- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2000

In 1917 Bolshevism struck most observers as a bizarre byproduct of World War I, a chicanery cooked up by Russian crazies with a little help from Berlin. The sheer preposterousness of the creed pointed toward the regime’s prompt collapse. But the Leninists hung on for 74 years.

In “Political Will and Personal Belief,” his new study of the 1989-1991 disintegration of Soviet Communism, the sociologist Paul Hollander argues that the early Bolsheviks had a “commitment to social justice” that later evaporated. Claiming that the atrocities of their opponents forced them to introduce organized terror and concentration camps, V.I. Lenin and his people built the 20th century’s first police state.

In 1936 Joseph Stalin declared that the USSR’s new constitution made it the freest country in the world, then shot the framers. Nikita Khruschev promised President Eisenhower that his grandchildren too would live under communism. Leonid Brezhnev boasted that the Soviet Union had the most advanced socioeconomic system in the world. Mikhail Gorbachev was still pledging fealty to Soviet socialism in 1993.

Were these men mere seekers after what Martin Malia has dubbed the “DNA of the unicorn”? Not in Mr. Hollander’s estimation: “I have always believed that there was, even recently, some degree of ideological commitment on the part of the political elite, that … love of power and privilege did not adequately explain their behavior.” In support he quotes John Lewis Gaddis to the effect that new archival sources “suggest … that ideology often determined the behavior of Marxist-Leninist regimes; it was not simply a justification for actions already decided upon.” This is debatable. If language has any meaning at all, it is impossible to reconcile class war with social justice.

A major concern of this book is to identify the point at which a substantial part of the Soviet establishment began to “sense or acknowledge the vast divergence between theory and practice.” Mr. Hollander begins with capsule biographies of such defectors and exiles as Victor Serge, Victor Kravchenko, Arkady Shevchenko, Jan Sejna and others. Recognizing the system they served as “morally repugnant,” these individuals broke with it, often at the cost of dooming their families.

Mr. Hollander’s key case studies involve men who built careers under Brezhnev, only to metamorphose into democratic reformers in the 1980s. When Mr. Gorbachev called for “new thinking,” thousands of pudgy apparatchiks did grotesque pirouettes and disavowed their panegyrics to Leonid Ilyich. On the fringes of power, the foreign policy adviser Georgi Arbatov and the historian Dmitri Volkogonov performed to acclaim abroad.

Still more popular in the West, though detested in Russia, were Mr. Gorbachev’s aide Alexander Yakolev and the Molotovian diplomat Anatoly Dobrynin. New thinking reached its peak with the conversions of Mr. Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. In today’s Russia, ruled by former KGB men and robber boyars, only the ex-reformer Anatoli Chubais stands lower in public esteem.

History may take longer than this book indicates to gauge the sincerity of these sudden confessions of error. The unprecedented implosion of the Soviet system, quick though it may have been, was protracted enough to give the leading political figures and secret police personnel time to make the transition, get their stories straight, put away a little something in Geneva or Nicosia, arrange to peddle books or state secrets in the West.

As for their bona fides, the freshly enlightened ones knew that the naive Westerners would never turn repentant prodigal sons out into the cold night. Some ideological transformations were of course genuine.

After the Hungarian insurrection in 1956, only a few Western communists broke ranks. The future Soviet reformers themselves “deflected radical reassessment of their beliefs by reference to the weakness and fallibility of (other) human beings, the raw material they had to work with.” Several allude in their autobiographies, Mr. Hollander writes, to a “substantial decrease of political-moral certitude” that deepened as the Brezhnev era dragged on interminably. Some, notably Mr. Yeltsin, developed scruples over the privileges of the communist nomenklatura. None, including Mr. Yeltsin, ever backed very far away from the table.

The most sympathetic of the ex-communists is the Czechoslovakian Alexander Dubcek, whose “apolitical decency and moderation” Mr. Hollander highlights. A major architect of the 1968 “Prague Spring,” Dubcek promised “socialism with a human face.” Called onto the Muscovite carpet for such heresy, it finally struck him he later wrote that he was “dealing with gangsters.”

It may be impossible to understand the demise of the Soviet system until it’s really dead, until all those professional ex-communists and KGB bosses have passed from the scene. That will put us well into this new century, but in the meantime we are fortunate to have Mr. Hollander’s lucid essays.

Woodford McClellan is writing a book on the Communist International (Comintern), 1919-1943.

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