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Socialism Today 158 - May 2012

Letters from Russia on Grossman’s Life & Fate review

PETER TAAFFE’S review of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (Socialism Today No.157, April 2012) mentions facts that were part of my life in post-war Russia. On admission to the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute (Faculty of Physics and Mechanics) after school in 1951, I and my friend had to complete questionnaires, which included the following: "were you or your immediate family members abroad, in captivity or internment?" and, to members of party, "have you vacillated in the conduct of the party line?".

We both had a right to be admitted to high school without exams, because we had left secondary school with a medal. I was enlisted at once, but the questionnaire of my friend was returned. Next to paragraph five (‘nationality’), was a mark with a pencil. His father was a Jew. He was forced to go to another department.

So our physical-mechanical department was "national in form" (Stalin’s term). The reason was the same: only a Jew could then migrate abroad (with atomic secrets!).

But we must not exaggerate the degree of opposition to Stalin in that society. Stalin’s death in 1953 was a real grief for the majority of our people (other than those who sat in the camps!). Many cried sincerely!

I was not among them. The inhumanity of Stalin’s system was clear to me by the end of my time in the institute, even before the revelations of Khrushchev. But for many Khrushchev’s anti-Stalinist speech at the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was a shock. One of my classmates, after hearing the report, spent a year in a psychiatric hospital (because he was raised by his parents to revere Stalin).

But of course about Trotsky and the Left Opposition, we knew almost nothing – except that they were ‘enemies of the people’. I read something positive about Trotsky for the first time in the articles (and later in the books) of Vadim Rogovin.

To summarise, Grossman’s book was, of course, a stage-post book: Peter is right. The only pity is that the collapse of Stalinism was replaced by the restoration of capitalism. Trotsky’s prophecy was fulfilled only by one half. Byurokraty and the gangs have become capitalists.

The second half of the prophecy will come true if we can create in Russia a new left force to replace Zyuganov’s bankrupt Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).


Questions to answer

I WOULD like to make some remarks about Peter Taaffe’s review of Life and Fate. It is a good article, with just one mistake on page 27 – it seems that it was not the KGB but the Communist Party ideology chief Mikhail Suslov who told Grossman his book would not be published.

Of course, out of an ocean of subjects covered in the book (including big philosophical chapters on physics, natural science and history), Peter Taaffe takes only things that suit his purpose, for example there is no mention of Grossman’s critical points on Lenin, the Bolshevik atrocities during the Russian civil war, etc.

There are also some other points. The events of 1956 were not only about Hungary, but also (at first) Poland, and the ‘Polish October’ was not crushed. Hungary was like a new February-March 1921 in Soviet Russia (when the Kronstadt rebellion was defeated by the Soviet government).

Did the crushing of Hungary in 1956 define the ‘whole’ subsequent period in the ‘Stalinist world’? This is quite doubtful. For example in the USSR a new wave of de-Stalinisation began in 1961 which was much more radical than previous ones (in 1953 and 1956). And was Brezhnev a ‘Stalinist hardliner’?

It seems that the reason for the end of mass repressions was not the fear of mass discontent but the fear inside the nomenklatura who dreamed of (their own) stability, safety and immunity to purges.

Radical socialist ideas were first defeated in the West during the 1980s. We in the former Soviet Union only followed this trend. There must be some deep reasons for this global trend; its local manifestation in the USSR cannot be explained by a lack of historical knowledge.

The Nazi invasion was defeated but Napoleon was also defeated in Russia, in 1812 – thanks to what?

It would also have been good for Peter’s article to mention or to analyse the conversations among fighters in ‘house 6/1’ (under Captain Grekov), isolated and surrounded by German troops where, thanks to that isolation, people spoke totally freely, as in Kazan, with the conversations of Viktor Shtrum with his close friends.


Peter Taaffe responds:

MANY THANKS for your critical comments on my review of Grossman. Just a few lines in reply here.

You have a point on the lack of comment of Grossman’s criticisms of Lenin and the other criticisms by Grossman of alleged ‘Bolshevik atrocities’ during the civil war, on dictatorship arising from Bolshevism, etc. I clearly disagree with him on this, but I had restricted space for this article. However, in order to allay any suspicion that "Peter Taaffe reviews only things that suit his purpose", I will now seek to do this.

On your factual point. It is Robert Chandler in his introduction to Life and Fate who states that it was the KGB that visited Grossman on December 27 1960 and first ‘arrested’ his book. He also states: "[Emmanuil] Kazakevich had a call from Khrushchev’s secretary saying the novel was magnificent, just what we need now, and they would let us just know how we felt". Only later did Mikhail Suslov repeat what Grossman had already been told: that the novel could not be published for another two or three hundred years.

I do not fully understand the point you make about 1956 in relation to Poland and Hungary. The difference between the two situations was that the Hungarian revolution represented a political revolution with workers’ councils, the demand for the election of officials, etc, which was a mortal threat to the bureaucracy. In Poland, although it was a very important movement, it did not go as far as this. The Russian bureaucracy could come to terms with a nationalist and ‘liberal’ form of a continuation of bureaucratic rule, represented by the Gomulka regime.

In my opinion, Brezhnev did represent unreconstructed Stalinism, in opposition to Khrushchev, who at least for his own reasons presided over the ‘thaw’. It was both the longing of the nomenklatura for ‘stability’ and the fear that repression could trigger a revolt, present at the time of Stalin’s death, that forced Khrushchev to attack his legacy.

I think it is an exaggeration to say that "radical socialist ideas were first defeated in the West during the 1980s" and this was then reflected in the Soviet Union. But the economic fireworks which capitalism seemed to represent were a powerful factor in attracting support, as well as the complete impasse economically of the Stalinist regime, within Russia and the rest of the Stalinist states. However, the historical memory of what Bolshevism really represented had been ‘blotted out’, through the purge trials of the 1930s and once more following the removal of Khrushchev. This was a factor leading to the return of capitalism.

On Napoleon’s defeat in 1812, I do not think Stalingrad is a complete parallel. Of course, there was a ‘patriotic’ element – fostered by Stalinism in place of internationalism – in both cases but Napoleon’s forces cannot be compared to the resources which the Nazis drew on. In other words, it would take more than just an appeal to defend ‘the motherland’ to defeat them. It was the advantages of a planned economy – despite the bureaucracy – and the memory amongst the masses of the gains of the October revolution, which were still fresh in their minds, that were decisive.

You make a very good point on ‘house 6/1’, but once again there was a problem with space.


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