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Communist Nostalgia & the Romance of the Cold War

The Sincere Comrade Stalin

In the first part of the 1990s, Yale University Press sent Jonathan Brent to Moscow to negotiate rights to the secret Soviet archives. Which is to say, I guess, the Soviet archives. Even those of the KGB, the Politburo, other organs of the state. In this book he gives a memoir of those visits to a Moscow where people sold used toothbrushes on the street and the stench of socialist decay was everywhere. Nobody knew what shape this new Russia would take. Stranded in dismal government offices were scholar-squirrels who had tended these archives. Brent had to negotiate with them to strike a deal and allow this material to be published in the West.

Over the past 15 years or so, their revelations have become part of our understanding of Communism. For example, in 1995 the university published the first volume in the Annals of Communism, called The Secret World of American Communism. It demonstrated that the Communist Party USA was engaged in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. It confirmed the testimony of Whittaker Chambers about the activity of the party. It strengthened the case against Alger Hiss. It even reopened discussion of Joseph McCarthy. Much of the documentation was in the form of memoranda between the NKVD and the Commintern that proved that Western communism was totally dependant on the Soviet and totally loyal to it, and that Western communists had in fact performed espionage functions.

All this is known, all part now of conventional wisdom.

So this short book is a bit of a travelogue through the corridors of the state and the party while outside in the streets Communist Party power was vanishing.

Brent reminds us of some sweet revelations like the conversation between Sergei Eisenstein, Stalin, A. A. Zhdanov and Molotov about the second part of Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible. The meeting took place on February 26, 1947 at the height of the post-war repressions and confirms how deeply involved Stalin was in cultural policy, telling Eisenstein how he wanted Ivan the Terrible portrayed:

Ivan the Terrible’s wisdom consisted in the fact that he insisted on a national point of view and wouldn’t allow foreigners into his country, fencing the country off from the penetration of foreign influence… Ivan the Terrible’s remarkable enterprise was the fact that he was the first to introduce a state monopoly on foreign trade. Ivan the Terrible was the first to introduce it; Lenin was the second.

Brent gets to see Stalin’s own library and comments:

To see the works of this library is somehow to be brought face-to-face with Stalin. To see the words his eyes saw. To touch the pages he touched and smelled. The marks he made on them trace the marks he made on the Russian nation. Not mediated through the Central Committee or proxies, these marks preserve the vehemence of his hand as it touched the paper through his pen, his impatience and exasperation with his enemies, his expressions of approval at finding the right turn of phrase or the correct formulation written by those he admired.

He is dumbstruck. Not a single work he inspected was not read by Stalin, not a single work “not copiously annotated, underlined, argued with, appreciated, disdained, studied.” In particular, Brent opens two books by Lenin and finds Stalin underlying passages which concern dictatorship of the proletariat, underlining a forceful description of the dictatorship:

The dictatorship is power depending directly on force, not bound by any laws.

The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is power won and supported by the force of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, power not bound by any laws. (My emphases)

This would tend to support the argument that Stalinism grew out of Leninism. Stalin’s Great Purges – the slaughter of literally millions of people – was the implementation of Leninist theory: the use of force “not bound by any laws” against the class enemy. Stalin was not a madman. Moreover, as Brent notes, he was not impotent or afraid of women, he didn’t hate his children, he was not a delusionary fanatic, he did not have syphilis or epilepsy, he was not the only man whose wife tragically committed suicide and he wasn’t more paranoid than Richard Nixon. He was simply ideologically committed to dialectical materialism. As Brent notes, “it was the power of these ideas that crushed Sofia Petrovna into madness and brought Anna Akhmatova to understand ‘No, this is not me, this is someone else who’s suffering.’” It was the power of these ideas – the ideas of Marx and Lenin – that explains the famines and purges, the deaths of tens of millions.

I found this a somewhat disappointing book, less than what I expected. I’m not sure why you would read it if you’ve read Simon Sebag Montefiore or Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and his Hangmen. Except for that last very insightful observation: Stalin was not an insane murder, he was sincerely implementing Marx and Lenin.

Weekend Reading: Back to Stalin

I know I should be reading more uplifting stuff but it’s the pornographic appeal of totalitarianism that has got hold of me here. On this rainy Sunday I reopen and reread Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and His Henchmen (Viking 2004) and cannot put it down.

It is a colorful history of the men who ran secret police under the Sovs, beginning with Dzierzynski and the Cheka, the first of the secret police agencies set-up by the Leninists. Not just as an investgative agency but “the battle organ of the party.” Here is a key fact: after just two months in power the Bolsheviks gave the Cheka power of life or death, “the formal right to shoot its victims without anyone else’s sanction, even without trial or charge.” Pleas were made to Lenin to reverse this but nothing doing. Of course, in all the bloodthirsty measures of these early years Trotsky was as ruthless as any of them. I am actually forming the view that if he had succeeded, his rule would have been as maniacally bloodthirsty as Stalin’s.

Hayfield highlights the shadowy figure of Menzhinsky, “the exquisite inquisitor,” who ran the (rebaptised OGPU) as Stalin moved to take power in the 1920s. With 20,000 agents spying on Moscovites alone and another 40,000 spying on letters and phone calls across the country the apparatus was up and running.

If you have read the excellent Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Monifiore don’t think you don’t need this terror-filled history. It amplifies the relationship of Stalin with his secret police chiefs and forces you to conclude that the fluke of the Bolshevik coup in Petersburg in 1917 (it was a coup, of course, not a revolution) was one of the most dismal turning points in history. What a group of clowns and psychopaths to take over Russia…what appalling happenstance.

The awful comic element is there as well. One of the leading Bolsheviks was Zinoviev but “few could take seriously a man who resembled Chico Marx and would serve his guests steaming horse meat cooked by himself and within minutes was screaming that he would shoot them all.”

On Lenin’s Red Terror Rayfield notes that it was an orgy of killing that lasted three years, nothing less than “an explosion of criminal sadism.” Yet Dzierzynski, the founder of the organization that was to become OGUP, then NKVD, then the KGB, was to be conferred hero status in every subsequent Marxist regime, giving them all a model to emulate. Pol Pot’s regime probably being the truest approximation of the Marxist ideal of enforced equality, class warfare directed at the exploiting bourgeoisie and thorough-going collective ownership.

Read this book and learn to revile the bastards all over again. To think that it took Australian communists like Lee Rhiannon decades to bring themselves to criticize the tyranny spawned by the 1917 revolution is to be educated again on the infinite gullibility of the idealistic.

By the way, I was motivated to pick this book up again by Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern. See Book Reviews.

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (Faber and Faber 2010)


The ultimate piece of Soviet nostalgia, this is a novel about that moment in the history of the Soviet Union when serious, sane people might have believed it was going to beat the capitalist west at economic growth. It is set in the rule of the post-Stalin Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1955 to 1964) when economic planning seemed to be driving it towards an era of plenty – Red Plenty, making Soviet citizens the richest people in the world.

Spufford reminds us, in one of his informative notes, of Karl Marx’s vague idyll, “a soft-focussed gentlemanly idyll, in which the inherited production lines whirring away in the background allowed the humans in the foreground to play, ‘to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…’”

Khrushchev enjoying a "hemburger" during his visit to Iowa in 1959.

The characters in this fairy tale – this is what Spufford insists on calling his book – are people whose lives are committed to this experiment. Nikita Khrushchev is one.  We enter his head as he slouches in the lumbering TU-114, the Tupolev aircraft transporting the Premier down the Canadian coast towards Washington for the first-ever visit of a Soviet leader to the United States.

This is what he thinks, what any Soviet leader might have thought in 1959:

No one gave us this beautiful plane. We built it ourselves, we pulled it out of nothing by our determination and our strength. They tried to crush us over and over again, but we wouldn’t be crushed. We drove off the Whites. We winkled out the priests, out of the churches and more important out of people’s minds.  We got rid of the shopkeepers, thieving bastards, getting their dirty fingers in every deal, making every straight thing crooked. We dragged the farmers into the twentieth century, and that was hard, that was a cruel business and there were some hungry years there, but it had to be done, we had to get the muck off our boots. We realised there were saboteurs and enemies among us, and we caught them, but it drove us mad for a while, and for a while we were seeing enemies and saboteurs everywhere, and hurting people who were brothers, sisters, good friends, honest comrades. Then the Fascists came, and stamping on them was bloody, nobody could call what we did then sweetness and light, wreckage everywhere, but what are you going to do when a gang of murderers breaks into the house? And the Boss didn’t help much.  Wonderful clear mind, but by that time he was frankly screwy, moving whole nations round the map like chess pieces, making us sit up all night with him and drink that filthy vodka till we couldn’t see straight, and always watching us: no, I don’t deny we went wrong, in fact if you recall it was me that said so. But all the while we were building. All the while we were building factories and mines, railroads and roads, towns and cities, and all without any help, all without getting the say-so from any millionaire or bigshot. We did that. We taught people to read, we taught them to love culture.  We sent tens of millions of them to school and millions of them to college, so they could have the advantages we never had.  We created the boys and girls who’re young now. We did the dirty work so they could inherit a clean world.

There you have it: the case which might, at that time, be made for the whole Soviet experiment. 

This chapter which recreates the Khrushchev visit to the US is very funny, shown for example in Khrushchev’s thoughts on mass production:

Of all the capitalist countries, it was America that was most nearly trying to do the same time as the Soviet Union. They shared the Soviet insight… Take the hemburger: so neat, so easy. It had been created by someone who had made it their serious mission in life to imagine a food you could hold in your fist while you rushed thought the busy city. And this was not exceptional for America, it was characteristic. If you looked into the windows of their shops, if you looked at the advertisements in their magazines, you saw the same practical passion at work everywhere. Coca-Cola bottles exactly fitted the average person’s hand. Bandages came as a packet of pink patches with a glue just strong enough for the human skin already applied to each one. America was a torrent of clever anticipations. Soviet industries would have to learn to anticipate as cleverly, more cleverly, if they were to overtake America in satisfying wants as well as needs. They too would have to become experts in everyday desire.

A 1959 LA Times story about the TU-114 Khruschev flew to America in - the plane was followed over the Atlantic by the Soviet Navy in case its shoddy worksmanship required a "water landing."

In this era the Soviet Union was achieving annual growth rates of 10 percent, but within years it would become clear these were based on massively increasing inputs – more iron and coal, more felled trees, more sweated labour “slung into the maw of industry” – but not on increasing output per head.  Meanwhile a heretical view had grown up among Soviet economists: to start experiments with prices and use computers to drive a system of shadow prices.

The Premier - overjoyed at the fruits of Red Plenty.

  This gave rise to the notion the Soviet would achieve the old Marxist ideal of plenty, specifically solve the old economic problem of unlimited demand but limited supply.  And do it, according to the draft party program of 1961, within 20 years. Yes, by 1980. By that time the Soviet Union would confer plenty on its people. Red Plenty. They would enjoy what the party described as “the universal abundance of products.” And, with the Sparrow Hills on the edge of Moscow one huge building site and new boulevards marked out with sticks and string, it looked feasible. A giant banner rippled and flapped six storeys high against the blank wall of an apartment block celebrating Yuri Gagarin the first man in space, a Soviet astronaut.

 Spufford audaciously enlists as a character the only Soviet economist to ever win a Nobel prize, Leonid Vitaliyevich Kantorovich (1912 – 1986). Shadow pricing is his idea. He has come to understand as early as the 1950’s that the economy cannot work without price signals. Meanwhile another character, Maskim Mokhov, makes an appearance in the office of Gosplan, his whole life dedicated to the idea that within the files of his organisation it is possible to direct and control every economic relationship, especially with the tantalising arrival of computer technology. For a few years hope bubbled that cybernetics might rejuvenate centralised planning:

By 1963, almost all the elements seemed to be coming together in Academician Nemchinov’s scheme to reform the Soviet economy mathematically. New cybernetics institutes and departments had sprung up right across the Soviet Union, and were hurrying to complete pieces of the puzzle; or perhaps of several different puzzles. Mathematical models were being built for supply, demand, production, transportation, factory location, short-term planning, long-term planning, sectoral and regional and national and international planning.

File:Leonid Kantorovich 1976.jpg

Leonid Kantorovich - Nobel prize winning economist, and among the first in the Soviet Union to realise that every economy needs price signals

By 1965 when the sly and erratic peasant Nikita Khrushchev had been replaced it was becoming clear, in the West at least, that the Soviet Five-Year Plan was now registering no growth: at most, a 0.5 percent upward blip during the plan of 1966 to 1970. The CIA put it even lower. “The growth machine was grinding to a halt,” writes Spufford, “The leviathan’s gears had jammed.”

From the introductory notes he provides for one of his chapters:

The gap with American living standards widened again, precipitously. It became clear by any measurement that the Soviet Union was not going to overtake and surpass. All talk of full communism was abandoned, and in its place Brezhnev’s government promoted the idea of ‘developed socialism’, as an era in which the USSR could comfortable announce it had already arrived. Developed socialism was due to last a nice long time, with no awkward timetable. There only remained the problem of the 1961 Party Programme. Convenient official amnesia engulfed it. It was buried in silence, never to be dug up again.

This is a pretty weird novel – sorry, fairy tale. The detail in the footnotes for each chapter is riveting. This work is anchored in comprehensive reading in the scholarly sources. But the characters never move forward and drive the action. Most appear in a chapter and disappear. The most consistent is Khrushchev who we get to meet in retirement, after he has been replaced by Brezhnev, sitting on a bench reflecting on the experiment with communism, toying with memoirs. It’s just the story is so great, so fantastic – remember Spufford’s conceit that he is presenting us an old Russian fairytale – and the story so crucial to what has happened to the world, that one reads on. Again from those notes:

The Soviet economy did not move on from coal and steel and cement to plastics and microelectronics and software design, except in a very few military applications.  It continued to compete with what capitalism had been doing in the 1930s, not with what it was doing now.  It continued to suck resources and human labour in vast quantities into a heavy-industrial sector which had once been intended to exist as a springboard for something else, but which by now had become its own justification.  Soviet industry in its last decades existed because it existed, an empire of inertia expanding ever more slowly, yet attaining the wretched distinction of absorbing more of the toal effort of the economy that hosted it than heavy industry has ever done anywhere else in human history, before or since.  Every year it produced goods that less and less corresponded to human needs, and whatever it once started producing, it tended to go on producing ad infinitum, since it possessed no effective stop signals except ruthless commands from above, and the people at the top no longer did ruthless, in the economic sphere.  The control system for industry grew more and more erratic, the information flowing back to the planners grew more and more corrupt.  And the activity of industry , all that human time and machine time it used up, added less and less value to the raw materials it sucked in.  Maybe no value.  Maybe less than none.  One economist has argued that, by the end, it was actively destroying value; it had become a system for spoiling perfectly good materials by turning them into objects no one wanted.

The best chapter maybe that dealing with the operation of Chekuskin, one of the tolkachs or “pushers” who linked the criminal world and the world of factory managers with “favour trading”, always putting deals together and tolerated by the party because they played an indispensible role in solving shortages. I also liked the chapter that had Komsomol (Communist Party Youth Organsation) members visiting the 1959 American exhibit in Moscow, modernist consumer luxury displayed under a Buckminster Fuller dome. That nothing works as self propelled fiction didn’t smother my delight at finding such an original treatment of such a tantalising subject: the moment in time when this fairytale might have come off.

Khruschev and then-Vice President Richard Nixon at the 1959 display of American kitchen goods in Moscow.

The experiment crashed. Socialism just didn’t work. You need prices, markets, supply and demand, boom and bust.

Can it be otherwise? 

Leonid Vitalevich is sitting by himself, optimising the manufacture of steel tubes.  Five hundred producers.  Sixty thousand consumers.  Eight hundred thousand allocation orders to be issued per year.  But it would all work out if he could persuade them to measure the output in the correct units.  The hard light of creation burns within the fallible flesh; outshines it, outshines the disappointing world, the world of accident and tyranny and unreason….

No. It just did not work. The planned economy crumpled and fell. Markets, thousands of years in the making, resumed themselves.

“And the wind in the trees of Akademgorodok says: can it be otherwise.”


Red Star Over the Slaughterhouse:

A forest of proletariat bayonets after defeating a White Russian army.


This visual history of the Soviet Union comes to us from David King, former art editor of the Sunday Times Colour Magazine. He was also the author of The Commissar Vanishes (1997) which delineated the falsification of photographs and art in Stalin’s Russia – the skilled airbrushing of Stalin’s comrades as, one by one, they were picked off and had to be eliminated from the visual record. 


King opens the book with an essay that spells out his own links with the Soviet Union and his love affair with its gaudy, improbable promise. He began collecting suitcases of photographs and albums on Lenin and the Russian revolution and drove harder to pursue a photographic history of Trotsky as he researched stories for The Sunday Times Magazine


On his first visit to the Soviet Union in 1970 he recalls return to his room after taking some photos (to thaw out his cameras) to find someone leafing through his documents. His reaction? Indifference: “It didn’t matter, I had nothing to hide and in a way was rather expecting it.” 


King’s semi-autobiographical opening essay is full of gems like this. In 1971 when he got a frantic call from some British Communists: “We must see you urgently. We have something for you. It’s very important. Can we come round immediately? We need money!” King describes his anticipation when they arrived at his office, carrying a shoebox. Papers? Photos? Evidence of conspiracy, murder or massacre? No: a porcelain mug on which was painted a portrait of Trotsky as leader of the Red Army in 1923. 
The revelation for me was that pictures can tell so much of the story. The confrontational caricatures of religion and the Russian Orthodox priesthood is a case in point. It is one thing to read about the young propagandist Maria Kostelevskaya being described as a “clergy eater” for her dedication to the “establishment of an anti-religious proletarian dictatorship of the atheistic city over the countryside.” It’s quite another to see the contempt and loathing for the church in her posters and cartoons (p. 167). 


Same goes for the picture of an opulent Orthodox church being used as a grain store, with an uncovered pile of grain almost covering the intricate carved images of the saints (p. 168). The inconsistencies are glaring too. See the poster of Trotsky as St. George slaying the counter-revolutionary dragon (p. 113).


The Prague Museum of Communism 

Those were the days: a recreated secret police interrogation room in the Prague Museum of Communism.


I’m just into this one.  Found the notion irresistible when I saw it advertised in The New York Review of Books. 


It’s about America’s Soviet experts and, of course, the fascinating story of how they proved so wrong about the strength of how strong the Soviet Union. 


Among the characters who figure in it are Richard Pipes and Zbigniew Brzezinski, among the meaty chapters one devoted to the scramble by America’s Soviet experts to interpret Gorbachev and Perestroika.








Look at the crime or thriller section of any good bookshop.  Notice this conceit: that every second writer thinks he or she has got a hit by settling on an exotic location for a mystery.  There’s Ancient Rome, there’s the Third Reich, there’s Republican China and so on.  What all the authors fail to understand is that the exoticism is not enough.  You need to have a plot full of surprises and a plot driven by character and you need to avoid cliché.  So I give Olen Steinhauer full marks for creating the atmosphere of a late 1940’s people’s democracy, created somewhere out of the debris of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as a setting for a novel described as part police procedural, part political thriller.  Sad that there’s no depth to the characters and no sense that a shocking secret lies in wait for you.  I gave up at page 137 of the 278 pages, feeling cheated.  Alas, there are no more Le Carre’s around.

I finally caught up with the 2003 movie Goodbye Lenin having heard a great deal about it.  It could teach a lot of Australian scriptwriters about cleverness and subtlety in plot.  It captures the flavour of that unloved regime, the German Democratic Republic, with its belching Trabants and asbestos-ridden Soviet style modern architecture and gimcrack consumer products.  It also captures in the personality of Christiane – the mother who goes into a coma and wakes up to find her regime gone – the idealism of low-ranking comrades who hoped that a world of public ownership without money-obsessiveness could survive competition with the West. I’m looking forward to a sound history of the DDR that draws on the archival riches that must exist, a story of a regime that tried to implement Marxism in the Prussia that inspired Marx and that must have realised at least a decade before 1989 (at least within its inner sanctums) that it was absolutely bankrupt and could only postpone collapse.    







Postcards from the Prague Museum of Communism. 


 With a fallen hero of the USSR in Moscow’s scuplture park.    






Moscow 2007: at Stalin’s desk in the bunker 25kms from city centre.
The Reserve Command Post, Stalin’s base October-November 1941.
December 1989 at the Berlin Wall: Michael Egan, Malcolm McGregor, opposition leader Bob Carr and wife Helena.
A communist-era food store: no extravagant choice.
Red Plenty:


From the book:  

Once upon a time in the Soviet Union…  

Strange as it may seem. the grey, oppresive USSR was foudned on a fairytale. It was built on the twentieth-century magic called ‘the planned economy’, which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that the lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working.  

Red Plenty is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet Union looked forward to a future of rich communists and envious capitalists, when Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan, and every Lada would be engineered better than a Porsche. It’s about the scientists who did their genuinely brilliant best to make the dream come true, to give the tyranny its happy ending. It’s history, it’s fiction. It’s a comedy of ideas, and a novel about the cost of ideas.  




One Comment
  1. Rationalist permalink
    September 3, 2010 7:00 pm

    I recently saw Goodbye Lenin, perhaps 6 months ago. I have been always been curious about Cold War history, possibly since I have always known about the immense impact it had on the world for almost half a century. Yet at the same time, it had all concluded before I was born. Nevertheless, Goodbye Lenin was at times light-hearted at other times poignant but consistently revealing and always entertaining.

    The economic depression and suffering in the former Soviet states post collapse always seemed so tragic. I have always wondered about how avoidable it was. Were the events that occurred remarkable for being peaceful? Did they have the capacity to be much more violent and destabilising? Was such shock therapy essential to put the former Soviet states on the right path? I suppose the answers to many of these questions are relative.

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