New Look, Old Illusions
American in Russia.
by Harrison E. Salisbury.
Harper. 328 pp. $4.00.
Generally speaking it seems apparent to visiting Americans that Georgians lead a comfortable existence. Food is plentiful, cheap and varied. . . . Prices are well below Moscow levels. . . . Georgian peasants generally speaking are in the high income class. . . . City life is also comfortable. . . . Strain and tension are absent. (New York Times, June 6, 1951.)
Americans in the diplomatic colony continue to travel rather widely about the Soviet Union and seldom find that international tension has materially affected the traditional Russian hospitality. (New York Times, October 14, 1950.)
Foreigners in Russia have generally found that there is little difference between the views expressed by ordinary Soviet citizens and those placed on record by such leading Soviet organs as Pravda and Izvestiya. . . . This correspondent has discussed the matter with Soviet citizens. Nothing in any of these conversations gives cause for belief that there is the slightest cleavage between Soviet citizens and their government. . . . Any supposition abroad that such a cleavage does in fact exist or is likely to develop, is wishful thinking at best and may be extremely dangerous. (New York Times, October 14, 1950.)
Let there be no mistake about it—the news of Premier Stalin’s illness is profoundly sad to the ordinary man and woman in Russia. . . . Many believers and worshippers of the Russian Orthodox faith hurried to churches this morning and sank to their knees in prayer for the recovery of Premier Stalin . . . simple peasant men and women were lighting candles on church altars for the man who to them personifies their very country. (New York Times, March 5, 1953.)
When Stalin died, [Moscow was a city] of silence, solemnity and sorrow . . . . [Malenkov has already begun to show] the will and determination to prove the worthy custodian of the policies and monolithic unity and steel resolution [of Stalin]. . . . [He stood at Stalin’s bier] with sadness in his youthful face. . . . Tonight Mr. Malenkov became the man who is picking up the torch of the Soviet state and the Communist Party and leading the government and Party along the pathway laid out by Stalin. (New York Times, March 7, 1953.)
These excerpts from Harrison E. Salisbury’s dispatches from the Soviet Union are typical of what he sent the New York Times while its correspondent in Russia from 1949 to 1953. Readers of his stories on life under Stalin got the impression that it was quite comfortable and the standard of living was rising rapidly. All the country’s energies were devoted to peaceful construction. Not only the people but also the government sincerely desired peace. Fear and tension were absent.
But now we read in Mr. Salisbury’s book, composed of articles he published in the Times after his return from Russia, that the great majority of the Soviet population leads a drab and wretched existence; it is housed in slums, fed a monotonous and exigent diet, and compelled to work under conditions and on terms little different from those of slave laborers. We hear about surreptitiously built atom-proof shelters in the Moscow subway and an armaments industry working full blast. It transpires that Salisbury, who spoke with authority in his dispatches about the mood and sentiments of the population, had little contact with them; he was certainly in no position to carry on frank political conversations with the people at large. Nevertheless, he saw enough to understand the all-pervasive fear and terror, which reached a climax shortly before Stalin’s death, after the allegations of a Moscow “doctors’ plot,” when the dictator was apparently preparing a far-reaching purge that would have taken millions of victims, including many of Stalin’s nearest collaborators. Salisbury thinks that Stalin might have been killed by his aides to head off the purge; in any case, his death was their salvation. Malenkov, who stood at Stalin’s bier “with sadness in his youthful face,” was very likely, we now read in American in Russia, one of Stalin’s murderers. And Salisbury describes the immense relief with which the dictator’s death was greeted.
How account for the glaring differences between these two pictures of Soviet Russia today? We cannot lay it up to the Soviet censorship. The censors certainly suppress a good deal, but they cannot make American correspondents write to their dictation; and indeed Salisbury, who cites examples of material censored from his dispatches, at no time says that the censor made additions to his copy. So it is himself who is responsible for the statements about cheap and plentiful food, comfortable city life, absence of fear and tension, unrestricted travel by foreigners, and the complete harmony between the views of rulers and simple citizens. Other correspondents in Moscow, including the present Times representative Clifton Daniel, have also been hampered by the censorship, but did not then proceed to fill out their reports with fiction. Four years of Salisbury’s misinformation, conveyed by the most influential newspaper in the United States, has perhaps done more damage than the best book in the world can repair.
The present book, American in Russia, undoubtedly contains some useful reporting on Soviet life today. Because foreign correspondents are compelled to live in virtual isolation from the Soviet people we get only glimpses of this life, but very interesting glimpses nevertheless. The description, for example, of the empty and graceless life led by the marginal Soviet “intelligentsia” that Salisbury obtained from a girl who taught him Russian (and who reported on him to the secret police but could not abstain from gossiping about her friends among the actors and dancers), is very telling, as are the glimpses of suburban life Salisbury got in the summers at his dacha in the village of Saltikovka. We catch sight now and then of the immense secret police empire in East Siberia where slave labor gangs and concentration camps are so familiar to the inhabitants that they pass them by without a thought.
Salisbury, as always, is a sympathetic interpreter of the Russian people, but his understanding of the Communist regime still leaves much to be desired. “I did not know the Russian language,” he writes in the first chapter; “I was no specialist in Soviet affairs. . . . I had never read Marx or Lenin and hoped I never had to. . . . The fact was that on the doctrinaire side I simply knew very little about Communism.” The first deficiency was quickly repaired; the second was a more serious matter. Salisbury’s ignorance of, indeed repugnance to, the “doctrinaire side” of Communism is responsible for the slapdash simple-mindedness of his economic, political, and social interpretations of the Soviet regime. For him Bolshevism can be elucidated by the personalities of its exponents. A totalitarian system with its own iron necessities, stamping its agents and upholders in its own images, and not to be altered by a “change of heart” on some bureaucrat’s part—this becomes for Mr. Salisbury largely an affair of personal machinations.
Consider his explanation for the terror, intrigues, and purges of the Stalin regime. In Stalin’s native land, Georgia, in the city of Tiflis, he saw a performance of Othello. It was played in Georgian, which he does not understand, but the actor in the title role was outstanding and he felt a new understanding of things: “It is life. Georgian life. It is the blood and the tragedy and spirit of Georgia. . . . It seemed, by then, that my trip to Georgia had given me all the keys I needed to understand the complex character of the man the world knew as Josef Stalin . . . .” Stalin was a Georgian, and Georgians, like Othello, are vengeful, suspicious, paranoiac. These are “all the keys” one needs.
If Stalin’s personality was the main cause of the Communist terror, his death must naturally be expected to introduce an era of relief and mitigation. And Stalin’s successors were, in Salisbury’s opinion, really different men. These were not (except for Beria) Georgians with an Othello complex, but realistic, businesslike, fundamentally decent people ready to compromise differences. Malenkov was, in spite of his appearance, full of old-fashioned grace and courtesy: once he picked flowers for Miss Edith Summerskill, once he brought a chair for the aged Russian woman-doctor, Olga Lepeshinskaya. Khrushchev was a hail-fellow-well-met, bluff and hearty, a diamond in the rough; Molotov was quiet, patient, and reasonable; Mikoyan clever; and so forth.
It does not accord with Salisbury’s view of these men, but all of them had also been Stalin’s eager and brutal henchmen: Malenkov his right hand in the Great Purge, who had drawn up the endless proscription lists for the executioner Yezhov; Khrushchev the director of the forced collectivization drive and ruthless purges in the Ukraine. About Molotov’s “reasonableness” Western diplomats can tell us something; in Molotov’s own phrase, it is “well known.”
The post-Stalin era, according to Salisbury, captained by such men, was to see the triumph of collective leadership. “Collective leadership is no mere catchword,” he writes, “these men are seriously trying to make it work.” In March 1953 Salisbury predicted lasting solidarity among the members of the new Presidium. Beria’s fall in June of that year proved him wrong. Whereupon he predicted complete harmony among the remaining rulers, based on such childish reasons as the public appearance together of the members of the junta, their always leaving together at diplomatic receptions, etc. When signs of a rift between Malenkov and Khrushchev were noticed by dozens of knowledgeable observers abroad, Salisbury was condescending. He writes in his book:
Spurred, perhaps, by wishful thinking . . . a good many ‘experts’ in the United States and Europe increased their speculation regarding a possible Malenkov-Khrushchev rift. I doubted this as did other men in Moscow whose judgment I felt was reliable and conservative. . . . The most significant fact about the group is how well it works together (now that Beria has been done away with) rather than any question of rivalry. Of course, events may prove these impressions mistaken, but, so far, every foreigner who has met both Malenkov and Khrushchev or has seen them both together will give you odds that Malenkov is top dog and that, in any showdown, he would take Khrushchev. . . .
After Malenkov’s fall, Salisbury commented in the New York Times that he had not expected the rift to develop so fast!
His estimation of other features of the Soviet “New Look” is no more fortunate. He saw “reformism” in domestic affairs, a tendency to subordinate ideology to common sense, an effort to reinvest trite party shibboleths with moral content, a mitigation of the dictatorial control, an increase in consumer goods and services, and a more pacific foreign policy.
But even in the brief heyday of the New Look these things were more wish than reality. There was no relaxation of the dictatorship, the new rulers rather following Lenin’s example (during the NEP period) of strengthening the dictatorship in periods of economic retreat. The interlude of relative “liberalism” in the arts was only a repetition of what occurred many times before under Stalin: when everybody writes or paints exactly according to the line, the products become impossibly jejune and tedious. Whereupon a cry is heard for more creative, livelier, better art and the party rule is relaxed a trifle; some bold soul then hints that the arts need freedom and the bureaucracy gives a convulsive start, pulling the reins just as tight as they were before.
Russia’s milder tone in foreign affairs was aimed principally at the European and Asian powers—to disrupt the free world’s alliances and isolate the United States. Towards America the Soviet government continued to show much the old hostility. There was nothing very new about this milder tone; indeed, it had been inaugurated by Stalin and ratified by the 19th Convention of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in October 1952.
The only real change was the emphasis on the production and distribution of consumer goods. But this was soon to be undone when Khrushchev won the long intra-party struggle and reversed the policy of trying to offer something to the consumer, and also overthrew Malenkov. The stress is again on heavy industry and armaments.
Many observers, including some on the New York Times, were able to follow the ball. They knew, as every schoolboy should know by now, how unwise it is to mistake shifts and turns as proof of the Soviet regime’s becoming more benign and democratic. In 1921, when the country was on the verge of collapse and Lenin invited individual peasants, private tradesmen, and foreign capitalists to collaborate economically with the Soviet government, many foreign observers, disregarding his open declarations that this was only a temporary retreat, predicted the “inevitable transformation” of Soviet dictatorship into a “new kind of democracy” with a “mixed economy.”
In 1924, when Stalin proclaimed his doctrine of “socialism in one country,” many saw an end to Communist attempts at “world revolution,” disregarding again Stalin’s repeated assertions that a final clash between the capitalist and Communist worlds was inevitable.
In 1936, after the horrors of forced collectivization, similar optimists saw a definite turn to “stabilization” and “democratization” in the Stalin constitution—whereupon the Great Purge followed, churning up every area of Russian society and taking a toll of millions.
Stalin is now the great bogeyman of the hopeful blind, but in his day he knew how to play the reasonable, realistic, and genial elder statesman—there is even a journalistic literature about his charm. How his succession to the “fanatical” Lenin, his triumph over the “doctrinaire” Trotsky, was taken as an augury of better times! And now Salisbury praises Stalin’s heirs in just these terms, and may be expected to praise the heir of the heirs. For wishful thinkers, only dead Soviet dictators are cruel and oppressive; the living always have—as a member of this school might say—“a moderation, wisdom, and urbanity it would be the height of recklessness to allow exaggerated domestic emotions to blind us to.”