalin. There has been a leading figure, a general secretary of the communist party, but the leading figure is governed by majority vote in the Politburo and in the party's central committee.

Whiteley: The first of the major post-Stalin leaders was Khrushchev. And he was ultimately deposed by other members of the Politburo. What were the key developments during his tenure?

Tucker: Khrushchev became a reform leader, not a liberal, because his idea of reform was to go back to the system of party rule that Stalin had largely destroyed by setting up an autocracy on the ruins of Lenin's party. So Khrushchev became a proponent in a sense of backward-looking reform. His slogan, so to speak, was 'back to the path of Lenin', back to party rule. And he felt that the communist party was the logical instrument for a reform policy that would, to a certain extent, decentralize the economy, while not dissolving the collective farms that the peasants have never learned to like in all these years, the fifty years since they came into existence. But nevertheless, to decentralize economic administration and to put the emphasis more on the production of housing and consumer goods of which the people were in crying need, and still are in crying need, to a lesser extent perhaps. And consequently, this period after Stalin's death first of all saw a complete dissipation of the terror that had been building up in the months and weeks and even years before Stalin died, and became known as the period of 'the thaw.'

It was a very interesting period in Russian life, and in the memoirs that Khrushchev dictated after he was deposed in 1964, and was in forced retirement living in the country, dictated the memoirs. And they were smuggled abroad and published in this country and elsewhere under the title "Khrushchev Remembers." Speaking of that time, he made a very interesting statement. He said "we in the leadership were consciously in favor of 'the thaw,' myself included. But we were scared, really scared. We were afraid that 'the thaw' might unleash a flood which we wouldn't be able to control, and which would drown us." In short, the government wanted to change things in Russia, but at the same time was afraid that the popular forces, there was so much potential pent-up discontent in the country, that if the intellectuals and others were given complete freedom to speak their minds, it might lead to a movement that would take on momentum of its own, and they didn't know where it would go. So Khrushchev and his more conservative colleagues engaged in a running battle over the following eight years, during which Khrushchev tried to enlist the help of the creative artists and intelligentsia on the side of the reforms that he was willing to carry out. They were happy to be mobilized by him, and the literary journals were given permission to publish even Aleksandr Solzagnitsyn's concentration camp story One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich, and others that threw light on the Stalinist past, because Krushchev knew that without exposing the Stalinist past there was no way to legitimate the search for a different future.

Whiteley: Well, Khrushchev himself exposed the Stalinist past...

Tucker: He exposed it in a secret speech that wasn't suppose to be published. However, it didn't remain secret for long. It was too sensational.

Whiteley: We then come to an era with Leonid Brezhnev that was characterized as you've written, as very Stalinist, except for the lack of an authoritarian single leader.

Tucker: No new Stalin - no Stalinism, but preservation of the great edifice of bureaucratic party-state rule that had been built up under Stalin.

Whiteley: You've written that Brezhnev saw Khrushchev's reforms as worse than failures. What do you mean?

Tucker: Worse than failures. Well, they were dangerous. They didn't achieve their goal of improving the prosperity of the country, but on the other hand, they aroused what Brezhnev and his fellow politicians saw as dangerous expectations in the minds of free-thinking intellectuals for abolition of censorship and other similar goals of the Russian free-thinking intellectuals. And consequently, on the one hand, they didn't achieve their economic purpose; on the other hand, they did arouse tendencies of ferment that Brezhnev and his colleagues felt were dangerous.

Whiteley: Why was Stalin restored to respectability?

Tucker: Well, for the very reason that Khrushchev had found it necessary to expose some of the horrendous events of the Stalin period, particularly the later 1930s, the terror against the communist party, in order to legitimate the path of reform that he had taken. His successors as conservatives, Soviet conservatives, found it necessary to re-impose a kind of censorship on those very events, in order to legitimate their reluctance to make changes in the character of the system.

Whiteley: What led then to the renewed attempts at economic involvement, particularly with the Western allies, and with Japan in the early 1970s. What role did that have?

Tucker: Well, in the infinite complexity of the international affairs, we acquired a new President, Richard Nixon, who, with his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, decided that it would be in the interest of the United States to enter into a period of what we call detente,' a relaxation of tensions with the Soviet Union. Partly because, I think, they wanted to get Soviet assistance in bringing about an end to the Vietnam War on terms that they found acceptable to us. They thought that that was one way of getting it. So in 1972, President Nixon went to Moscow, and a number of very important agreements were signed. And negotiations that had begun toward an agreement on strategic arms limitation, or SALTs as they were called, were consummated, and therefore, a very important further step was taken in the direction of arms control, which meant the acceptance of mutual limitations on what we would do on both sides, in building up our nuclear forces.

Whiteley: But what led to the increased period of hostility that has characterized Soviet-American relations for roughly the last decade?

Tucker: Well, the different specialists on Russia and international relations would have different answers to that question. And I don't think any one answer would suffice. One of the important reasons for the renewed hostility is that we have continued, as competitors, for influence in Third World countries. And this is a peaceful competition, although arms exports, which are not exactly peaceful, are one of the means by which this economic and political and cultural competition for influence is carried on. And the problem is that it is one of the characteristics of this competition that from time to time, in one or another Third World country, whether it's Egypt, or whether it's Afghanistan, or whether it's Vietnam, or wherever, where one of the two partners seems to be in danger of losing out to the other partner, it will, if it can, impose military force to prevent that from happening. In Afghanistan in 1979, Russia invaded to prevent the imminent toppling of a Marxist government that had come to power without Russian help.

Whiteley: And so one source of this hostility has been relations with Third World or border countries to their land mass. What other reasons have been offered to explain the current hostility?

Tucker: Well, of course, the most recent period after the resignation of President Nixon, there was a period under President Ford during which a further step forward was taken in arms control after a meeting that he held with Russian leaders in Vladivostok. He was succeeded by President Carter. President Carter's administration was one during which Soviet-American relations did worsen, in part, because of the continuing military competition, and particularly, the military competition in the field of nuclear weapons, and tendencies on the American side to go in the direction of what's called a 'nuclear war-fighting capacity.' These tendencies inevitably generate on the other side similar tendencies to reciprocate with a nuclear war-fighting capacity. Then after President Carter's defeat in 1980, we acquired a new president in President Reagan, who took a very hard line toward the Soviet Union. And these past four years have been a period in which a number of events have occurred, by both tendencies in the build-up on both sides; in specific events, including the Korean airliner that was shot down just a year ago, a number of speeches that have been given on both sides. The whole atmosphere in Soviet-American recrimination has become such that we could almost say that a new period of Cold War has come about in the past five or six years.

Whiteley: Well, there's an ideological incompatibility as well, between what people characterized as the most open of the major industrialized countries and the most closed of the major industrialized countries. But the communist ideology was initially offered as universal; that there would become an ultimately - a relentless move toward world communism. Is that still a major belief in Russia?

Tucker: I personally feel that we are dealing here with one of the greatest paradoxes of the present world. There is, as you say, an ideological incompatibility between the official Soviet Marxism-Leninism. The official ideology goes by that name which foresees an eventual worldwide communist system. In my own personal view, the leaders of Russia who proclaim this ideology do not believe it.

Whiteley: To what extent is their need to hold to that ideology essential to keep the communist party as a central holder of all truth and power?

Tucker: It is a need that they feel to assert that ideology in order to justify the legitimacy of their self-perpetuating rule. If it weren't for the ideology, there is no reason why the same party, with the same leadership, should continue to rule the country indefinitely. Only on the basis of the ideology can they claim to be legitimately the leaders of that country. Consequently, I believe that there is a gap between what the present Russian leaders actually believe, and what they proclaim to be their belief. But in other countries, there are people who read what they proclaim, and take that to be an honest, forthright statement of their true beliefs; who see in them the true believing communists of Lenin's time, instead of the somewhat scared, conservative, tough, hard leadership of would-be self-perpetuating Russian rulers that I think are, in fact, in power.

Whiteley: You've written that one way to think about society is to examine the beliefs in the minds of the members who make it up. And building on that, you've basically said that most Russian people no longer believe in communism. With the coming of the end of the generation of Russian leaders that were schooled in the Stalin and the immediate post-Stalin era, what kinds of changes do you project in the Soviet Union?

Tucker: I don't feel sufficiently clairvoyant to project changes, but I do believe that if we could recreate some kind of international stability, if we could go back to something similar to the detente relationship that President Nixon, for all his sins before the American people that led to his resignation, was building up, he wanted to build up. If we could do that, we would make it possible for Russian rulers and other people in Russia to concentrate, as they need to do, on the vast internal problems that they face. We could make it possible economically and politically and spiritually for them to experiment with careful changes and reforms that would lead in the direction that Dr. Sakharov, and others in the human rights movement, and all right-thinking, free-thinking Russians would like to see the country go; namely toward greater liberty. I think that a more stable relationship between the two great Superpowers would be the best setting for favorable change in Russia toward a more open society.

Whiteley: Professor Tucker, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the current context of Russian-American relations by examining the historical development of Russia as a society.