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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 45 October 29, 2022

Book Review: S.P.K. Gupta’s Two Vol. The Rise and Eclipse of the Soviet Civilisation | Sobhanlal Datta Gupta

Saturday 29 October 2022

Book Review:

by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta*

The Rise and Eclipse of the Soviet Civilisation.

Vol I : The Rise

Vol 2 : The Eclipse

by S.P.K. Gupta

E Book

New Delhi : Evelyn Publishers


Vol I : 2288 pages

Vol II : 1257 pages

Rs 500.00 each volume

A book authored by a very senior journalist stationed as PTI correspondent in Moscow for quite a long period and reflecting on the fall of the Soviet Union after thirty years of its demise made me deeply interested in reading it. Going through a two volume study running up to 3542 pages was, indeed, a challenging exercise and I thought it would be a time-consuming job to write this review. This, however, did not happen. While finishing the book took more than a week, writing this review took hardly a few hours. The explanation, howsoever, odd it may sound, is rather simple. This is a study which has one very specific objective, namely, to give vent to the author’s very personal feelings and sentiments about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. He has rummaged through volumes of books and articles, has selectively picked up episodes therefrom and presented them in a biographical, if not a dramatic, style, in order to vindicate his beliefs . The result is a book which is based on assertions, and not arguments, and turns out to be almost a work of fiction, bereft of any serious historical value.

The problem begins right from the first page At the very outset in the synopsis of the first volume he makes a declaration that is openly pejorative and immediately alerts the reader about the intention of the author. In fact, the chapters that follow, spread across the two volumes, are simply illustrative of it. Furthermore, the titles of the chapters, especially in the second volume, are so strongly loaded that they are at once reflective of the prejudiced mindset of the author. Let me, therefore, briefly summarise the position of the author, to be more precise, his understanding of Soviet history. First, the October Revolution ushered in the birth of a new civilization and its architect was Lenin, whose legacy was most truthfully carried forward by Stalin. Second, the alleged repressions of the Stalin era are nothing but false propaganda aired by the enemies of socialism. Consequently, there was nothing wrong with the Moscow trials, the expulsion and killing of Trotsky and the execution of leading Bolsheviks like Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin and many others. Second, the process of dismantling of socialism was initiated by Nikita Khruschev when he presented his ‘infamous’ secret report on Stalin and his personality cult in 1956 at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Third, the removal of Khruschev from power by Brezhnev and his associates was a step in the right direction, since he again reset the clock, bringing back to a large extent the Stalinist understanding of the building of socialism. This was manifest in the tirade against revisionism in the Brezhnev era, namely, Eurocommunism, the suppression of the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968 and such other episodes. Fourth, the seeds of counterrevolution were planted with Yuri Andropov’s coming to power, following the death of Brezhnev. It was Andropov who groomed Gorbachev and sidelined other senior leaders like Romanov and Grishin and started undoing the achievements of the Brezhnev era in the name of campaign against corruption. Konstantin Chernenko, who succeeded Andropov, following his death, in 1985 was the last real communist General Secretary, who raised the Soviet Union to a new height in all fields (chapter 47, vol.I). Fifth, the ascendancy of Mikhail Gorbachev was the last nail in the coffin, because it was he who acted as an agent of capitalism and counterrevolution, working hand in hand with US imperialism for destruction of Soviet socialism. It was he who surreptitiously masterminded the project for years, waited till the death of Chernenko and launched his programme of perestroika and glasnost, which were nothing but buzzwords for the restoration of capitalism in the USSR (chapters 1-7, vol.II). Finally, it was Gorbachev who engineered the dismantling of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, as manifest in his shrewd strategy of non-intervention, when the Soviet bloc was engulfed in a political turmoil, following the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989. It was he who, according to the author, thus made East Europe a prey of imperialist machinations (chapter 16, vol.II)

This being the sum and substance of the narrative of the learned journalist, the reader is confronted with a number of troublesome questions. While the author condemns Gorbachev as an agent of Western capitalism and imperialism and considers all non-Soviet sources as fake and concocted, how is it that he repeatedly refers to Gorbachev’s Memoirs and many other Western reports, originating from the United States, to justify his own contentions, which he presents, ostensibly to impress the reader, in a dramatized form? ? Besides, following the author’s own testimony it is evident that Gorbachev was inducted in the party echelon in the Brezhnev period, with his full knowledge. Then who is responsible for the rise of Gorbachev in the Soviet party hierarchy : Brezhnev or Gorbachev himself ? The author takes this issue to a new height of absurdity when he alleges, interestingly, relying on Western journalistic sources, that Chernenko’s death was secretly plotted by Gorbachev and his men in Kremlin (chapter 48, vol 1). The author explodes another bombshell when he laments that the real story of how Gorbachev destroyed the Soviet regime is yet to be unfolded, because we have to wait till the American authorities open up the Soviet archives, which they are supposed to have taken away after the Soviet fall (p.1254, vol II) ! The author needs to be reminded at this point that, immediately after 1991, Yale University launched a project of publication of Soviet archival materials in collaboration with the Russian archival authorities under the title “Annals of Russian Communism”, and a series of very important scholarly publications, jointly authored by American and Russian historians, have been out since then. It is simply a preposterous proposition that the Soviet archives were taken away by the Americans after 1991. Very serious research is being conducted in the Russian archives by leading historians of the world on the Soviet era not on American but on the Russian soil. This was followed up by the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP), launched by the Woodrow Wilson Centre, the publications of which have made a breakthrough in our understanding of the Cold War period. These publications are based on solid archival data, revealed for the first time, and culled from Russian and East European sources the authenticity of which has not been contested by any historian. However, the author’s contention that the CWIHP volumes constitute a supplement to his own research findings (p.1254, vol.II) is completely misleading, because the CWIHP findings in no way match the author’s position.

For our author the problem is that he considers dissent as a crime and blinded by a unilinear understanding of Soviet history, as dished out by the official Soviet media, and that too only in the Stalinist frame, he presents an account and an understanding of Soviet history which is bound to be deeply pejorative. This may be immensely self-satisfying for the author and his likes but not at all convincing for any discerning reader. At times the reader has to stop reading and think twice whether to proceed further. I will cite just a few instances. The author indulges in violent, almost hysterical, diatribes, as he reflects on the publications of once “banned” writers, following the commencement of the Gorbachev era. Some of the names are : Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstham, to mention a few. In the author’s opinion they were all wreckers of socialism and it was, indeed, correct that  their writings were capped in the Brezhnev era. Following the same logic, the author defends with open hands the Soviet intervention in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), castigating the short-lived Nagy and Dubcek periods. Consequently, the idea of reform, the notion of “human face of socialism”, democratization, pluralism are words which constitute anathema for the author. The entire two-volume study is guided by three central considerations. One : the Stalin period, followed by the Brezhnev regime, constituted the most glorious decades, the golden era of soviet socialism, the rise of Soviet civilization (chapter 42, vol.I). Two : repression, corruption, inefficiency, bureaucratization, ---- these were allegations made not by the Soviet people who were the beneficiaries of the system, but allegations leveled by the so-called dissenters who did not accept the official Soviet model and who were propped up by the West. Three : the eclipse of Soviet socialism is to be attributed to the conspiracy hatched up by Khruschev in 1956 (chapter 30, vol.I) which was then followed up by Andropov (chapter 46, vol I) and given the most perfect shape by Gorbachev, the latter’s closest allies being Bush, Thatcher and Reagan. So the break up of Eastern Europe and disintegration of the USSR were natural consequences. However, of the three alleged ring leaders who are put in the dock by the author it is Mikhail Gorbachev who is considered as the biggest culprit, the most vile and treacherous figure who, in collaboration with Yeltsin, brought down the Soviet system. This runs like a refrain throughout the book, especially the second volume.

The book singularly lacks organization and editing skill. From the author’s own statement it is clear that he amassed a huge amount of material at different stages of his life and then put them together. The result has been these two bulky volumes which could have been easily compressed into one single volume comprising a few hundred pages. The organizational mess is evident in the following : in vol. 1 at the very beginning long extracts from Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s age old study Soviet Communism : A New Civilization, together with the full text of Communist Manifesto in vol. 2 in no way contribute to the understanding of the Soviet phenomenon. It is also not clear why a long discussion on the Paris Commune has figured in the book at the very beginning. What kind of problems unedited manuscripts can create is further evident when the author suddenly begins to write on a country- wise history of people’s democracies (chapter 21, vol.1) and the reader loses track of what he is going through. In many other places, the discussion suddenly veers in a direction which takes the reader off-guard. The author has tried to say too many things at one go, which has resulted in a chaotic presentation. Jump cuts constitute a film technique; but if one employs it in the writing of history, where sequence or historical time is extremely important, then it becomes quite an exasperating experience for the reader.

The problem of this kind of writing is that the author approaches history with a set of pre-conceived ideas, flatly dismissing the counterfactual arguments as subversive and reactionary. It permanently blocks the possibility of raising questions relating to the functioning of socialism in actual practice and thereby does not allow consideration of any alternative explanation of the fall of Soviet socialism other than the version which he believes in. Consequently, any sensible reader would search the book in vain for answers to the following questions . First, since the author does not endorse the relaxation of censorship and lifting of many controls and restrictions in the Gorbachev era and stands for their continuation, the argument being that counterrevolution would then take over, the following questions would become pertinent. First, is it not then an indication that the whole notion of the ‘New Man’, an expression coined in the Brezhnev period, under socialism was a misnomer, that socialism that was declared to have reached new heights under Brezhnev was too vulnerable, demanding constant surveillance and protection through restrictions even after seventy years of the revolution ? Second, would any serious reader of Soviet history buy the argument that all voices of dissent, all reform experiments undertaken in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, all suppressed voices in the field of art and literature were reflective of the spirit of counterrevolution ? Following this logic, Rosa Luxemburg, Georg Luka´cs, the researchers of the Frankfurt School should be labeled as reactionaries too. In other words, are voices of dissent necessarily attacks on socialism or alternative voices of socialism ? Third, since the entire book is featured by a catalogue of assertions, it results in statements which at times become ridiculously self-contradictory. For instance, while at the beginning of volume I he blames the Gorbachev-Yeltsin nexus as the key factor for the collapse of Soviet socialism, thereafter he himself narrates, how almost from the very beginning when Gorbachev introduced his reform programme, he harboured sharp differences with Yeltsin. Again, while he considers Khruschev as the original sinner, how is it that it was this man who made military intervention in Hungary in 1956 and which, according to the author, was the step in the right direction ? Fourth, while he discusses , in a dramatic fashion, the last days of Lenin and his Testament, a crucial question is left unanswered by the author : why Lenin’s Testament remained unpublished till 1956 and not in the Stalin period ?

The author believes that his analysis is reflective of the true Marxian revolutionary spirit. The problem is that if one’s understanding is guided by a set of fixed ideas, which do not allow entry of alternative currents conducive to socialism, it becomes a dogma, unrelated to practice. This is exactly what has happened in the case of this voluminous study. It begins with a big promise, while the result is an intellectual disaster, since history itself has become the biggest casualty.

(Author: Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, Former Surendra Nath Banerjee Professor of Political Science, University of Calcutta)

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