Thursday, April 3, 2008

Erosion in the Soviet Empire

William Henry Chamberlin

Russian Review, Vol. 24, No. 3. (Jul., 1965), pp. 227-234.

0NE of the most striking and formidable results of the Second World War was the projection of the political frontier of the Soviet Union deep into Europe, far beyond the achievements of the most ambitious Tsars. Thanks first to his deals with Hitler, then to his success in bending Roosevelt and Churchill to accept his expansionist designs, Josef Stalin added some 25 million unwilling subjects to his totalitarian realm by annexing formally to the Soviet Union Latvia,Lithuania, Estonia, Eastern Poland, Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina, Koenigsberg and some parts of Finland and Czechoslovakia.

But this was only the smaller part of the growth of the Soviet empire. By the technique of governing foreign countries by means of satellite communist parties, often buttressed by Soviet military forces, Stalin brought into his empire, for all practical purposes, the following countries and areas: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, the eastern part of Austria and a considerable area of Germany east of the line of the Elbe River. The Yugoslav communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, broke away from Soviet domination in 1948, and has subsequently played a balancing game between East and West, keeping a firm grasp on the essentials of sovereignty. And there was a general military evacuation of Austria, with agreement that the country be neutralized, in 1955.

During Stalin's lifetime the Soviet imperial grip was absolute. The international communist movement was completely under Soviet control and an obedient instrument of Soviet foreign policy. An article in a French communist publication by the French communist leader Jacques Duclos, who had doubtless received his cue from Moscow, was sufficient to displace Earl Browder from his position of leadership in the American Communist Party and to substitute the more extremist direction of William Z. Foster.

Even before the Red Army moved westward to Berlin and the Elbe, Stalin's domination over communist parties outside of Russia was complete. Many foreign communists who had sought asylum in the Soviet Union fell victim to the dictator's paranoid suspicions and perished or vanished into concentration camps. As M. K. Dziewanowski writes in his standard study of the Polish Communist Party:

Practically all Polish Communists who were in Soviet territory at that period (of the great purges of 1937-39) were either physically liquidated or sent to various concentration camps. . . . During 1937and 1939 twelve members of the Party Central Committee and numerous minor functionaries, altogether several hundred active members of the party, disappeared in one way of another . . . Paradoxically enough, most Polish survivors of the purge other than those who were either too insignificant to be purged or who served with the NKVD, owed their salvation to the fact that they were protected from Stalin by the walls of bourgeois prisons.

Once Soviet military occupation up to the lines of demarcation in Germany and Austria was an accomplished fact the Sovietization process proceeded by a terrifyingly simple pattern, with only minor variations because of local conditions in the various countries. First there was the pretense of an "anti-fascist" coalition government, in which communists always held the ministries of police and education. Then the non-communists were gradually eliminated until the final stage of a communist regime, modelled on the Soviet, was reached. Communists suspected of dissident, nationalist or other heretical views were purged as ruthlessly as the noncommunist "anti-fascists," Rajk in Hungary, Clementis and Slansky in Czechoslovakia, executed, Gomulka in Poland imprisoned and lucky to escape with his life, and many others throughout the satellite area.

When mainland China fell under communist rule in 1948-49 the noncommunist world seemed confronted with the grim specter of a monolithic totalitarian empire stretching from the Baltic to the China Sea, larger and more formidable than that of Genghis Khan.

But overextension carried within it the seeds of disintegration. Tito had successfully seceded in 1948. And after Stalin's death in 1953 flare-ups of revolt, in East Berlin and the Soviet Zone in 1953, in Poznan, in 1956, in Poland and Hungary in the autumn of the same year, showed that the proved communist formula of rule, unlimited propaganda plus unlimited terrorism, was losing some of its magic.

A demonstration of Soviet military force put down the revolt in East Germany and a more serious commitment of military force crushed the Hungarian freedom fighters, who received no aid from without, in 1956. The Poles, acting with more restraint than the Hungarians, were able to obtain some concessions, especially as regards the offensive Russification that had marked the first period of Soviet domination. The preponderance of Soviet military force was sufficient to crush open armed revolt.

But during the last years of the Khrushchev era there were less spectacular, but still important, signs of erosion of the Soviet East European empire, especially in the economic and cultural fields. What the recently deceased veteran Italian Communist leader, Palmiro Togliatti, characterized as polycentrism, the repudiation of the idea that Moscow alone should prescribe and dictate communist tactics and policies in other lands, gained considerable ground. In death as in life, Togliatti contributed to the success of his idea. For shortly before he died in the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1964 the veteran Italian communist leader drew up a memorandum on Soviet-Chinese differences. Siding with Moscow on most issues, Togliatti criticized quite sharply some alleged failings of Khrushchev in the conduct of his exchanges with Mao Tsetung and also his failure to carry the process of de –Stalinization further in the Soviet Union. After Togliatti's death this memorandum was published buy the Italian Communist Party leadership.

This would have been unthinkable m Stalin's time, as would have been the expressions of regret amongforeign Communist leaders over the fall of Khrushchev and the visits to Moscow of some foreign Communist delegations seeking information as to the causes of Khrushchev's abrupt removal. No victim of Stalin's massive purges received any tribute, except perhaps some standardized abuse from the cowed and submissive Communist parties outside the Soviet Union.

Several developments have favored this trend toward "polycentrism," toward increased autonomy for the minor partners in the Soviet bloc. The bitter quarrel between the two Communist giants, the Soviet Union and Red China, was one such development. Another was the relaxation of terror in the Soviet Union after Stalin's death. It was no longer possible, in the milder atmosphere of post-Stalin Russia, to kidnap or murder dissident foreign communists, or to consign them, if they were in the Soviet Union, to the concentration camp or the firing squad.

There was also the example of Tito's successful secession. No other East European communist ruler ventured to go so far. But, at various times and under various circumstances, there has been a slipping of the tighter bonds to Moscow. Excessive subservience to Russian models has been gradually eliminated. There has been a cautious opening of a few windows to the West in such spheres as cultural and trade relations. A growing influx of foreign tourists, from Western Europe and the United States, encouraged as a source of "bard" currency, strengthened the sense of cultural contact with the Wcst.

The cultural thaw in the Soviet Union, limited and tentative as it has been and broken by periodic freezes, has encouraged a similar trend in the satellite states. Intellectual magazines in Czechoslovakia and Hungary have been quick to reproduce the nonconformist utterances of such Soviet writers as the poet Evgeny Evtushenko. There has also been a certain amount of free discussion of conditions in other communist-ruled countries. So an East German writer used the Czech magazine Plamen as a forum for complaining about dogmatic criticism and cultural isolation in East Germany. A Czech author gave a detailed account of the difficulties of agriculture in Czechoslovakia in a Polish periodical. As Professor John Michael Montias recently wrote in an article in Foreign Affairs about communist rule in Eastern Europe:

Every blow against totalitarianism in one country is apt to be exploited by intellectuals in the rest of the bloc. And even Communists outside the bloc can on occasion serve as a liberating influence, as witness the impact of French Communist writers, such as Roger Garaudy, on Czech intellectuals in connection with the discussion on Kafka and alienation under socialism.

The Poles, always eager to emphasize their distinctiveness from Russians under any form of government, have been positively aggressive in sponsoring non-traditional forms of expression in music and art by such methods as holding festivals of new music in Warsaw. Even in Hungary, which experienced the most brutal repression of its freedom movement in 1956, there are signs of relaxed repression in such matters as permission to travel abroad, promotion of non-Communists to important posts and admission of students to universities without consideration of "class origin. "

In the satellite states, as in the Soviet Union itself, progress toward intellectual liberalism is very relative and is not uniform and uninterrupted. Poland, which made substantial gains in 1956, has experienced a good deal of wrangling between freedom-loving intellectuals and government bureaucrats who wish to limit and contract freedom of expression. But by and large the satellite states, although they remain Communist-ruled dictatorships, are becoming freer from Moscow dictation, politically and economically. One sign of this tendency is the extreme difficulty which Khrushchev, and Khrushchev's successors, have experienced in persuading the non-Soviet communist parties to subscribe to some form of excommunication of Red China from the world communist movement. The meeting of communist parties which finally took place in Moscow on March 1, 1965 after several postponements, seems to have been a case of the mountain laboring and producing a mouse. Not only were there large gaps in attendance, but the agenda and resolutions were much milder than the Soviet leaders would probably have desired.

Rumania offers an excellent case history in the erosion of Soviet imperial power. Khrushchev wanted to assign to Rumania the role mainly of a supplier of foodstuffs and raw materials within the Soviet bloc. But the Rumanian Communist leadership ignored Soviet advice and went ahead with its steel mills, confident of being able to obtain funds from the West through the sale of its wheat and oil.

And on April 26, 1964 the Rumanian Workers (Communist) Party published a remarkably independent manifesto which has attracted less attention abroad than it deserves. This declaration offered a series of criticisms and recommendations to the Soviet and Communistparties, with the professed objective of mediating their conflict. And it repudiated in strong language the idea that some supra-national planning body, such as the COMECON (the economic association of communist-ruled states) should dictate to its members their proper lines of economic development. Then came a very strong assertion of Rumania's economic independence:

It is up to every Marxist-Leninist party, it is a sovereign right of every socialist state, to elaborate, choose or change the forms and methods of socialist construction . . . No party has or can have a privileged place, or can impose its line or opinions on other parties.

This is a sort of real life version of the film title, "The Mouse That Roared." Soviet troops were withdrawn from Rumania several years ago; but they could return at a moment's notice. Evidently, however, the Rumanian Communist leadership believes such a development, as a punishment for a declaration of economic independence, is improbable. The Rumanians also abstained from full participation in the March 1conference of representatives of communist parties.

What makes it easier for the ruling groups in the satellite states, within the general limits of a state-owned economy, to go their own way in economic experimentation and approaches for trade with the West is the tendency in the Soviet Union to grope around for more efficient methods of production. Khrushchev, before his fall, was constantly experimenting, now decentralizing industrial administration, now recentralizing, touring the agricultural circuit, scolding, demoting, changing-but without coming up with demonstrable formulas for making the cumbersome state economic bureaucracy work more smoothly and efficiently.

His successors have decided to give wider application to the proposals long advocated by Professor Yevsei Liberman: to allow at least some consumer goods industries to function on the basis of profits and other indications of meeting consumer demand, instead of trying to satisfy arbitrary production targets set by higher planning authorities. All too often this last method led to sad neglect of quality for the sake of quantity. Czechoslovakia has committed itself to a fairly radical reform of its methods of economic administration along the general lines proposed by Liberman.

The growth of polycentrism does not change the nature of the communist regimes in eastern and southeastern Europe. These continue to deny political and civil liberties which are taken for granted in free countries. They retain strong political and economic ties with Moscow. They may be expected to continue voting with the Soviet Union and against the United States on almost all issues in the United Nations, to get up occasional protest demonstrations against United States embassies. These governments remain alien, imposed from without and, in the event of a bigcrisis, would look to Moscow for support.

But the conclusion seems justified that the Soviet Union and such countries as Poland, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and East Germany no longer constitute, as in Stalin's time, a monolithic bloc, dominated down to the smallest administrative detail from Moscow. Subject to the overriding communist ideology, there is more freedom in cultural expression, in trade and internal economic development. There is at least a beginning of the erosion of the Soviet imperialism that seemed to grow stronger as the overseas empires of the European powers disappeared. The significance of polycentrism should not be exaggerated. But neither should it be overlooked as a factor in Europe's future evolution. The deal between the great German firm of Krupp and the Polish government for supplying German technical knowhow for Polish factories may prove to be the sign of a new era in East-West technical co-operation.

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