- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

By Archie Brown
Ecco Publishing, $35.99, 826 pages, illus.

By Valdislav Zubok
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, $35, 453 pages

Reading Archie Brown’s massive history of the course of communism, one eventually wonders, “Just how did this wretched monster survive as long as it did?” It was only 20 years ago that roughly one-third of the world’s population lived under regimes that called themselves “communist” — although as Mr. Brown notes, the term was extraordinarily loose in its application. Now the number of such states is down to three: Cuba, North Korea and minute Nepal. Mr. Brown does not count China, which is “communist” in name only.

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Mr. Brown, emeritus professor of politics at Oxford, has written or edited 17 books on the Soviet system, and this volume is based on more than four decades of research and travel. Even a reader well versed in the subject will find the work valuable for his insights on how communism flourished, and why it eventually fell with a clamorous thud.

Mr. Brown is emphatic that communism had little to do with claimed political beliefs. Although its roots stretch back for centuries, even picking up dabs from Christianity here and there, it did not come into full bloom unti after the collapse of czarist rule during World War I.

Moscow rulers felt they had nothing to fear from ragtag revolutionaries given to bickering over hair-splitting ideological differences. When Marx’s “Das Kapital” was first published in Russia in 1872, it got “past the censorship because it was considered too dull to have much of an impact.” As one who plowed through this turgid tract from professional duty, I agree.

Once the Soviets came to power, ideology and idealism went by the wayside. (To emphasize his point, he uses the lower-case “c” in speaking of the political theory and an upper-case “C” to denote the dictatorships that arose under it.)

As Mr. Brown states, wherever the system existed, the driving force was the acquisition and preservation of power. The economic depression of the 1930s, which discredited capitalism, and Hitler’s war in Europe, which solidified Stalin’s grip on the USSR, put the Communists in nigh-unshakable power. The Communist grip on Eastern Europe was enforced by Soviet military might.

One reason the Communist Party, USA never took meaningful root was because it was subservient to Soviet orthodoxy from the outset; “copying Russia was voluntarily carried to absurd extremes.” He cites an early American Communist leader, Israel Amter, who sought to electrify a New York audience by bellowing a greeting, “Workers and peasants of Brooklyn!”

Mr. Brown is at his best in describing the turmoil that culminated in the collapse of the USSR, with Mikhail Gorbachev taking the steps that removed the party’s iron grip on Soviet society. He tells the story with you-are-there drama, with a besieged Gorbachev being forced from power. TheReagan administration wisely decided to watch from the sidelines, feeling that any American attempt to bring the Soviet Union down “would strengthen Soviet resistance to change rather than diminish it.”

As Mr. Brown concludes, “The idea of building communism, a society in which the state would have withered away, turned out to be a dangerous illusion. What was built instead was Communism, an oppressive party-state which was authoritarian at best and ruthlessly authoritarian at worst. Communism turned out to be a colossal failure.” Amen.


Toward the end of Boris Pasternak’s great novel “Dr. Zhivago,” the author writes of the protagonist’s daughter Tania, how she “has grown up as an orphan among peasants, separated from the world of high culture” that her parents had enjoyed in the pre-Stalin era. Pasternak muses on whether she will have “the opportunity to inherit the traditions of freethinking, spirituality, and creativity that her father embodied.” Pasternak provides no answer; Tania’s cameo appearance “makes the reader wonder whether the cultural continuity of the Russian intelligentsia has been irreparably broken.”

From that starting point, the Russian-born Vladislav Zubok, who now teaches at Temple University, describes what happened to “Tania’s generation” during a brief period of cultural freedom that flourished — more or less — from Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin until Leonid Brezhnev reimposed cultural uniformity.

For a narrow niche of artists and writers in Moscow, those years were heady. The Soviet state had emphasized higher education since the end of the war, with a new generation of college-trained engineers and educators expected to work to strengthen the state. Instead, they set out to re-create the pre-1917 intelligentsia, enjoying the freedom to speak of such verboten subjects as human rights and equality.Like-minded friends banded together in discussion groups known as a “kompany” in Russian — and Russians could suddenly enjoy the equivalent of American college bull sessions. (No such freedoms flourished outside Moscow and other large cities, Mr. Zubok emphasizes.)

Frivolity and culture marched side by side. The Cubist art of Pablo Picasso went on exhibition in the USSR for the first time. Despite the fact that he was a member of the French Communist Party, and his dove was the symbol of the pro-Soviet international peace movement, his art had been banned as “formalist.” But the same persons who flocked to the Picasso exhibits also loved Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies, zoot suits and American jazz.

Khrushchev, for one, seemed alarmed at what he had unwittingly unleashed. He was particularly scornful of artists who produced abstract works. He appeared at the opening of a major exhibition in 1962 and showered the artists with epithets that you are not going to read in this newspaper. He threatened to send them to Siberia or prison. One artist — a decorated war veteran — objected to being called a crude term for homosexual; he “proposed that Khrushchev furnish him a woman on the spot to test his sexual orientation.”

Key among the writers who took Khrushchev seriously when he criticized Stalin was novelist Vladimir Dudintsev, whose work “Not by Bread Alone” denounced the careerist bureaucrats who had thwarted the “great revolutionary experiment” of communism. Its serialization in the journal Novy Mir set off a public furor, and the ruling powers began moving back toward the old strictures. By the time Khrushchev was tossed out of office in 1964, the same dreary crowd once again dominated Soviet “culture.”

Mr. Zubok lived in Moscow during those heady days, and one gets the strong impression that the continuing lack of intellectual freedom in Russia is one reason he now teaches in America.

Joe Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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