Volkogonov's Journey

Volkogonov's Journey

Mini Teaser: The "park of fallen heroes" is the ironical name Muscovites have given to the patch of waste land across Krymsky Val from Gorky Park, where the statues of Soviet leaders are dumped.

by Author(s): Neil McInnes

The "park of fallen heroes" is the ironical name Muscovites have given to the patch of waste land across Krymsky Val from Gorky Park, where the statues of Soviet leaders are dumped. Here lies a Stalin in polished red granite that once stood twelve feet high; but it was broken while being taken down, and the big red boots lie yards away in the long grass. Unable to stand, Stalin rests on his side on a makeshift bed of concrete blocks. The tyrant has his right hand stuck between two buttons of his great coat in the familiar Napoleonic pose; his nose has been smashed off.

Towering intact over him is the gigantic metal statue of Felix Dzerzinsky, banished hither from the square that once bore his name and where he used to contemplate the house of his creation, the Cheka (later the KGB). Now "Iron Felix" contemplates a massive marble torso of Brezhnev, stranded in the grass and looking very dead, just the way he did when he was propped up to make his last official speeches. Nearby lie this year's novelties in the park, two discarded white busts of Lenin.

Compared to what I saw here last year, the place has been spruced up to look more like a garden and less like a tip, and an effort has been made to alleviate the crude political symbolism. There are busts of nineteenth-century worthies that no one remembers anymore, and some egregious examples of socialist realism in sculpture, mainly workers with hammers. Mysteriously, someone has dumped here a bust of William Shakespeare. The creator of Richard III and Macbeth looks to be quite at home among these assassins and buffoons.

If those two marble Lenins are a sign of things to come, even these spacious grounds between the New Tretyakov and the President Hotel will not suffice, for there could be many more to follow. Bolshevism suffered from what Georges Sorel diagnosed in the Third Republic as statuemanie, the compulsive reproduction in stone, marble, and bronze of its heroes. Lenin's latest biographer has discovered an order he put out when his new government was still struggling to survive, requiring that all monuments to czarist figures be removed and replaced by statues of Bolshevik leaders. When that was not done as fast as he wished, Lenin put out another order demanding that those responsible for "this criminal inactivity" be identified. Russians had already learned that when Lenin muttered "criminal" someone was going to get shot, so the busts and statues soon began to multiply. "In a country convulsed by civil war it was judged 'absolutely necessary' to have busts sculpted of Lenin and Trotsky, Kalinin, Radek, Chicherin, Rakovsky, Litvinov, Ioffe, Krasin, et al. . . . These mass monuments were the shameful landmarks of idolatry." Krupskaya, his widow, later protested at the plague of marble Lenins but to no avail; the bald head and wild eyes continued to sprout across the land and most of them are still in place today. Trotsky's abundant likenesses had disappeared by 1927 when he lost the power struggle to Stalin and in turn Stalin's, which numbered in the thousands, began to go soon after his death in 1953, and I doubt if any have survived outside his native Georgia.

How quickly the Lenins are dumped will depend in part on the reception being given to the work of the biographer just quoted, Dmitri Volkogonov, who died some months ago. A posthumous work entitled Seven Leaders, which is an account of Soviet leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev, appeared this year in Russian and will be out in English in early 1997. Volkogonov had already published a Stalin (1990), a Trotsky (1992), and a Lenin (1994). Obviously, he believed that history can be told as biography. I wonder if he realized that his own biography would tell us as much about the Soviet Union as the lives of more famous men.

Volkogonov was born in a godforsaken corner of Siberia in 1928, the son of an agronomist and a rural schoolteacher. His father was declared an enemy of the people during the great purges and shot; his mother died in exile. The sixteen-year-old orphan joined the Red Army toward the end of the war and became a brilliant servant of the regime that had destroyed his family. That happened more than once in the Soviet Union, and Volkogonov managed to make it sound like a good thing about the regime. In his so far unpublished memoirs (which his daughter, Olga Volkogonova, has kindly shown me), he says, "I do not look back [on the Soviet Union] with bitterness, for although I was the son of an 'enemy of the people', I became a general, a scientist, and a deputy." Trained at the prestigious Tank School and then at the Lenin Military Academy, he specialized in "philosophy", which meant the mumbo-jumbo of dialectical materialism. He stayed on at the Academy as a professor of that subject, before transferring to the Political Administration of the Soviet army and navy, a somewhat sinister organization in which he rose to be number two. He now was a specialist in propaganda, disinformation, and counterintelligence. A book from that period, The Russian Soldier, glorified Soviet militarism.

Volkogonov had acquired a reputation as a hardline Stalinist, but somewhere along the way doubts began to gnaw at him. In notes for his memoirs he says his doubts began during foreign service in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Yemen, and Angola. There he saw total poverty equipped with Soviet tanks and missiles, corrupt leaders armed to the teeth being generously fed by Moscow because they had adopted its system-and yet this was a system that in seventy years had failed to feed and clothe its own people. Why then was it so unremittingly hostile to others? Until 1984 he clung to the belief that the system could be reformed but then he began to agonize over the thought that everything that had happened since 1917 had been a fatal mistake.

A colleague of his from those days, Alexander Orlov, who is now a professor at the Institute of Military History, told me how one day Volkogonov came to him with the news that he had been offered a promotion that would entail working for a man who had been Beria's assistant. How could he accept, now that his doubts were entrenched and festering? Not unreasonably, Orlov replied that when you are working the system you must take your doubts to the top with you, because they can be more effective there. Volkogonov accepted the promotion. But the three-star colonel-general was secretly collecting material for his massive life of Stalin, which would tell as much of the truth as was then accessible from his favored vantage point. Volkogonova says her father's downfall came when he proposed that all political organs (that is, the Communist Party and its commissars) be removed from the Soviet armed forces. He was dismissed from the Political Administration and demoted to director of the Institute of Military History.

It was an ideal slot for a very unofficial historian of the Soviet regime. Not that Volkogonov gained access to all the archives immediately. From the Stalin that began to be serialized in a Moscow magazine in 1988 to the Lenin that appeared in 1994, one can see how his access gradually increased (as did his hostility to communism) while the Soviet state was crumbling. Even in the later books he sometimes had to apologize for failing to provide precise references because he had obtained the material illicitly. Still, his access was enough to arouse complaints from younger professional historians that this amateur old interloper with a questionable past ("His past was always being thrown at him", says Orlov) was hogging the archives. Actually, their real grievance was against American research teams, better organized and better financed, who were beating the Russians to publication-even though some of them were still tarred with the "Sovietology" brush. Access is now governed by law, and a declassification committee meets every fortnight to consider requests; I understand there are no long queues of researchers seeking material.

To digress a little further on this matter of access to Soviet sources: Publishers are currently running something of a stunt on the "secrets from the archives" theme. Edvard Radzinsky's Stalin (Hodder and Stoughton, 1996) shouts from its dustjacket, "The first in-depth biography based on explosive new documents from Russia's secret archives", when it is actually a playwright's somewhat fanciful restatement of familiar material. Yuri Buranov's Lenin's Will: Falsified and Forbidden (Prometheus, 1994) is hyped up as coming "from the secret archives of the former Soviet Union", whereas it contains little of political significance that was not revealed in Max Eastman's 1925 book Since Lenin Died-namely, that Stalin managed, with the willing assistance of all the leading Bolsheviks except Trotsky, to limit the minor embarrassment caused by Lenin's tart but inconsequential comments on his lieutenants. For that matter, some of the notices of Volkogonov's books are too heavy on the "secrets from the archives" theme. His Lenin, for example, turns up new facts about the Jewish and German strains in Ulyanov's ancestry, and about the mŽnage ˆ trois he ran with Krupskaya and Inessa Armand, but these are hardly significant politically.

The fact is that-to date at least, but don't hold your breath for the future-precious few secrets have emerged from the archives. Soviet society was always more porous than its leaders wished, certainly for us foreigners if not for Soviet citizens. EmigrŽ mensheviks, expelled exiles (Trotsky was the most famous of many), relatives (Max Eastman was married to the sister of Krylenko, the Bolshevik minister for justice), defectors of every stripe, and even just plain honest visitors like Bertrand Russell and AndrŽ Gide contributed to our knowledge from the 1920s and 1930s. Khrushchev's 1956 denunciation of Stalin (the speed with which this "secret speech" became available illustrates my point) opened many taps, providing confirmation for us and samizdat for the Russians. The Soviet system was leaking furiously for the last thirty years of its existence. As Walter Laqueur said in Stalin: The Glasnost Revelations (Scribner's, 1990), by the time the regime collapsed, there were not a lot of important secrets left. (Knowing the main facts is of course compatible with being grossly mistaken and perfervidly prejudiced about the regime's legitimacy and solidity.)

What matters about books like Volkogonov's is not the "explosive new documents" of the blurb-writers but the fact that Russians are being told the truth about their lost twentieth century by the favored sons of the old regime. Just consider: Volkogonov, a Stalinist prodigy, a professor of dialectical materialism, a general who was active from Angola to Afghanistan, becomes baptized into the Russian Orthodox faith in 1988 at age sixty and sets out to write huge rambling lives of the Soviet leaders, giving chapter and verse for the awful truth that for seventy years a sixth of the earth was ruled by irresponsible tyrants. (Harold Shukman, to whom we owe the excellent translations of Volkogonov's books, had to edit and shorten them by about one quarter, because they contained so many digressions and so much material "excessively familiar to a Western reader.") Coming from such a quarter, such books have had arresting political implications for Russians. Which brings me back to Volkogonov's career.

His serialized Stalin had made him a pariah among his military colleagues, but what led to his second dismissal, this time from the Institute of Military History, was his draft for a collective history of the Second World War. The outline of the first two of ten volumes was enough to enrage the party leadership as well as the army brass, for it proposed to tell the truth about the degeneration and the defeats of 1941. In his draft memoirs he recalls how the high-level committee set up to supervise the work (he calls them "the mastodonts of bolshevism") met to pronounce anathema: how they swore at him, told him to get out of the army, screamed to stop him from talking, while he shouted above the din the questions they would not abide. Were the Germans not in Minsk on the sixth day? Were not six hundred thousand killed or captured in one early engagement? Did not three million men let themselves be taken prisoner? Volkogonov was thrown out, and was probably headed for more serious trouble. But this was 1991, and within six months his enemies were defeated and discredited when the USSR deliquesced. Having been expelled from parliament for criticizing Gorbachev and supporting Yeltsin, Volkogonov found himself on the winning side. He was a natural choice to be Yeltsin's military adviser, as well as chairman of the commission to handle the release of the Soviet archives, once again a plum job for the historian he had become. (He had taken a doctorate in history at this late stage, as though to make an honest historian of himself.)

By then, however, cancer had him in its grip. He was in Oxford being operated upon when the regime fell (he was able to intervene by way of BBC interviews in his hospital room), and returned to his task like a man possessed. He would work eighteen hours a day, writing standing up to relieve the pain, working without research assistant or computer, scrawling out in longhand those great baggy books that denounced the lies Russians had so long believed-adding each time "including the present writer." When the transition to democracy was threatened in October 1993 he rose from his sickbed and went to the Kremlin, whence he spoke several times during the night of October 3-4, on the one television channel left operating, in support of Yeltsin; politicos here say he made a real contribution to the Russian way to freedom. He managed to finish Seven Leaders and to put together material for his memoirs before he died last December. Truly une vie dans le sicle, a life that exemplified an age, an illusion, a tragedy, and a rebirth.

Isaac Deutscher, who was a belated sufferer from statuemanie (as well as from a belief in socialism), thought that the Russia of his dreams would be realized the day each Russian town square had statues of both Stalin and Trotsky. We already have something better, a Russia without statues of either and where Lenin is tottering on his countless pedestals. Dmitri Volkogonov has a monument that will outlive them all: his massive biographies are right now going into new editions, making a third for Stalin.

Naturally Volkogonov's books have been subject to criticism, and not only from the fundamentalists (as unreconstructed communists are called around here). One line of attack is to deplore the reduction of history to biography because it entails overlooking social forces and bringing everything back to personalities. (Put that argument to a Russian intellectual today and he will smell the Sovietology under it instantly, those grand theories and historical analyses that were deflated six years ago.) Sovietology had political motives for insisting on theories rather than personalities. For instance, take the October "revolution" itself, the actual events in Petrograd in 1917. Volkogonov proves beyond doubt that Lenin indeed found power in the gutter, and was the only man, even among the Bolsheviks, with the guts to pick it up, thereby taking his clique to a leading, and soon an exclusive, role. Sovietology sought to deny this and argue that great social forces were in play as the Russian working class seized power. From that proposition it could be argued that the Soviet Union was a workers' state, a historical power based on a populous class; and from that, in turn, one could derive all sorts of comforting propositions about its legitimacy and longevity. Lenin's gamble or proletarian revolution?-that is not a question of historical method but of fact. Volkogonov showed that Trotsky was correct when he said, "No Lenin, no October."

Of course that does not mean that a Great Man outwitted History or outweighed social forces. The success of Lenin's insolent coup d'Žtat required the greatest war in history until then, the collapse of an empire, the abdication of an ancient dynasty, plus the greatest soldiers' mutiny and peasant uprising ever known. Martin Malia says of that constellation, "There are times when contingency itself is structure", and October 1917 was such a time. It saw the victory of an illegitimate clique with a proletarian ideology, not the triumph of a proletariat realizing "the logic of Russia's social history." Nor does it mean that the consequences were of personal or individual interest only. Again Malia:

Nonetheless, this coup did in fact shake the world in an unprecedented and world-historical manner; for, although the empirical proletariat largely sat out Great October, the metaphysical proletariat was catapulted into power, and this political-ideological entity would prove to be far more revolutionary than all the real workers of the world united.
In other words, Lenin's gamble led to an ideocracy, the omnipotence of a social illusion, rule based on lies and pretense.

Or take the case of Josef Stalin's quite preternatural beastliness, which Volkogonov details in all its horror. Sovietology was always anxious to change the subject, to get away from mere personalia to the "great historical forces" at work in modernization ˆ la russe, the cultural revolution of the Russian working class, the vast facts of urbanization and social mobility, the construction of a mighty economic and military power. As to the tyrannical brute who oversaw all this, Sovietology had two strings to its bow: it could deplore him as an aberration from the Leninist norm (that is, the system could still be redeemed, maybe already had been); or it could accept him as the price that was paid for stupendous successes. Now that neither of these arguments stands up anymore, some American Sovietologists have swung over to a personal, individualist account of Stalinism that even Volkogonov would find unhistorical. Moshe Lewin describes Stalinism as "personal despotism" and says, "It all stemmed in part from the traits of his psyche and his mind which could not accept reality. . . . It was generated by the psyche of a man whose vanity was insatiable (Volkogonov), coupled with a constant worry about his own security . . . a deeply psychological urge." On the contrary (and despite Lewin's parenthetical appeal to Volkogonov's authority), Volkogonov maintains that Stalin operated the Leninist system in the only way possible, in the same way that Trotsky or Bukharin would have operated it had they won power instead.

For Russians who sit amid the ruins and see that those "stupendous successes" were built on sand or did not even exist, and could in any event be achieved by Third World countries in Asia at infinitely less cost-for them there is no need to change the subject when Volkogonov shows the moral degeneration that produced Stalin and which he in turn spread like a pandemic.

I recently put this argument about biography versus social history to Alexander Yakovlev in Moscow. Yakovlev is another who carried his doubts to the top (and on the way befriended Volkogonov). In his case it was right to the top: After a career in the Communist Party's propaganda department he became its head, and then after ten years as ambassador to Canada (1973-83), he was secretary to the central committee and finally a member of the Politburo from 1987.

Somewhere in there he lost the faith, and began meeting Volkogonov to share dissident thoughts. When Stalin had become indefensible, he says, the Party appealed to the authority of Lenin, so Yakovlev encouraged Volkogonov to gather the proof that Lenin was no savior of the people but "one of the greatest killers of the twentieth century." Was this too personalized an approach to history? Yakovlev replied, "Volkogonov was right to lay the stress on documents and to leave historical analysis for later, to others. Russian leaders, even long before the revolution, always have claimed to be perfect, and Volkogonov set out to show the real face of the Bolsheviks. He was brilliant at character analysis and his books would have lost value if he tried to be theoretical. Anyhow, we are all tired of American Sovietology and its theories. At international congresses nowadays, American Sovietologists show up as dogmatic as we communists used to be. U.S. Sovietology is bankrupt."

Besides, Yakovlev claims, the people the fundamentalist communists hate most are not the new politicians, but the historians and intellectuals who condemn the old regime with facts in hand, as Volkogonov and Yakovlev have done. He says that before this year's presidential elections the Communists had prepared a list of people to be shot if their candidate won: "I was number two on that list and Boris Yeltsin was only number five." I rather spoiled the effect of this story by asking who was number one; it was Gorbachev. Still it is something to have the Communists hate and fear you more than they do Yeltsin. Without impugning Yakovlev's sources, I must note that more or less paranoid anecdotes about lists of people to be shot in the event of a Communist victory abound in Moscow. I heard of one list compiled by Communists so uneducated as to put Yeltsin first and not to mention any intellectuals.

Actually in his own books, Yakovlev goes beyond Volkogonov's biographical approach, arguing that it is not enough to push guilt back from Stalin to Lenin, but that one must go back to Marxism itself, as so many Russian writers are doing now. He has written: "I see the point of the current scientific and moral criticism not in dumping responsibility on Marx for everything we have suffered. Such an approach to criticism would actually be a step along that same flawed spiral of enslavement by authoritarian consciousness." Nevertheless, he adds, "Civilization and life itself rose up against Marxism. They rose up against its messianism, which promised miracles through simple solutions. They rose up against the willfulness and pride of Marxism, which arrogated to itself the right to determine the fates of classes, peoples, the destiny of civilization."

Yakovlev, who is vice-chairman of that declassification commission I have mentioned, also heads the International Democracy Foundation here, which has ambitious plans to publish documents on Soviet history.

He notes that the communists' chief criticism of Volkogonov's biographies, when they rose above abuse and nit-picking, was that he had gathered, for example, in Lenin, all the bad things he could find against Ulyanov and ignored the material that showed him as a friend of the people.

Yakovlev says, "I reply that the good story about Lenin has been put out in billions of copies for seventy years. It was time for the other side." In reality it is not only communists who find that Volkogonov demonizes Lenin; Robert Service has said: "Volkogonov offers us an uncomplicatedly demonic figure: Lenin the megalomaniac, state terrorist and class warrior." Indeed there are moments when, as you close this bulky book, you have a vision of Lenin as a demented sadist yelping, "Shoot them! Shoot them!" But then, the documents prove that this was often the case.

Again and again Lenin's response to a political problem was: shoot more people. Consider his situation. His clique had stolen power, ousted its few allies, and was determined to rule alone. For a time Lenin thought it would take six months to install socialism in Russia. He had concocted a theory (one part Marxism, two parts People's Will voluntarism) that justified coercion to attain that goal and that dismissed compassion as the sentimentality of the "pathetic Philistine, slave to the prejudices of the bourgeoisie." Fanatically determined to attain an illusory, impossible, utopian goal without moral support from the people, murder became his method. His first actions in government were to found the Cheka (secret police), to tell his followers that "a good communist is a good Chekist" (that is, an informer), to open the first concentration camps, in 1918, and then-after Dora Kaplan took a shot at him-to unleash the Red Terror.

Volkogonov documented all this in his Lenin and it is hypocritical of the communists to pretend to be shocked, because they always knew that Leninism meant unbridled lawless force. In condemning Stalin's crimes (some of them anyhow), Khrushchev in 1956 did not hide the fact that Lenin's methods had been the same, but claimed they were permissible because they were directed at "the real class enemy." And the ninety-six-year-old Molotov responded to stories of Lenin's brutality with a cynical shrug: "It cannot be said Lenin was soft. He didn't spend his time wiping children's snotty noses. Lenin should not be portrayed like that."

Come to that, Volkogonov's Lenin did not exhaust the tally of Lenin's villainies and new examples are still surfacing. In his posthumous Seven Leaders we find an order previously omitted from biographies: "We must mobilize all the Cheka troops in the provinces and shoot all those who did not show up to work because of St. Nicholas Day."

Again, Anatoly Latyshev has published a letter Lenin wrote to Trotsky who was then commissar for war, dated October 22, 1919, which contains these lines: "If the offensive has already begun, can't we just mobilize another 20,000 workers from Petrograd plus 10,000 bourgeois, and march them against Yudenich at gun point? We can shoot a few hundred of them, and that will force the rest of them to attack Yudenich."

(Stalin used this method regularly in the war against the Nazis.) Another memo from Lenin, to Slyansky as deputy head of the Revolutionary War Council, in August 1920: "This is an excellent plan. Follow it through with Dzerzinsky. Disguised as anarchist partisans (we will blame them for this later) we'll go in 10-20 kilometers deep and hang rich peasants, priests, and landowners. There will be a prize of 100,000 rubles per head of every hanged man."

This ruthlessness has been excused as the necessity of war and revolution, but Lenin was in the same frame of mind years before the civil war. In 1891 a famine developed in the Volga region and the twenty-year old Lenin opposed giving aid to the starving peasants because he argued that the famine was "progressive." Latyshev quotes A. Belyakov in The Leader's Youth applauding this "courageous" attitude and the reasoning behind it: "Famine ruined the peasant economy while at the same time destroying faith not only in the Czar but in God too, and with time undoubtedly will push the peasants to the path of revolution." Therefore the way to deal with committees set up to help the starving was, said Lenin, "Knock them to the ground and strangle them."

How can you demonize a demon? Or what other word do we have for a man who thinks that those who help the starving should be strangled for getting in his way? Volkogonov's biographies of men who thought that way may not be the whole history of Soviet Russia, but they explain large parts of it. As he quotes Trotsky, "If personalities do not make history, then history makes itself by means of personalities."

Essay Types: Essay