Russia and its people, then and now

by Victor Osprey on June 24, 2017

‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,’Marx once said, and that could not be more true of the people of post-Soviet Russia.

The people who lived under the Stalinist regime, saw its collapse, went through the ‘end of history’ and now live under the autocratic Putin presidency have much to say about the Russian condition, past and present.

These past generations are still very much alive and can speak to their experiences, which are in turn nightmarish and joyful, full of great hopes and even greater disappointments.

A broad cross-section of these voices are highlighted in a new book by Svetlana Alexievich, entitled Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.

The book consists of conversations and interviews, or, as the author puts it, ‘Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations’ that were conducted between 1991 and 2012.

Everyone from architects, technicians, construction workers, veterans, and refugees to Soviet-era Kremlin insiders and former Communist Party members get to speak their mind in this remarkable collection.

Their opinions are as different as they are contradictory.

On the one hand, there is a definite nostalgia and longing for the past from some, yet they are mostly not blind to the brutalities and inhumanity of the Stalinist regime.

On the other, those who strongly opposed that bureaucratic social system and were glad to see it go dislike the political, economic and social instability that has since emerged.

What is for sure is that the oppositional, anti-bureaucratic movements that were allowed breathing space as a result of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies were struggling for a future beyond Putin-type tyrants.

Many Russians hoped for socialism with a human face, imagining that they would enjoy the same living conditions as Swedish workers, or at least would live in a liberal-democratic utopia.

A construction worker interviewed on Red Square in December 1991 speaks eloquently to this sincere dream: ‘What did we want? Gentle socialism, humane socialism… And what did we get?… Bloodthirsty capitalism… Black marketeers and money changers have taken power… It’s not what we wanted.’

The transition from ‘Communism’ to capitalism is a sore point with many Russians in this book.

They largely consider it as primarily benefiting political and economic elites. Old and newly emerging elites enriched themselves by selling off state assets which led to the rise of the oligarchs that are such a familiar presence today.

One truly remarkable interview is with Vasily Petrovich, a Communist Party member since 1922. A Red Army soldier in the Civil War and the Second World War, his wife was arrested in 1937 despite her and himself being loyal Party members.

He himself was later imprisoned, spending a month in solitary confinement for the ‘crime’ of not automatically informing on his wife’s fictional disloyalty. She would later die while still imprisoned, and Petrovich would not get back his Party membership until after he had returned from WWII with three decorations and medals.

Despite all this and other immense personal suffering, he still considers himself a communist. Petrovich freely admits that for him communism is a faith and his religion.

As he says: ‘We wanted to create Heaven on Earth. It’s a beautiful but impossible dream, man is not ready for it. He is not yet perfect enough. Well… From Pugachev to the Decembrists, down to Lenin himself, everyone dreamt of equality and brotherhood. Without the idea of fairness, it’ll be a different Russia with different people.’

In response to this, his grandson jokes: ‘It’s 1937. Two Old Bolsheviks are sitting in a jail cell. One says to the other, “It looks like we’re not going to live to see communism, but surely our children will!” The other: “Yes, our poor children!”

Petrovich’s last words of the interview are – ‘I want to die a communist. That’s my final wish.’

‘Democracy! That’s a funny word in Russia. “Putin the Democrat” is our shortest joke,’ notes one Russian liberal. He grew up in a dissident family, who distributed samizdat (underground literature passed from reader to reader) and ‘along with them, I read Vasily Grossman… listened to Radio Liberty.’

For him, communism, not just the government which claimed to be representative of the idea but the very idea itself, was a cage, inextricably linked with the gulag and the Terror.

He despairs about how half the country dreams of Stalin, with dozens of books and movies made about him which are avidly read and watched.

He is also greatly disheartened by what he regards as deviant behavior on the part of his son.

‘I go into my son’s room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky’s My Life on his bookshelf… I can’t believe my eyes! Is Marx making a comeback? Is this a nightmare? Am I awake or am I dreaming? My son goes to the university, he has a lot of friends, and I’ve started eavesdropping on their conversations. They drink tea in the kitchen and argue about The Communist Manifesto…’

Despite this, he utterly detests former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the 1990s ‘capitalist revolutionaries’ who ‘ran experiments on living people like they were some kind of mad scientists…’

Far from the democratic paradise he hoped for, the former Stalinist bureaucrats who, under ‘socialism’, who once promised there was a place in the sun for everyone, now sing a different tune.

‘If we live according to Darwin’s laws, we will enjoy abundance. Abundance for the fittest.’

He is incapable of imagining a socialism that was not intrinsically authoritarian and anti-democratic to its core. Thus he sees the interest his son and his friends have in socialist ideas as nothing but a throwback to a past that history itself has wiped away.

No matter how radically democratic and anti-Stalinist they and their ideas may be.

One of the last stories is of Tanya Kuleshova, a Moscow student from Belarus, and in her story one senses the author puts hope in people like her for Russia’s future.

Belarus is still a dictatorship, and its leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, is often referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictator.’

This didn’t deter Tanya however, who went out to the main square in Minsk, the capital, in late 2010 to protest against fraudulent elections with tens of thousands of others. She ended up spending a month in jail for her efforts.

State repression also affected her grandfather in Stalin’s time, who kept a little notebook which detailed his imprisonment and torture at the hands of the authorities.

Though she stood up in defence of democracy and the people, she finds that it’s not only the police and their clubs who keep the social order intact: ‘The people understand everything, but they keep quiet. In exchange, they want decent salaries… to go on a vacation to Turkey. Try talking to them about democracy and human rights – it’s like you’re speaking ancient Greek! Those who lived through Soviet times instantly start saying things like… “There’s one hundred different kinds of salami! What more freedom do we need?” Even today, many people want to go back to the Soviet Union, except with tons of salami.’

She notes the hypocrisy of her schooling, where her teachers told her to read Bunin and Tolstoy, as books by those authors save people. But as she rightly notes, ‘Why isn’t this the knowledge that’s passed down, instead of the doorknob in the rectum and the plastic bag over the head?’

She still refuses to give up the fight for a better future. As a student in Moscow, she and her friends go to protests together.

‘I like the faces of the people I see there. They remind me of the faces I saw when we went out on the square in Minsk. That day, I didn’t recognise my city or my people. They were different. Different people.’

In the movements of protest and opposition lie the hope for a more democratic Russia and for freedom, equality and fraternity.

The lives of left-wing Marxist, socialist, social-democratic and anarchist opponents of the bureaucratic Stalinist machine, and their views and opinions, receive little to no coverage in this book. This is a major oversight.

For that, interested readers should turn to the memoirs of the independently minded revolutionary socialist Victor Serge.

For the views of various left-wing critics and opponents of the Stalinist regime up to the early 1970s, see the book Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition, published by Pathfinder Press.

For an anarchist point of view of the Soviet government in Lenin’s time, see The Guillotine at Work Vol 1: The Leninist Counter-Revolution by Gregory Maximoff for a vigorous critique.

One would never know from this book that their were people in Stalin’s concentration camps who went to their deaths before a firing squad as convinced socialists singing the Internationale.

These were people who maintained their integrity as militant socialists and human beings until the end. Their resistance should be remembered, recognised and commemorated.

Nor would you learn about the Communist resistance organisation ‘Istinny Trud Lenina’ (Lenin’s True Works) based mainly among students at several Russian universities which was part of an anti-Stalinist youth opposition to the regime.

In their 1948 manifesto they called for complete universal suffrage in all soviets, and the elective principle to reign supreme at all levels of political and economic organisation.

Professional bureaucrats were to be replaced to workers’ and peasants’ committees carrying out all the administrative, economic, and social tasks.

Lenin’s True Works openly called for the overthrow of ‘the monstrous oligarchy of all-powerful bureaucrats and ambitious militarists.’

Another socialist opposition student group raised the slogan ‘Soviets But No Party’ and called for a trade union government ‘set up in soviets and coordinated by committees of deputies’ to defend the interests of the workers and peasants.

Yet another group, this time a youth organisation called the Union of Communards in 1965 denounced the one-party system, explaining in its newspaper Kolokol that: ‘the arguments in defence of a one-party system do not withstand any sort of criticism, and they run counter to the Marxist conception of a socialist society.’

None of this you would learn from The Last of the Soviets, as these kinds of people are not interviewed by Alexievich.

The prominent Bolshevik and member of the Left Opposition Karl Radek once joked: ‘Marx and Engels have issued a declaration renouncing their doctrine and acknowledging the correctness of the general line of the party of Stalin.’

It would be a joke to bury those great socialists who fought against Stalinism to their last breath under the dead weight of Stalin and his heirs.

Despite this limitation, this book is a testament to the lives lived by Russian people in the last century and this one so far, allowing them to speak in their own voice. It is an empathetic and eminently human document.

Victor Osprey has written for International Viewpoint and New Politics.  

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark June 24, 2017 at 3:06 pm

Nice to see this acknowledgement: “For an anarchist point of view of the Soviet government in Lenin’s time, see The Guillotine at Work Vol 1: The Leninist Counter-Revolution by Gregory Maximoff for a vigorous critique.”

Vigorous since Maximoff documents Bolshevik leaders’ (including L & T) calls for violence (“egging on”), which began right away, against all opponents of the government, and subsequent acts of ruthless violence in response to those calls – against worker and peasant uprisings, against left critics, and not just the bourgeoisie.

On November 21, 1917, Lenin said (and I’m quoting Maximoff): “The State is an institution built up for the sake of exercising violence…We want to organize violence in the interests of the people.”

That’s not surprising, but as Maximoff then notes: “One has to bear in mind that the chief competitors [in 1918], in the realms of ideology as well as in the struggle for power, were the Socialists and not the bourgeois.” Meanwhile, “terror by shooting began as soon as Lenin appeared in Smolny.”

Maximoff asks if terror was necessary in 1918: “Was the Soviet power in such desperate straits that it had to fall back upon “iron” as the final argument?” Certainly not, explains Maximoff.

More to the point, Maximoff argues that rather being forced by circumstances to embrace terrorism, “Lenin consciously chose the course of bloody struggle, the course of civil war with the peasants,” which provoked uprisings across the country that were “unnecessary, senseless, destructive uprisings…all of which could have been obviated, since it was possible to find a way toward a peaceful understanding. But Lenin did not want such an understanding…either with the peasants or with the Socialist parties and he did not want to hear of any united fronts with those elements.”

All of this is to say that for many Russian anarchists the continuity between Lenin and Stalin was clear and indisputable, which is why the anarchists are typically ignored by left historians sympathetic to Lenin. Whatever one thinks of Lenin’s theoretical writings, the anarchists judged him by his actions, which seems entirely judicious to me.

The documentary evidence provided by Maximoff is powerful; however, the book needs to be much more thoroughly edited to persuade a larger audience. One suspects the anarchists did not have the resources to more carefully produce and translate the work.

There are still anarchist circles in Russia that discuss Maximoff, Kropotkin, Bakunin, etc. and carry on the struggle in the face of so much ridicule from both left and right. Here is the English language page of a Russian anarchist group, though their Russian pages are much more up to date:


Victor June 25, 2017 at 2:39 am

The first account I ever read on the Russian Revolution was The Bolshevik Myth by Alexander Berkman. Having read a lot more on the subject and numerous histories and accounts since then (Voline, Trotsky, Serge, more recent histories like that of Rabinowitch ) my personal views would fall somewhere between Victor Serge and Berkman. Some days I lean more in one direction, other days another. There are limitations to Maximoff’s account – he presents the evolution of Lenin’s views and actions as just the views of Marx and Engels drawn straight from the Communist Manifesto being consistently applied in Russia – though that makes it hard to explain why so many other Marxists in all parties, including the Bolsheviks, either criticised, opposed, or sought to push or moderate policies in other directions at variance with Lenin. And ignores the objective economic and political limitations on the ground all groups faced, with a collapsing war economy, later military intervention, ceding immense (and the most productive) territory to the Germans in the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty to end WWI, which was the one big promise Lenin made that he did keep to, at great cost. And which was the main reason (though there had been a few cases of Soviet elections that weren’t entirely proper before then) that broke the Bolshevik-Left SR coalition government (Left SRs were in the Cheka too) and nearly split the Bolsheviks themselves, there was such strong opposition from some quarters. If every single thing Lenin did, no matter the circumstances, was consistent with some kind of pure ‘Marxism’, why would other Marxists disagree with it? Voline was dismissive of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries are just another power hungry political party, which is grossly unfair and more a result of his own prejudices. It could be said that their program and policies were more suited to Russian realities than Bolshevik ones – that was Murray Bookchin’s opinion. Trotsky laid far too much stress on objective circumstances curtailing what could or could not be done, even though objectively speaking, the chances of a successful socialist revolution sustaining itself in Russia alone was extremely slim, and probably impossible without external assistance and support from other countries. Maximoff rightly condemns Bolshevik repression when it occurs, but often makes it seem as if it were all due to Bolshevik mendacity alone, which is far too simplistic. All accounts have their limitations, and no-one comes out entirely pure when it comes to the Russian Revolution – the only exception, as Peter Sedgewick rightly noted, was the left-wing Mensheviks around Martov, who ‘can be excused from the general charge of indiscriminate terror and violence.’ (Year One of the Russian Revolution, pg 17 2015) And no one makes history in circumstances of their choosing, even if the most radically democratic council system of self-administration establishes itself over a ruined and economically backward country, it will degenerate into authoritarianism simply through an inability to meet people’s basics needs. Not to speak of the military threats and economic blockades it will face.

Trotsky tried to suggest in the case of the failure of the Spanish revolution anarchist ideology had to take a lot of the blame. I don’t share that view, either in the case of Spain or Russia. In both cases, the failure was not primarily of ideology, anarchist or Bolshevik, but of extreme objective difficulties. Franco had more troops and guns, plus the backing of Hitler and Mussolini – all sides in the Republic, even absolutely united, were starved of needed weapons and very likely could not have won the civil war no matter how heroic the resistance, and how inspiring the collectives, communes, and self-managed industries were, which amazingly even managed to improve production in the middle of a civil war and were unnecessarily smashed by the Republican, more and more Stalinist dominated government (as the USSR was one of the few countries supplying weapons, airplanes, tanks, and did not want a socialist revolution in Spain, etc). Defeat of the Whites in Russia essentially meant burying the revolution – Red Army victory was the revolution’s defeat, so brutalised and exhausted was the Russian population as a result of the interventions, civil conflict, and politics and economics subordinated to the immediate military struggle – which obviously dramatically expanded any latent authoritarianism there was within Bolshevism itself – certainly Lenin proved he could act in an entirely Jacobin manner if he thought it necessary.

Frankly, if the Russian Revolution’s two main figures were Kropotkin and Maximoff, I would argue the results would largely have been pretty similar, or military defeat. Not to say there could not have been a better resolution – for me, despite all the repression that occurred before 1921, 1921 is a major turning point – the suppression of the Kronstadt sailors was entirely unnecessary, the tightening of political opinion within the ruling party, the ungenerous and frankly repressive attitude taken to the other parties after the civil war when there was no justification at all for such behaviour, even during the civil war (although right-wing Mensheviks and SRs did form an anti-Bolshevik government in Samara, supposedly to restore and uphold the Constituent Assembly, but held aloft by White bayonets and brutal repression, which was then an excuse for the Bolsheviks to harrass the Mensheviks as a whole, alternating between openness towards them and repression).

If the revolution had been given some breathing space to begin with, rather than facing fatal or near fatal crises almost all the time in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution, it all would have been a lot less repressive, no matter which left-wing groups represented the dominant forces. Unfortunately, the international ruling class wasn’t prepared to accept that.

The Cheka began merely with one man, a severe, inflexible, courageous, up to that point highly principled and committed man – Dzerzhinsky – which was why he was chosen for the job – and all its records were held in his briefcase – at first, that’s all it was. But it would grow and as crises grew, it was allowed to accumulate far too much power and became a state within the state. ‘The Commisariat of Justice struggled in vain to subordinate it to the courts’ (People’s Tragedy pg 631) In my mind, if all the secret police forces of the world were reduced to one man per country and the contents of his briefcase, and severely restricted in their activities at that, that would be the ideal size! That essentially would mean abolishing entirely secret and political police in practical terms around the world.

I have enormous respect and admiration for contemporary Russian anarchists and socialists standing up against Putin’s repression, for workers rights, LGBTI rights, ecology, democracy, and so on, All power to them. They deserve whatever solidarity we can muster.

I found this an enlightening piece on the origins and struggles of contemporary Russian anarchism.


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