Russia: no way out
Christopher Booker 'Stalin's death shook our life to its found- ations. Lessons in school virtually came to a halt, the teachers wept openly and verYbody went around with swollen eyes ••something terrible and irreparable had c'ecurred. How would we live from now on? r Father, to whom have you abandoned us? People said quite openly, "Who is there to die for now? Malenkov? No, the people won't die for Malenkov".' Vladimir Bukovsky, To Build a Castle Vladimir Bukovsky is only one of a . number of eye-witnesses who have since described the almost incredible scenes !'hich took place in Moscow in 1953 follow- 'brie, the death of Stalin. As the Leader's millions laY in state in the Hall of Columns, -"„"uons of people converged on the centre Ot the city in 'immense, silent, gloomy tstasses'• Attempts were made to seal off the stases'. surrounding the centre with hun- mreds r of buses, lorries and tanks. But the S of People eventually became so great that, in a series of incidents such as that hivessed by Bukovsky when 'a bus ered,
' toppled over and fell, like an
eP h ant rolling over onto its side', literally were crushed to death. claims 'thousands') at% the evidence of Monday's grim, temost perfunctory scenes attending the in- iiitinient of Leonid Brezhnev in that curious h "e municipal plot behind Lenin's tomb, it wails scarcely been like that this time. But r„,enever a long familiar national leader 1,7seS from the centre of power, particular- When he is the remote, semi-deified intder of a Communist state, two underly- th°,, archetYpes vie to shape the response of or -se who have to adjust to the unfamiliar
t2rsPect of a world without him.
be he first response is to feel strangely be,,reft, because the departed figure had a k`.°Ine reassuring simply by his familiarity: va2111c1 of father figure with whom one felt 011,,* safe. The second is to look for signs the "De and change, of a 'new start' under Ferentlew regime which will somehow be clif- f "t from the one just ended. we: recent days, during the transition bet- cho ri the Brezhnev era and that of Yuri An- strokv, both these archetypes have been the nglY at work, perhaps rather more in AnciWaWest than in the Soviet Union itself.
in usual when some important happen-
ut the USSR focuses Western attention therthat shadowy and mysterious empire, hut: has been a certain amount of grim tion °ur to be derived from the combina- Whi„cif ignorance and wishful thinking brill' so many Western commentators Dretg to
bear as they vainly attempt to inter- Soviet reality' in terms which a Westerner can understand.
On the day Brezhnev's death was an-
nounced, I overheard an elderly couple on a train discussing the topic of the moment. `Well at least he was more lenient than that
Khrushchev,' said one. 'And of course he was a bit more lenient than Stalin,' replied
Considering many of the 'expert' com-
ments which have flooded from the media in recent days, it is not perhaps surprising
that ordinary people should hold such inno- cent views. As usual in a class by himself
among the experts called on to weigh the latest developments in the Soviet Union was Sir Harold Wilson, amiably reminiscing on The World at One and again in the Times about his 17 visits to Moscow, his gritty negotiations with Mr Mikoyan back in the Forties and the fact that when he first visited Moscow as Prime Minister no less an
authority than the Daily Express had com- mented on how he had been 'loaded with marks of favour', including a front-page
picture in Pravda. It seems no one had told him that Pravda reserves really important news for its back page — and quite what all this had to do with the death of Mr Brezhnev was not clear.
Then there was David Dimbleby's
reverential commentary on the funeral ceremony on Monday morning, for all the world as if he was covering nothing odder than a Garter ceremony at Windsor. There was the BBC news report which showed Patriarch Pimen of the 'official' Orthodox Church turning up at the bier-side in what was described as 'a striking tribute by the Church to an atheist state' (no hint that possibly Pimen might not have been there in front of the TV cameras unless someone had ordered him to be there). But much more interesting have been the constant attempts to portray both Mr Brezhnev and his successor as politicians somehow cast in a recognisable Western mould. 'Leonid Brezhnev may have been the closest thing to a constitutional ruler Russia has ever had,' ran the Observer editorial on Sunday. Again and again we have had questioners trying to establish whether Brezhnev and Andropov could not in some way be seen as 'liberal' figures. No less than three times in the first 24 hours I heard the phrase used of Mr Brezhnev that 'he did not have blood on his hands', while another news report, summing up his achievements, said that during his reign 'the Soviet Union came of age'.
Now it is only fair to add that most of those interviewed in such a vein were in- stantly at pains to reject all this 'liberal con- sensus' guff, and the more intimately familiar they were with the realities of Soviet life (e.g. Vladimir Bukovsky), the more vehemently they brushed it aside. Equally there was no shortage of material provided as a counterpoint to the com- paratively cosy and humane image of Mr Brezhnev, tucking up in his dacha to watch John Wayne films, or of the bookish, modern-jazz loving, English-speaking Mr Andropov as the 'first intellectual to run the Soviet Union since Lenin'. Andropov's personally murderous role in putting down the Hungarian rising of 1956 (in which more than 30,000 Hungarians died) was no more down-played than his and Brezhnev's brutal collaboration over the past 15 years to suppress every vestige of dis- sent, either among individuals in the USSR itself or collectively in the Soviet empire at large, from Czechoslovakia to Poland and Afghanistan. But the fact remains that few desires die so hard in Western minds as that to see in the Communist world some signs of a thaw, a liberalisation, a lightening of the darkness, in the hope that one day the Soviet system will not be dissimiliar to our own. The fact that the Communist system, wherever it has been established, is like nothing ever seen before on earth, because it is frozen in the grip of a totalitarian ideology, is something impossible for such minds to grasp — hence all the clutching at straws such as the belief that men may be seen as 'liberal' simply because they do not put their fellow human beings to death in such an indiscriminately crazy way as Stalin.
The true significance of the Brezhnev era, as I have argued here before, was not that it saw Soviet Communism 'coming of age' but that, 60 years after the Revolution, it marked the final extinction of any con- ceivable grounds for hope that life under socialism could in any sense 'get better'. In every decade from the early 1920s to the late 1970s, there were almost always at least some grounds for the average Soviet citizen to suppose that life might one day get better by the two criteria normally applied — the degree of terror he or she suffered under and the degree of material wellbeing created by the economy. In fact the last time when it was seriously possible to suppose that conditions were improving in both these
respects was during the last years of the Khrushchev era in the early Sixties. Already by the time Brezhnev and Kosygin took over in 1964 there were signs that the cultural 'thaw' was in retreat, although the relative improvement in material living standards went on. By the mid-1970s, the Brezhnev/Andropov repression of dissent was working up towards the almost com- plete elimination of the dissident communi- ty which has taken place since 1980. While in a sense even more significantly, because it is related to socialist materialism's central article of belief — that under socialism liv- ing standards must inexorably rise — has come the accelerating economic breakdown of the past three or four years. This is like nothing which the Soviet Union has ever before experienced, if only because there is no longer the slightest excuse for it except the in-built weaknesses of socialism itself.
Wishful thinking to the last, many Westerners have somehow supposed that one of the most serious contributory factors to the collapse of the Soviet economy has simply been the age and conservatism of Mr Brezhnev and the old men around him (like the octogenarian Mr Arvid Pelshe, who could not be sacked from the Politburo
because he was its last member who had personally met Lenin). It has been supposed that there is some mysterious younger generation of technocrats who have only to get their impatient hands on the levers of power, and the Soviet economy will judder back into gear and roar off again. The truth is that, as I first wrote here two years ago, the Soviet economy is in a disastrous and worsening mess for no more obvious reason than the unbelievably rigid ideological basis on which it is organised. Neither Mr Brezhnev nor Mr Andropov nor anyone else could seriously improve its effi- ciency without fundamentally changing it in ways which the official ideology could not possibly permit. The ideology cannot be changed. Nor therefore can the economy. That is the fundamental contradiction which the Soviet Union has finally and in- escapably been forced up against in these past few years. It is one from which there is no way out, which is why the fundamental mood of most people in the Soviet Union these days may be . summed up as a desperate sense of bezizkhodnost — 'exit- lessness'. That is the true state of affairs in the Soviet Union, and it is not one which should give any of us cause for optimism.