For Appearance’s Sake : An inquest into the Communist dream in Russia : THE DREAM THAT FAILED: Reflections on the Soviet Union, <i> By Walter Laqueur (Oxford University Press: $25; 231 pp.)</i>
Both Western diplomats in Moscow and Russian scholars linked to Washington realize that President Clinton’s crusade to Americanize Russia is flammable cheerleading. But both also know that there’s little mileage in pushing the genuine trauma the Oval Office pep rally has inflicted on the Russian people. Russian explorers these days excel at poking around: not rashly by any means, but with a loopy allegiance to appearances--what the Russians call pakazok a. There are many examples this hollowness, and Walter Laqueur’s “The Dream That Failed” is one of them.
Laqueur is the chairman of the International Research Council Center for Strategic and International Studies, and conventional wisdom proclaims the stakes too high for a policy-maker of his stature to come right out and disable Boris the Wise as the latest face in a long line of symbol-wielding, retrograde despots. The task of boiling centuries of Russia’s political, economic and social derangement down into a few hundred pages--and then of cogently illustrating this mutation’s toxic vitality inside today’s Russia--is a sweat-and-thunder exercise now that the White House has acclimatized America into living with Russia as its “strategic partner.”
The result of this has been a series of books on how the USSR, once America’s greatest threat, became our pal. Perhaps the most provocative message buried in these tomes--and certainly in “The Dream That Failed"--is that Russia is no longer high drama. High drama in Yeltsin’s Russia is a camera crew hunkered down behind an overturned coup car, capturing the backwash of Soviet history through the riveting rumble of tanks or latest mob hit. Moscow bang-bang is the only stage-set pastiche able to seize the overwhelming majority of Americans, and “The Dream That Failed” is ample evidence why the public often turns not to books but to “Inside Edition for its news.
Even the author seems to sense the cabbage soup he has served up on the pages. “The search for excuses for the historical failure of Bolshevism is a thankless assignment.” “Such minutiae can be discussed endlessly.” Well, no, the story could make for a gripping history. But Laqueur has made his account no more exciting than a three-hour speech by Leonid Brezhnev.
Laqueur, who has written some riveting studies of political history, seems to think that Communism’s collapse demands new thinking about old assumptions: “Only now, in the rubble of this lost empire, are we coming to grips with just how wrong our assumptions about the USSR had been.” While this might promote discussion in the State Department cafeteria, most contemporary historians who have spent real time on Russian ground know hat Communism’s fall was anything but “sudden.” The problem was that nobody wanted to listen to writers’ early warnings--and this is but one of the alluring topics that Laqueur breezes over.
Similarly, Laqueur’s opening revelation that “the true dividing line in Russia is not now between Communists and anti-Communists but between patriots and anti-patriots” can be found throughout John Reed’s “Ten Days That Shook the World,” written in 1918 and perhaps the clearest insight into how everyone except the Bolsheviks underplayed the icon-power of Russian patriotism.
Ever since reporter Hendrick Smith’s best-selling documentary work “The Russians” first appeared in the 1970s, there has been a race among scholars to grab the same huge audience. Scholarly takes on Russia, even the good ones, have been mass-market clunkers, however. This sort of thing doesn’t bother academia; perhaps it shouldn’t bother us. But there are some very loud misfires in “The Dream That Failed.”
Chief among these is Laqueur’s assertion that “to dismiss communism (in the USSR) as if it were never of consequence shows neither good sense nor historical understanding.” Communism--meaning the political philosophy discussed in American classrooms and written about in “The Dream That Failed"--actually played a very minor role in Soviet power.
The political history of the Soviet Union is rather a tractable chronology of crime and punishment, not an enigmatic history of ism and ology . In arguably the best of all historical contexts, Lenin and his heirs shamelessly managed society like a medieval religious inquisition from which there could be no deviation, lest the gargoyles come down off the cathedral to devour the unfaithful.
Laqueur, nevertheless, insists that “Communism did prevail” and then asks, “Why did it last so long?” He argues that many Russians did at first take Communism seriously, but fails to consider the level of Russian political and economic sophistication after the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty and the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War. Consider it now, in the wake of Russia’s biggest securities firm gouging some 10 million people of their savings in flagrant pyramid scheme, obliging police to rappel down a high-rise apartment building on ropes, barrage in through a balcony and arrest the president of the MMM investment fund.
Through the use of sly TV ads, which showed two bumbling peasants spending their profits on a wild and crazy vacation to America, MMM boss Sergei Mavrodi had effortlessly persuaded 10 million Russians that they, too, could cash in on capitalism through the securities market. No one seemed to care that Russia has absolutely no securities legislation or enforcement--or glaring data that could have convinced the dead that MMM used purchases by new investors to pay off previously purchased shares at steadily rising prices.
Mavrodi devalued MMM shares by more than 99% in a single day, leaving his shareholders broke but ready to stretch President Boris Yeltsin from the nearest oak. Yet Mavrodi is now the jailed champion of free-market capitalism. Only in Russia could a scam artist induce 10 million people to buy into a scheme promising a 3,000% yearly return. Only a government still overpowered with rot and phony symbols would let him get away with it. And only in Russia could a con man heroically condemn the government for his failure and then rouse his investors into nominating him as a candidate for the State Duma.
The Bolsheviks spun Marxism into a glorious con supported by terror and the patriotic idea that the USSR was actually a Marxist state. Although Laqueur concedes that by the time Marx reached Lenin and Stalin “the kinship was so tenuous as to be virtually meaningless except on the level of slogans,” this analysis screams out for deeper digging because, as the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski says of the Soviet Imperium, “a nation that does not have a state seeks salvation in symbols.”
And Laqueur fails to fully discuss the most important symbol of all: perestroika--and the ironic likelihood that the USSR collapsed because Mikhail Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader who actually turned to “communism” for salvation. Laqueur totally ignores the fear and loathing Gorbachev’s position generated at the critical 28th Communist Party conference in July, 1990. It was here that Gorbachev decided to redecorate the Politburo to include representatives of all 15 Soviet republics. Gorbachev hailed this as a devolution of political clout from Moscow to local authorities and a sea change in power from the party to newly elected legislatures. Economic power was now positioned to trickle down the trough of enlightened Marxism and into the hands of the people. Although the outgoing, 12-member Politburo had been grossly tilted toward Moscow politicians, the real power to affect people’s day-to-day lives had always been in the hands of local party officials in the smaller cities and provinces.
Gorbachev’s Politburo would have 24 members, including representatives selected from the 250-member Central Committee, with each one responsible for a specific policy area. Gorbachev called this “ideological renovation” and an “ecology of the soul.” But the mood on the street was a reluctance to rely on this faddish body because republic-level party organizations and the Central Committee were contaminated with corruption and for nearly six years under Gorbachev’s rule had shown a abhorrence for using perestroika as a symbol to sever the tug of mass social and economic misery and rekindle Gorbachev’s idea of Democratic-Socialist entrepreneurs, or NEPmen. In short, the apparatchiks didn’t want to share their wealth and perks with the masses.
At the level of the republic, the district and the local council, the communism dissected in “The Dream That Failed” had achieved a degree of truly exceptional vulgarity that Laqueur overlooks; a further deputation of authority from Moscow for these criminals to use at home was foreordained by the public to become a further delegation of cruelty. Gorbachev’s maneuver to transform the USSR into a confederation of sovereign states, each controlling its own economic resources, and “act independently and really influence the Central Committee and the Politburo,” was an outrage to both the country and the gangsters who ruled it.
Perestroika was Gorbachev’s last chance to make communism work as a system of government. But it was too late, both for the party--which viewed genuine restructuring as a near-nuclear threat to its power, and for the Russian people--for whom over seven decades of Kremlin villainy had undermined any faith in Kremlin reform.
John Reed had observed a similar mechanism at work in Kerensky’s panic-stricken Mensheviks on the eve of the 1917 Russian Revolution: “In the relations of a weak Government and a rebellious people there comes a time when every act of the authorities exasperates the masses, and every refusal to act excites their contempt.”
How the dynamic happened again in the Soviet Union--and examining why it remains at work in Yeltsin’s Russia--is the mesmerizing story not told in “The Dream That Failed.” Laqueur’s inquest into the Communist dream deferred is an academic’s remembrance of a system that never truly existed, pure pakazoka .