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Liberalization Within the Soviets

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Liberalization Within the Soviets

Mihajlo Mihajlov

Having spent more than seven years in the Yugoslavian, Communist prisons of President Josip Broz Tito, Mihajlo Mihajlov is qualified to speak about the changes in Soviet life. He is glad for what he sees, but he is not convinced that the USSR is about to become a liberal democracy.

Editor's Note: Mr. Mihajlov wrote for the St. Croix Review in the 1970s and 1980s. This article was published by the St. Croix Review in August 1988, and is republished now to honor Mr. Mihajlov's life, and to recall a time fewer and fewer of us lived through or remember.

Two Kinds of Social Diseases

No sooner had the all-powerful state eased its pressure on society than it became suddenly apparent that browbeaten souls no longer able to think for themselves were not the sole occupants of the wide expanse of the Soviet Union. Like mushrooms after a good rain, there emerged unofficial associations and clubs; encouraged by the official policy of glasnost, newspapers and magazines took to printing thousands upon thousands of extremely interesting letters-to-the-editor - visible proof that the solid oneness of Soviet society is a piece of fiction; a clamor arose to revive the long-forgotten compassion, spiritual values, even prevention of cruelty to animals.

Time and again, as each new liberalization wave rises, it transpires that the free human spirit has braved decades of enormous totalitarian pressure and survived intact under the ice of the "personality cult" or "stagnation." I remember the astonishment of many Western observers during the few heady months of the Prague Spring of 1968 marked by a similarly tempestuous reemergence of an independent society. The same process accompanied the rise of Polish Solidarity. Everywhere, all of a sudden and within a very short time, many thousands of men and women appear out of nowhere with well thought out, closely-reasoned ideas and realistic plans of democratization. The West is usually struck speechless, because the evolution of social consciousness in the democratic world is a gradual process, undisturbed by successive thaws and frosts.

The weaker the pressure exerted by the monopoly party with its sole "correct" ideology, the more the countries of "real socialism" come to look like normal democracies. The gray uniformity immediately dissolves, giving way to a multitude of ideological and political currents spanning the entire spectrum from the far right to the far left. Who could imagine a few short years ago that the Soviet Union would harbor quite a few followers of the Oriental Hare Krishna cult, or hippies, or collectors of World War Two-vintage Nazi memorabilia - so commonplace in the West as to pass unnoticed? Needless to say, the explosive process of liberalization brings forth negative as well as positive phenomena inherent in democratic societies. But it only goes to prove that the problems confronting the democratic world are of a universal nature and that totalitarianism is incapable of solving a single serious problem, merely exacerbating the social ills that surface with explosive force at the first opportunity.

I would liken today's situation in the world to that in the field of public health. While the highly developed nations of the so-called First World have for decades been spending enormous resources to fight cancer or to develop techniques of transplanting the heart and other vital organs, Third World doctors are still preoccupied with epidemic diseases long since forgotten in the First World. Most diseases ravaging underdeveloped countries are no longer a medical problem, but have everything to do with social and political factors. By the same token, most problems of the one-party system, above all its seemingly intractable economic woes, are in no way caused by economic or technological factors, but are of a purely political nature.

Of course, the democratic world has quite a few problems of its own, some of which have begun to crop up in the Soviet Union, such as drug addiction, all but non-existent in Stalin's time. However, diagnosing the ills inherent in any modern society, not just capitalist countries alone, makes it possible to fight them openly, as Soviet propaganda has insisted for years. And again a medical comparison: a triumph over all sorts of epidemics in the Third World will not amount to the defeat of First World diseases. If the one-party system in the Soviet Union does eventually evolve into genuine pluralism, political and social democratization will most certainly fail to usher in an earthly paradise. However, it will enable all Soviet citizens to gear up for a fight against the worst modern diseases of mankind, instead of the innumerable epidemics of the "stagnant" totalitarian World.

The Truth Is Coming Into the Open

In his classic research into the Stalinist era, The Great Terror, British historian Robert Conquest repeatedly laments the fact that Soviet society is so closed and secretive that historians have a much better idea of the facts and events of the ancient past than those of a few decades ago. The titanic work done by Conquest was in fact based on circumstantial evidence and indirect statistics; the author of The Great Terror himself acknowledged on more than one occasion that the whole truth would not be known until the Soviet archives were opened and eyewitness accounts made available to researchers.

The light of glasnost is beginning to illuminate, if not the whole past of the Soviet Union, then at least some of the mystery surrounding Stalin and Beria. After the defendants at the so-called "Rightist-Trotskyist Center" trial were rehabilitated earlier this year, the Soviet press exploded with dozens of materials describing and condemning the nefarious deeds perpetrated by Stalin, Beria, and Vyshinsky. It goes without saying that almost all the facts being disclosed by the Soviet press have long been known in the West and described by Robert Conquest and other historians in the democratic world; yet, from time to time, Soviet periodicals do come up with tidbits of information and eyewitness accounts showing in an even more lurid relief the bloody crimes that have accompanied Soviet rule throughout much of its history.

Item: Anatoly Golovkov's article in issue #7 of Ogonyok rehabilitation Komsomol leader Aleksander Kosarev, who was executed on Stalin's orders. Kosarev's widow relates that shortly before her husband was arrested and shot, they were invited to a spectacular party to honor Papanin's polar expedition on the occasion of its safe return. During the festivities, Stalin embraced and kissed Kosarev, but after the party was over the Komsomol leader told his wife that Stalin had whispered in his ear: "If you betray me, I'll kill you."

Item: Nikolai Zhusenin's article in issue #8 of the weekly Nedelya under the title "Beria: A Few Episodes from a Criminal Career." Zhusenin discloses that a select group of army officers who arrested Beria at a Politburo meeting was smuggled into the Kremlin, through the Borovitsky Gate, by Bulganin and Zhukov in their limousines with darkened windows. Bulganin and Khrushchev "explained the assignment" to the men: on a prearranged signal, they were to enter the room where the Politburo would be in session. Here is the account provided by the sole surviving participant of the event, as told in Nedelya:

So when the bell rang, we entered in pairs, pistols drawn, through all the three doors. Some comrades, obviously frightened, started to rise from their chairs - as it happened, not all Politburo members had been briefed in advance about what was going to happen. Well, the rest was simple. Malenkov gave a brief explanation and asked: "Who is in favor of arresting Beria?" Everybody raised their hands, whereupon Georgy Konstantinovic approached Beria who was frozen in his chair and said: "Hands up. You are under arrest."

The Soviet press often castigates the West for not placing enough trust in the positive processes currently under way in the USSR. However, it is easy to understand why the West is wary. The above-described episodes, like Stalin's kiss followed by Kosarev's execution, or Beria's ambush-style arrest at a Politburo meeting resembling a scene from an American thriller, smack too much of Mafia mores. It would take a big leap of imagination to picture the Speaker of the Parliament and the Minister of Defense of a democratic country smuggling a group of armed men in their limos to a cabinet meeting, and the hitmen, on cue, nabbing a third member of government, with some people in the room taken unawares and having to vote at gunpoint. Scenes like that seem to come straight out of Godfather or any other American movie about organized crime. Besides - who knows? - maybe similar episodes occur nowadays behind the Kremlin walls but will not be made known to the world until a half century later.

Disclosure of historical events is a welcome development even if it comes half a century too late. Yet, world public opinion has every right to withhold its trust until the shroud of secrecy still enveloping the life and activities of the monopoly party's ruling elite has been torn off. After all, even Yeltsyn's speech at the Central Committee session where he was demoted has not been made public. How long will the Soviet press go on disclosing the truth, and not all of it at that, about the days of yore, while maintaining the very same degree of secrecy about what is going on today?

The Source of Lawlessness

It is a rare treat to read Soviet newspapers today, particularly after the judicial rehabilitation of the Bukharin-Rykov group. The past few weeks have seen a massive torrent of articles about that third Moscow show trial describing in considerable detail the beatings administered to the defendants; the absence of any proof of their guilt; the pre-trial hounding of Lenin's loyal lieutenants by the Soviet press; the villainy of the prosecutor, Vyshinsky. To be sure, we who live beyond the Soviet borders have long known the whole truth - and not just from Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon inspired by Bukharin's trial. A substantial body of literature has been devoted to the show trials of the 1936-38 period, and of course the Soviet press has so far failed to reveal anything new. Still, one especially relishes reading about those trials in Izvestia, Nedelya, or Literaturnaya Gazeta. The fact they print such materials eliminates, as it were, yet another barrier between the two worlds, a barrier due to the man-made information famine in the country of the Soviets.

And yet, alongside truthful facts about the Stalinist trials revealed to the Soviet reader for the first time, all of these articles try to put across a spurious notion undercutting the enormous moral curative power inherent in any disclosure of the truth after decades of organized mendacity. While describing in lurid detail the lawlessness of Stalin's times, the Soviet press spares no effort to blame the ugliness of Soviet reality still painfully in evidence today on Stalin's "personality cult" alone and to portray the pre-Stalin era as one of the rule of law, glasnost, and self-financing, thereby implying that a return to Lenin is the real cure.

Perhaps the most eloquent exposition of this idea is contained in a major article by Arkady Vaksberg printed in Literaturnaya Gazeta on January 27. While describing in minute detail Andrei Vyshinsky's trial strategy and the many violations of the judicial procedure that ran counter even to Soviet legality, unencumbered as it is by "bourgeois formalities," the author of the article titled "The Queen of Proof" hammers home the point that all the ills and lawlessness of modern Soviet society are rooted in Stalin's times. Vaksberg admits that nowadays, too, whenever a defendant complains of illegal third-degree tactics used by the investigators, a typical Soviet court, instead of looking into the allegations, is likely to dismiss them as slander. "Where does it come from? From those times, from those times . . ." exclaims Vaksberg. When facts are mercilessly twisted at the trial, again he exclaims: "Where does it come from? From those times, from those times . . ." The author of this otherwise remarkable article time and again asks the same question and posits the same answer: So where do these ineradicable criminal practices come from - From those times, from those times. . . ."

The trouble is, though, that Vaksberg's theory flies in the face of known facts. Again, the Soviet reader is fed a lie, albeit in a new, somewhat camouflaged form. Vyshinsky and the Big Three Moscow show trials had been preceded by countless instances of judicial and extralegal terror that served as a laboratory and a proving ground for the whole gamut of illegal techniques of which Andrei Vyshinsky subsequently was to become an unsurpassed practitioner. But he was not the one who invented them. They had been developed when Lenin was still alive, and the 1922 trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries' leaders has a legitimate claim as the opening act of the show trial era, with then-Minister of Justice Krylenko playing the role later assigned to Vyshinsky, and with equal success. That's where it came from, not from Vyshinky's time. From those times, from those times. . . . *

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