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An Introduction to Soviet Communism

The international political scenery of Western Europe of the seventies and eighties, in which I grew up, was framed within the perspective of Cold War conflicts: East and West, NATO and Warsaw Pact, communism and capitalism. Given the spectacular failure of the European communist regimes, it may be hard to understand now how many European nations then unabashedly had communist mainstream political parties and governments, and how otherwise intelligent people could maintain, in absolute sincerety, the superiority of the Soviet model of society, and demonstrate violently at military bases for immediate nuclear disarmament to placate our Soviet friends. Ronald Reagan's epithet of the evil empire was an easy object for ridicule, and only much later would I come to see it as not even a mere disparagement but as a fair characterization.

Given its enormous influence, if mostly indirect, on the factors that shaped us then, it seems to me now shameful how little we knew or were taught about the Soviet Union. Yes, we thought we were aware of the Soviet propaganda machine, sometimes so ridiculously transparent. The mistake we made was failing to realize that so many of its machinations could have escaped our awareness, and that even when awful truths of Soviet repression were known in the West, they had hardly permeated to the public consciousness. This last point, is raised by one of the titles reviewed below, and given its scale is one which I still find hard to justify: how is it possible that the crimes of a regime which had murdered at least twenty million individuals merited so little attention from the public? Worldwide, communism is directly responsible for the death of at least eighty-five million. This number --just as the number six million-- simply defies comprehension.

Communism as a philosophy need not, of course, be inherently hostile-- witness the kibbutz cooperatives that were established in the fouding years of the State of Israel and run under varying philosophical shades and intensities for several decades until dying out in all but name. The ideals of the 'founding fathers' of the kibbutzim were not always inherited by their children, who would often opt to leave in favor of the outside Israeli society which was increasingly embracing capitalism. And that's the thing: within its democratic context, membership of the kibbutz and adherence to its policy was ultimately a personal decision. For a nation to be communist however, it must impose its ideas on all its citizens regardless of their inclination. It is, of course, true that all governments to some degree coerce their citizens, if only through their judiciaries. The essential and fundamental difference between communist and capitalist states is, nonetheless, that the particular ideal imposed by the former is the denial and negation of the sovereignity of the individual with respect to the state-- whereas in the latter it is in its extreme just the opposite, an abandonment of the individual to his own devices, which is to say, a dearth of coercion. The inescapable conclusion is that in order to perpetuate themselves, communist forms of government must be maximally coercive, surviving by repression and violence. And this, we know, is confirmed by practice.

Last Summer, a short trip to Lithuania (one of the Baltic states that came under Soviet control after the Second World War) became my first foray into the former Eastern bloc. This trip left impressions on me in several ways, but relevant here are the ones that led me to reconsider my understanding of Soviet communism. The beautiful national open-air museum in Rumsiskes is itself a map of the whole country, with the regions of Lithuania represented by reconstructed farmhouses and villages in their corresponding sections of the park. Between 1940 and 1953, 120,000 Lithuanians were deported and tens of thousands more imprisoned [1] in the remote concentration camps of the Soviet Union. The dislocation of so many of the citizens of this small country is symbolized by a small enclave of the park, dedicated to the memory of the victims and maintained by survivors. The Genocide Museum (also known as the KGB Museum) in the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius documents the imprisonment, torture, and murder of Lithuanian citizens by the Soviet occupiers. Both these places are worth seeing for any visitor to Lithuania, but their tragedy is that they can only ever vaguely hint at the intensity of repression.

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Harvest of Sorrow
Soviet Collectivization and
the Terror-Famine

Robert Conquest
411pp, Oxford University Press

Communism vs. Ukraine: 1-0

19th-century Ukrainian peasants lived in serfdom that was so agriculturally inefficient that it was comparable to 14th-century England. But with the growing urban population the need for political and agricultural reform was recognized, and under the Tsar came the 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs and the privatisation of communal holdings in 1906, so that they gained some degree of freedom. And as their lives improved, so did production.

Unfortunately, self-determination did not fit into Marxist theory. The intelligentsia felt only contempt for the peasantry, which it saw as an impediment to social progress. 9 million died when the peasants revolted against the Bolshevik coup in the 1918-1920 Peasant War.

Driven by their obsessive analysis of everything as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘proletariat’, the Bolsheviks set out to find class struggle in the countryside. Invention of the all-evil kulak farmer enabled them to perpetrate violence against anyone who might resist Soviet power— in reality, anyone who was slightly more productive or who showed any kind of initiative. One individual who organized a fire-fight was ‘exposed’ as a kulak. More to the point, the infinitely malleable kulak allowed the Soviet government to perpetrate its war on Ukraine.

With typical Soviet planning, the government requisitioned so much grain that none was left for seeding. As a result, the Great Famine of 1921-1922 took an astounding 5 million lives, far exceeding anything seen under the Tsar. Yet, American food aid was prevented from reaching starving Ukrainians and grain was even exported to Russia.

This could at least theoretically be attributed to sheer incompetence and stupidity. And in 1928, a market fluctuation misinterpreted by Marxist planners again led the State to requisitioning. But stealing the fruit of the peasants' labour obliterated any trust they might still have had in Communists and destroyed all incentive to work. Far from humbled by their first disastrous experience, the Soviet government set out on a bold experiment to forcibly collectivise all private farming within one year. Showing abundance at least in hubris, Stalin's economist Strumilin: “Our task is not to study economics but to change it. We are bound by no laws.” The five year-plan rolled out in 1929 caused fantastic wastage, tens of thousands of tons of grain left rotting because of poorly planned distribution.

To perpetrate collectivisation, the Soviet government used all the methods of terror at its disposal. Arrest, blackmail, torture, deportation, exile, labor camps, and execution were applied routinely under the euphemistic denomination of ‘dekulakization’. Children and wives were sentenced as “members of the family of a traitor to the motherland.” A Soviet analysis calculated that at one point, 400,000 households had been dekulakized, 350,000 still remaining to be, and 250,000 households having ‘self-dekulakized’. 1 million died in the collectivisation Terror, and another 4 million in labor camps. One novelist wrote: “Not one of them was guilty of anything; but they belonged to a class that was guilty of everything.”

Having robbed the villages of their most productive members and replacing them with urban sadists, agriculture totally collapsed. The kolkhoz itself proved economically disastrous having about one-sixth the productivity of an American farm. Farmers received one half pound of bread daily and a salary which enabled them to purchase a single pair of shoes at the end of the year. Tractors were unreliable and so scarce they had to be shared between farms a hundred miles apart. The cost of the terror infrastructure and massive bureaucracy meant there was not even an economic benefit to collectivisation.

The government set grain prices so absurdly low that they didn't even cover costs. By multiplying total theoretical acreage with the maximum possible yield per acre, they set production quotas that in practice left nothing at all for next year's crop, let alone for food. Hungry and unable to work, fields were left uncultivated and crops spoiled.

Peasants were shot for trying to reach the gigantic quantities of grain left rotting in the open air or withheld ‘in reserve’, they were even shot for cutting corn from their own gardens. Ukrainians were prevented from reaching Russia, where food was plentiful. Finally they gave in and did what Stalin asked them to: they died. Corpses were removed daily by the trainload to God knows where. Mothers went insane trying to starve their weaker children in order to save her others. Orphans were brought to the children's concentration camp in Kirovohrad to starve, then trucked out under the cover of night. Some kids were cultivated as NKVD interrogators.

The suffering described in this book is enough to drive anyone to tears.

The advantage of another 7 million dead Ukrainians was that Russians could be moved into their homes and begin the assault on Ukrainian nationalism. The kobzars, blind bards travelling through villages singing national songs, were invited to a congress where they were all executed. Skrypnyk was sentenced for introducing the soft ‘L’ and hard ‘G’ into the alphabet: the hard ‘G’ in particular had apparently aided ‘wreckers’. Russian replaced Ukrainian as the language of instruction, and Ukrainian authors and linguists were almost entirely liquidated. Priests were dekulakized. Cossack stanitsas that put up strong resistance were deported wholesale, entire populations of tens of thousands.

Still, the Communists touted the success of their system to the world— though the census figures needed a bit of fudging to hide the fact that a sizeable chunk of the population no longer existed.

The commentary and reporting of the likes of Walter Duranty of the New York Times or George Bernard Shaw are disgraceful. Duranty was described as “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism” and got a Pulitzer for his troubles. I hope he chokes on it.

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The Great Terror
A Reassessment

Robert Conquest
570pp, Oxford University Press

Never Mind, They'll Swallow It

Reading The Great Terror is an awakening awareness of mind-boggling inhumanity. To say that in the 1930s Stalin snuffed out twenty million of his citizens hardly begins to describe the essential evil of his rule, which caused indescribable suffering for countless millions more, not to mention plunged the world into war for decades.

It's easily forgotten that the October 1917 coup by which the Bolshevik intellegentsia came to power lacked popular support and by 1921 had lost any semblance of representing the proletariat. From its inception, the party of Lenin and Trotsky embraced deceit, violence, and willingness to sacrifice others as a means to power, bringing Hitler later to say that unlike Social Democrats “he could always turn a Communist into a Nazi.” Stalin merely took the context of intolerance to its logical extreme, plotting the decimation of his opposition into ever smaller groups, assisted by the very ones that would themselves successively be destroyed by it: Trotskyites, then Rightists, Bukharinites, Zinovievites, and finally the Stalinists themselves. The 1937 Plenum already marked the complete transformation into autocracy.

Key to Stalin's success were his patience and that he never revealed (or tested) the limits of his ruthlessness. Rivals continually underestimated him: Trotskyites supported the disastrous 1930 agricultural collectivisation, miscalculating that he wouldn't dare another repression and the peasants would revolt— but Stalin did impose an even worse famine two years later, starving an unimaginable 10 million Russians and Ukrainians. Supporters and opponents alike never held him personally responsible: even the Terror itself was called the Yezhovschina. Victims could be persuaded that the Terror was in the interest of Communism not Stalin, and it is to this day unknown whether Stalin himself believed it. His capriciousness and promises of leniency induced even high officials to produce confessions and denunciations, hoping that perhaps one more obscenity committed in his service might restore them to favour.

At first, at least an actual crime and the formality of a show trial were needed. The fringe benefit of Stalin's assassination of Kirov was that other opponents could be executed for it. Convictions relied solely on confessions that were rather blatantly inconsistent and sometimes bizarre. Though brave individuals sometimes recanted at trial, they fell back into line after a short ‘recess’. The rare evidence introduced that was actually verifiable was knowingly false: for example, the Copenhagen Hotel Bristol where Sedov had allegedly met had actually been demolished at the time. But full show trials were a luxury reserved for the Party elite. One court report simply read: “No prosecutor. No witnesses. No co-accused. No defender.”

The crimes themselves were soon completely fatuous. Article 58 of the Criminal Code outlawed “flight abroad,” “lack of faith in the Socialist state,” and fascinatingly “suspicion of espionage.” Insufficient loyalty to Stalin was fatal. Workers or managers who failed to meet their quotas were convicted of sabotage, as indeed were NKVD investigators for failing to meet their ‘arrest quotas’. Doctors were convicted for assassinating Gorky by smoke from bonfires, Jews for spying for Nazi Germany, and clergy for praying. Purges soon reached to the citizenry, and the mere misfortune of being denounced practically guaranteed guilt.

Confessions were wrought by horrible torture. Wives and children of accused were held hostage and often shared their fate. Children under the age of 17 were despatched to NKVD settlements. Overflowing cells built for twelve held a hundred, so that prisoners had to pack down sideways like sardines— and only in shifts. Most could not withstand round-the-clock beatings for more than a few months and succumbed, although a few exceptional individuals held out.

The horror of the gulag is beyond comprehension. Camps were brutal, soul-destroying, ruled on behalf of guards by hard-core criminals. The journey to the camps was deadly and could last months. Outside work was compulsory until temperatures dropped below −50 °C. Inmates were starved and savaged by epidemics. Perhaps the best thing about them was that one would not be expected to survive more than two years. In Kolymev only three out of every hundred survived. From Novaya Zembla, nobody returned at all.

It's unknown whether the Purges stopped because the courts were overstretched or because the geometric rate of denunciations would soon have implicated the entire population. Fully 5% of the population had been arrested, while 7 million people languished in camps. Of the original partisans and Bolsheviks no-one at all remained. The Terror machinery nonetheless continued at a more controlled pitch, and the gulag population would grow to 12 million at Stalin's death in 1953. Soviet science, technology, and the military were robbed of their best people. The cumulative psychological effect of the Terror nightmare on generations of Soviets is unimaginable.

Unfortunately, the West generally left these citizens to their fate. Driven by Communist idealism, foreign correspondents ignored, glossed over, or simply flat-out lied about the show trials. Jean-Paul Sartre and other intellectuals still denied the existence of the gulag long after its evidence was undeniable. A French literary journal called Victor Kravchenko's account of the camps a lie. The New York Times' Walter Duranty received a Pulitzer prize for his Stalin apologia.

The Left never let facts get in the way of an attractive ideology, and never understood that “not even high intelligence and a sensitive spirit are of any help once the facts of a situation are deduced from a political theory, rather than vice versa.” That neither Stalin, nor his ideology, have ever been fully held accountable is maddening and a disgrace to the memory of his victims.

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Decoding Soviet Espionage in America

John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr
487pp, Yale University Press


A great man once took up the cause of defending our nation against the most terrible enemy we had ever known. For this, he was hounded and slandered relentlessly by the Left, his associates gay-baited, his very name made a malediction for generations to come. But was he right?

Definitive evidence shows that Joseph McCarthy was right to an extent even he could not have imagined. Venona describes the ultra-secret code-breaking project begun by Carter Clarke of the US Army Military Intelligence division and later run by the National Security Agency. Through incredible persistence and ingenuity, we managed to intercept and decode secret communications between Moscow and its embassies in America. The work that went into this effort is astounding, and even though we managed to decrypt only a tiny fraction of that traffic, the information that we obtained showed that the United States Government was infiltrated to the highest levels.

Roosevelt was not even made aware of the Venona project because his personal aide Lauchlin Currie was a Soviet spy. The director of the International Monetary Fund, Harry Dexter White, was a Soviet spy. Alger Hiss, assistant to the Secretary of State and advising Roosevelt at Yalta, was a Soviet spy.

If American liberals didn't think that Communist Party members were potential recruits, the KGB certainly did. Beginning in 1942, the Soviets abused our war-time alliance to stage an all-out espionage assault on our territory. Hundreds, literally hundreds of CPUSA members were active spies. Haynes and Klehr conclude that one-seventh to one-third of OSS employees were Soviet agents. Venona clearly shows that CPUSA operations were not directed by its nominal leader but by Moscow. After the end of World War II, the CPUSA tried to expand its base by allying itself with the Democratic Party but reversed under direction from Moscow.

But KGB operations on American soil were not limited to spying alone. Defectors from the USSR who jumped ship seeking refuge here were kidnapped and restored to the Soviet Union. The CPUSA also provided invaluable assistance to the assassins sent to kill Trotsky in Mexico.

Disinformation campaigns were mounted to affect public opinion of the USSR. The KGB used journalists to influence editorial policy as well as obtain inside information. Stephen Laird would report in The New Republic the Polish elections as being free and fair, a view not shared by many of his colleagues. Journalist I.F. Stone, hailed by the elite when he spread the lie that the United States started the war in Korea, was on the KGB payroll. In France, the Communist party ran a campaign of defeatism toward the German invasion.

The naivety and apologetics of some of the Soviets' supporters is beyond belief. Open Communist sympathisers and spies were fêted by the social elite. Academicians readily took up the cause of KGB spies, assassins, and traitors. Books written in the 70s about Senator McCarthy still exculpate people whom we know beyond the shadow of a doubt were Soviet spies. While Laurence Duggan is often described as an innocent victim driven to suicide after relentless FBI interrogation, he was in fact Soviet a spy who saw the jig was up. Ironically, Maurice Halperin, a spy who escaped arrest, became disillusioned first by Soviet and then Cuban Communism and eventually settled in Canada.

But also politicians on the Left showed bad judgment. The State Department convinced Roosevelt to return as a goodwill measure to the USSR, uncopied, code books that were found in Finland and that would have had fantastic intelligence value. Truman ignored the Venona evidence and dismantled the OSS after World War II, reversing himself in 1947 fearing Republican charges of laxity. Further interesting is learning how the persistence of Richard Nixon helped expose more spies, and that the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover actually protested the internment of foreigners during World War II.

Although the FBI at times was really on the ball in investigating espionage, they had great difficulty obtaining convictions because of the inability to use intelligence evidence in court, or even indictments because of the State Department's desire not to upset relations with the Soviet Union. Even after having actually witnessed Judith Coplon handing over state secrets to a KGB agent, that evidence was ruled inadmissible. Many spies were never punished at all for their crimes.

The Rosenbergs were not only spies themselves but actively recruited their own network which did horrifying damage to our national security. They handed over designs for advanced jet engines, radar systems, and the highly advanced ‘proximity fuse’. When they were arrested, two members of their ring (Alfred Sarant and Joel Barr) immediately escaped to the USSR where they received fantastic benefits not accorded to ordinary Soviet citizens. They founded the Soviet microelectronics industry and created the first Soviet radar-guided anti-aircraft missile system which became highly successful against the United States during the Vietnam War. Of course, the Rosenberg ring allowed the Soviets to develop the atomic bomb and terrorize the free world for the next half a century. In his memoirs, Khrushchev thanked the Rosenbergs for their sacrifice to the Communist cause.

Haynes and Klehr proffer the suggestion that the penalties against convicted spies might have been less severe had the Venona evidence been made public at the time. Given the extent of damage that was done to our national security I find this difficult to believe, but in any case it is ludicrous to expect the United States to surrender its most valuable intelligence source to exonerate traitors.

Oh, and the KGB code name for Julius Rosenberg? ‘Liberal’.

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The Black Book of Communism—
Crimes, Terror, Repression

Stéphane Courtois,
Nicolas Werth,
Jean-Louis Panné,
Andrezj Paczkowski,
Karel Bartosek,
Jean-Louis Margolin
858pp, Harvard University Press


That reproach could never be made against the Black Book. As the first major work to detail and account the unbelievable magnitude of crime perpetrated by communist regimes around the world, the original of this translation apparently caused an uproar in French political society. Although, as its subtitle indicates, it isn't intended as a complete historical overview of communist states, it does a very good job of introducing them to a reader who is only vaguely familiar with their reality. The book is organized geographically into parts written by authors who obviously know their respective specialties, although the fact that so many authors contributed to it leads it to suffer just a little from a lack of cohesion (structure and narrative style, presence of bibliographies). In my opinion, the first part on the Soviet Union is excellent-- the parts on Western European, Eastern European, Asian, and Third-World communism are also highly informative.

I would certainly recommend this without reservation to anyone with an interest in understanding the practice of communism, regardless of their historical background.

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The Gulag Archipelago
Vol 1, 1918-1956

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
660pp, Westview Press


If the preceding work is remarkable for its documentation of the scope of repression, Solzhenitsyn's three-volume record (although I read only the first) is deeply moving for the description of its intensity. Having won the author a Nobel prize for Literature, I half expected some unapproachably haughty Kunderesque crypto-novel, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Archipelag Gulag is the 'island chain' of the concentration camps that streched throughout the most remote and uninhabitable regions of the Soviet Union. Through his own eyes, and those of 227 fellow survivors, he relates in a deeply sarcastic yet sympathetic way the movement and experience of the individual through the system with such beauty and so completely that one feels one can almost begin to understand. One suspects that his sense for black humor must have helped him survive. I was relieved not to find here any simpering gushy 'forgiveness' of his opressors-- Solzhenitsyn knows them and understands how they were able to exact such terror, and he fully holds them accountable.

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The Soviet Union 1917-1991
Martin McCauley
2nd ed, 422pp, Longman


This is the first book I turned to. Obviously a small book covering the entire history of an empire that ruled hundreds of millions of people for decades cannot possibly be exhaustive, but some coherency of coverage could at least be expected. Although it makes some attempts at covering its subject, in my opinion it suffers from being poorly written, its almost lackadaisical style, and a failure to properly introduce and explain concepts. For example, the reader is bombarded in the first chapter by Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Left and Right SRs, New Style, with hardly a clue as to their meaning and historical significance. Worse, analysis is lacking or flawed. Its perpetuation of the mischaracterization of the coup of October 1917 as a 'revolution' is indefensible in light of information that has long been available to Western historians. In addition, its poor typography and lack of overall structure make its reading an ordeal.

All in all, I would suggest someone who is seeking a good overview and introduction to the history of the Soviet Union to look elsewhere.

[1] The Black Book of Communism, p236

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