Moscow Masquerade: The Case of a Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
Commentary for 23 March 2015
“Marxism, the workers’ movement, mass democracy, Leninism, the party of the proletariat, the socialist state – all inventions of the 20th century – are not really useful to us anymore.”
-Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis
“And so, namely communism is a dogmatic abstraction, whereby I have in mind, though, not any imagined or possible, but the really existing communism, as taught by Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc. This communism in itself is but an elegant appearance of the humanistic principle, infected by its opposite, private enterprise.”
-Karl Marx, letter to Arnold Ruge, 1843
“I began to study, intensively and critically … the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, Mao and other ‘classics’ of Marxism. These were the founders of a new religion – the religion of hatred, revenge and atheism.”
-Alexander N. Yakovlev, Soviet propaganda chief
Alexander Yakovlev is known as the “godfather of glasnost.” He rose to become head of the CPSU Department of Ideology and Propaganda from 1969 to 1973. But then he published an article titled, “Against Anti-historicism,” which criticized Russian as well as Soviet nationalism. If he had stopped at criticizing Russian nationalism, his position as party propagandist might have been safe. But he overreached and was exiled to Canada as the Soviet Ambassador. Given the importance of Canada as a country adjoining the United States, this was a strange demotion indeed; but as Yakovlev was a smart and personable fellow – quite liberal for a Soviet official – he became a close friend of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who in his youth had been an activist in the Communist-backed Bloc Populaire; and who got his start in the Canadian government from Robert Bryce, a close friend of Soviet spy Alger Hiss.
If this is unrelated to the story of Little Red Riding Hood, with Trudeau as the beautiful maiden and Yakovlev as the wolf dressed in grandma’s bedclothes, we may be a bit surprised. Yet, typical situations aren't always typical. The dispatch of so liberal a Soviet official to befriend so liberal a Canadian premier may have been, after all, a total coincidence. Perhaps, indeed, Trudeau was the wolf and Yakovlev the Maiden. At any rate, while Yakovlev was in Canada he had time to think and study. Accordingly, he became a closet anti-Communist. “Once upon a time,” he wrote in his fairytale-like introduction to the Russian edition of the Black Book of Communism, “I realized that Marxism-Leninism is not a science, but at the very best it is just bad journalism – cannibalistic and self-mutilating.”
Imagine Yakovlev’s difficulty, suddenly finding himself as a sheep in wolf's clothing. And there was Pierre Trudeau, a sheep in sheep's clothing. Perhaps Marx’s adage about history applies to fairy tales; first they are told as tragedy, then as farce. In the original story, Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by the Big Bad Wolf; but now, the Big Bad Wolf begins to channel grandma and returns to the pack as a reformer (swearing off the consumption of little girls). A marvelous parable, indeed! If only we could believe in it. Yakovlev tells us, “Since I lived and worked in high ‘orbit,’ including the highest – in the Politburo under Gorbachev – I knew very well that all these Marxist-Leninist … theories and plans were nonsense.”
We can all see that Marxist-Leninist theories are nonsense. But why should the strategic plans of Marxism-Leninism be nonsense? Didn’t the planners successfully conquer Southeast Asia in the 1970s? And what about all those countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia? Might these plans one day encompass North America? One is reminded of Gen. Jan Sejna’s commentary on the Soviet Plan: “When my friends [in the Czech Communist government] and I studied the Strategic Plan our initial reactions were identical: we considered it quite unrealistic…. “
But this was an illusion. Once Sejna had defected to the West, and saw how the Americans had no counter-strategy whatsoever, he wrote: “I could find no unity, no consistent objective or strategy among Western countries. It is not possible to fight the Soviet system and strategy with small tactical steps. For the first time I began to believe that the Soviet Union would be able to achieve her goals – something I had not believed in Czechoslovakia.”
Yakovlev’s long visits with Pierre Trudeau did not convince him that Soviet plans were workable. The willingness of Trudeau to play the “useful idiot” made no impression. Only being debriefed by the CIA could have cured Yakovlev of his delusion, just as Sejna was cured. Instead of focussing on Western stupidity, Yakovlev saw the whole Soviet system maintained by idiots. To be more precise, he divided the Party elite of the Soviet Union into three categories: (1) the intelligent, (2) the stupid, and (3) the very stupid. All three groups, however, were equally cynical. And he counted himself as cynical, too. “We publicly ‘prayed’ to those idols of ours with ritualistic ‘holiness,’ but always kept our true beliefs to ourselves.”
How did Yakovlev lose his faith in Communism?
Once upon a time there was a great teacher named Stalin. One day Stalin died. Three years later his successor (Khrushchev) denounced Stalin as a criminal. As a result, Yakovlev and his circle of (smart) friends lost their faith in Marxism-Leninism. They discussed the prospect of Soviet democratization. “We finally figured an approach that was as simple as a sledgehammer. We would promote the latter ideas of Lenin.” This would include the idea of a New Economic Policy (NEP), which would re-introduce capitalism into Russia. As if to anticipate objections, he wrote: “our group was real, not imaginary…. And we developed the following plan:
(1) To hit Stalin and Stalinism with the authority of Lenin.
(2) And then, if successful, to … beat on Lenin.
(3) To use liberalism and ‘ethical socialism’ to attack the Revolution
The idea, said Yakovlev, was to destroy the party through the mechanism of party discipline. And it would all be done in the name of socialism. Yakovlev bragged, “In retrospect, I can proudly say that it … worked.”
But for how long did it work?
In March 2004, writing in NPQ, Yakovlev was no longer proud. He wrote, “There is a crisis of democracy in Russia today as a result of the victory of the Socialist Reaction – the counter-revolt of the … bureaucratic class, against the democratization and liberalization of the last decade.” The first step into the abyss, he said, was the “return to the Stalinist national anthem, which stunned me. And the country started to sing. That kind of outrage against our memory demonstrated that we are still slaves….”
He also noted:
Once again, the Bolsheviks’ favorite games have begun. Secrecy is used as a method of intimidation. History textbooks are attacked for lack of ‘patriotic spirit.’ A new host of sycophants is beginning to shamelessly lick into shape a new idol in the Kremlin, which reminds me of the detestable portraits of the terrorists Lenin and Stalin staring out from all corners of the Old Soviet Union. It is shameful and distressing.
Yes, the sheep returned to the Soviet fold, to those same “theories and plans” that Yakovlev long ago found to be nonsensical. Only they left out the ideology. What they kept was the old strategic plans. As the martyred liberal politician Boris Nemtsov warned last May, Russia’s budget figures show that Putin has been intensively preparing for war since 2010. According to Nemtsov, war is the “conscious policy of the highest authority” in Russia. But how could this happen if the most intelligent stratum of Russia’s elite had, in their own minds, long ago rejected the “theories and plans” of the Soviet period? If only stupid people ever believed in those nonsensical plans, then how could Russia now return to them? Or did the Party elite – the real Party elite – ever leave those plans behind? Perhaps Yakovlev, the closet liberal, was brought back from Canada by Gorbachev for a very cynical reason – not because Gorbachev agreed with Yakovlev’s hatred of socialism, but because Gorbachev was recruiting liberals to serve in prominent positions in order to “fool the West” – an expression used by Russian investigative journalist Yevgenia Albats to characterize the changes in Russia and the Soviet Union under Gorbachev.
As noted by Russian dissident and scholar Vladimir Bukovsky in his interview with Robert Buchar, Gorbachev was following a plan, conceived years earlier, to salvage Soviet Communism through controlled liberalization. When reproached with difficulties that later occurred during the execution of this plan, Gorbachev told his colleagues that it wasn’t his fault. How could it be? He had merely followed the two-hundred plus documents outlining the steps already worked out in advance.
Was Yakovlev, then, a dupe?
This possibility cannot be ruled out. As an anti-Communist within the Soviet Communist Party, Yakovlev was paraded before the Western cameras and journalists. Like the Bearded Lady or Boneless Wonder at a circus freak show, he was a major selling point. For many years they kept him on ice in Canada, near to someone of his own temperament (Trudeau), ready for future use. In terms of persuading the world that Gorbachev was serious about democratizing Russia, he played a decisive role – authentic in every respect! So, in due course, he was demoted into the Politburo, then forced out of the Politburo in 1990 and, in 1991, expelled from the Communist Party two days before the August coup that destroyed the Party’s political credibility. Yakovlev had served his purpose.
It would seem, in all his writings and utterances, that Yakovlev was an anti-Communist. But we cannot help wondering about this equivocal figure. At the 28th Congress of the CPSU in July 1990, Gen. Lebed confronted Yakovlev in a way that brings the dilemma home. "Alexander Nicholaevich,” Lebed exclaimed, “just how many faces do you have?" Yakovlev ignored the question, which was undoubtedly embarrassing. How was he to answer? Like so many Soviet apparatchiks, he was advancing anti-Soviet propositions from a position in the Politburo. How was that comprehensible?
Clearly, a real Marxist could not pretend to hate Marxism in the way Yakovlev "pretended." Such was beyond the acting ability of Gorbachev – who seemed to be privately titillated by Yakovlev's thrilling apostasy, but could never bring himself to talk like a real anti-Communist. Surely, it must be admitted that Yakovlev wanted to kill Soviet ideology, and something inside him enjoyed the sport of it. Perhaps the others went along because it was another Bolshevik game. Only this game went too far. Perhaps, in this respect, those same hardened, cynical men had no choice. The political tide was going out. The Stalinist legacy had to be erased. The West had to be fooled that the Soviet tiger was changing its ideological stripes.
On a deeper psychological level, a person like Yakovlev is not so hard to understand. He was made possible, in the end, by Khrushchev's underlying detestation of Stalin. He was an extension of an inevitable attitude of regret (unconsciously felt by many erstwhile Soviet Communists). In outward appearance, Yakovlev was a Soviet ideology chief who hated Communist ideology. He hated that wooden, stilted language, the predictable rant. Therefore, he was perfectly fashioned for the role he played as a helper to Gorbachev. It might be said, and I think correctly, that he helped to bury Marxism-Leninism in Russia (even though Lenin remains unburied). After all, the ideology was already dead before Brezhnev's corpse went cold – and had been dead for a long time. But Marxist ideology wasn’t dead in the West, and this we have to keep in mind. The West was increasingly vulnerable to Marxism, which Mao said was “better than the atomic bomb.” Those Westerners, like Alain Badiou, who have sought to reconstruct communism, and re-interpret Marx, give the game away by their anti-Americanism – and their hatred for the West (even though the West is becoming a socialist bloc in its own right). So this is what it finally boils down to. One wishes to destroy a civilization, therefore one reaches for a rationale. The Marxist rationale was only and always an excuse. Furthermore, it was an excuse that ceased to ring true in Russia. But in terms of getting the West to commit suicide, it may still be useful.
The rationale of Marxism was destined to become obsolete, of course. Soviet socialism was an inadequate system. The proletarian revolution was a myth, and people stopped believing in it. The USSR was a barracks state predicated on nuclear war. Stalin knew this long ago, and knew what had to happen if the system was to survive. Without an big war, the country would eventually normalize. Any attempt at a fake normalization was dangerous. It would open the way for opposition. It would break Party discipline.
Yes, the long range strategy made the system vulnerable to people like Yakovlev in the same way Putin’s neo-Soviet system is now vulnerable to insiders like Boris Nemtsov. People who hate dictatorship can come from any class, from any social position. In Russia, who had a better view of the system than those who enjoyed its benefits? The opportunity to tear down the Soviet Union in an act of mock-democratization was simply too delicious. And so, despite his best Leninist intentions, Gorbachev’s mission to save the Soviet system by inviting criticism was doubly damned; for in the first instance he unleashed the anti-Communists genie, and the system could not get that genie back into the bottle. It would have required a man like Josef Stalin, willing to engage wholesale genocide, to reinstate Marxism-Leninism. But there are no men today like Josef Stalin. He is a unique figure in history, and Putin does not appear psychologically adapted to such a role. The modern world of digital communications shapes Vladimir Putin, and unconsciously shapes the image he seeks to project.
The system in Russia today is a fragile machine. Do not be fooled by its tanks and missiles and submarines. It is hollow on the inside. When we look at the loyal KGB soldiers who run this machine, we see functionaries who seized the means of production, who placed the liberal politicians under hidden mechanisms of control. But more they could not do, lacking the kind of mentality that possesses higher concepts. These siloviki would have preferred to bring back the old system, yet even they had to become a different kind of animal in order to survive. That's right -- the best of the Chekists had become NEP men, and who was going to change them back? Again, Joseph Stalin could not be conjured, and only Stalin possessed that murderous art of rolling back an NEP. Only Stalin was able to murder millions and somehow cause the blame to fall on others. Only Stalin could successfully pacify Ukraine by starving untold millions to death. Today Putin is where Stalin would have been if Lenin’s NEP had continued another decade.
How foolish, indeed, it was, to have embarked on a New Economic Policy (NEP) in the latter half of the 1980s without having a way back. And then, to have made the NEP coincide with a renewed de-Stalinization! Error upon error, it seems, on the part of those cynical men of the Communist Party. Or was it an error? Could there have been, unconsciously, deep down, a desire for real change? Was the long-range Strategy a case of self-deception? Was it, in fact, an open passageway for escaping a longstanding obligation to wage a Global Revolutionary Nuclear War?
These questions we cannot answer as yet. The only thing we may be sure of is that Stalin would have purged them all and started fresh, with young people who might still believe in the Red Easter Bunny. And Stalin would have then started World War III. It is, indeed, what Putin seems to be preparing. But can he motivate his people to this end? Can he justify an outrageous act of aggression in which millions die? Even if he uses a proxy terrorist group to attack America with nuclear weapons, he will have to exploit that terrorism in brazen fashion – thereby revealing his hand.
It must be admitted, of course, that today’s Russian Federation is not the USSR. Putin is not Stalin. One should say, rather, that Putin is differently dangerous. He is a selective killer who assassinates real opponents of the regime without killing millions of harmless bystanders (as Stalin did). At the same time Putin has a slicker media behind him and a more sophisticated war machine than Stalin had. But there’s something of a dead end here. Without communist ideology there’s no way to justify the Great Evil Deed. Perhaps that is why Lenin remains unburied in Moscow. Perhaps they will try propping up the old dictator’s corpse, presenting it as something fresh and alive.
Why did Russia end up in this situation? Why such a dead end? One might say the long-range strategy made this inevitable. Reckoning the correlation of forces existing at the beginning of perestroika, Russia's new-style "liberal" politicians were never going to come out on top. With siloviki crowding in around them, many used the USSR structures to enrich themselves and to re-establish Soviet power without Soviet ideology. In this they were willing to accommodate the siloviki urge for “security.” And this was the logic of their situation. Ideology might have died (in its old form), but the long-range Plan was smarter than ideology. It was more cunning. It had long ago titillated the generals. It was sponsored by the KGB. It was profitable for the military industrialists. Decades old, the Plan was the fetish of the blinkered functionaries. It was rational, even scientific – superior in every way to Marxism-Leninism. In the case of the Soviet Union, one might argue that the strategy became the ideology. But all the same, it is a dead end.
Alexander Yakovlev was never trusted with power once he was expelled from the Communist Party. In the 1990s he acted as the head of the Russian Party of Social Democracy which later became the Union of Rightist Forces (the party of Boris Nemtsov). In 2004 Yakovlev said that elections in Russia were “undemocratic since they offer no alternative, even if formally there seem to be other pretenders to the post.” Perhaps in despair, Yakovlev died on 18 October 2005. The Union of Right Forces was dissolved in 2008 and later registered as a “public political organization.”
As for Gorbachev, he is still playing odd games. His 2006 book [English version], Manifesto for the Earth, is about disarmament, global justice and global warming. “We can see with the naked eye that climatic changes are taking place on the earth,” wrote Gorbachev, “that the number of natural disasters … is increasing, that many plant and animal species are dying out, that the polar ice caps are melting….” The fact that Earth Day is Lenin’s birthday is merely one data point of several which indicate what kind of weapon has here been fashioned, and Gorbachev’s book tells us who is wielding it. Gorbachev's organization, Green Cross International, is a dead ringer for a Communist front. At the top of the Green Cross Website it says, “Inspiring youth to be agents of change.”
In all respects the program of Mikhail Gorbachev, since he pulled down the hammer and sickle in 1991, has been a program of deception, subversion and sabotage aimed at the West. Its humanitarian pose masks a desire to disarm the United States, establish global socialist redistribution, and sabotage the American economy. It is safe to say that Gorbachev was never a true liberal. “I can repeat to my dear fellow party members,” he said during a 1991 talk in Belorussia. “I have never, no matter before what audience experienced, any shame in saying that I am a communist and committed to the socialist idea.”
Of all prognostications perhaps Karl Marx’s 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge was the most interesting: “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction and … only a particular manifestation of the humanistic principle – and is infected by its opposite, private property.” Another way of saying this, from the standpoint of freedom, is that every cloud has a silver lining. Even a red cloud.