Isaac Deutscher 1951

Mid-Century Russia

Source: Based on a series of articles which appeared in The Reporter (New York) in the summer and autumn of 1951, published in Isaac Deutscher, Heretics and Renegades and Other Essays (Hamish and Hamilton, London, 1955). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.


It is more than a hundred years since Alexander Herzen, the great Russian rebel and exile, wrote in his ‘Open Letter to Michelet’ that ‘Russia is quite a new state – an unfinished building in which everything smells of new plaster, in which everything is at work and being worked out, in which nothing has yet attained its object, in which everything is changing, often for the worse, but anyway changing...’

On another occasion Herzen contrasted the outlook of the Russians with that of the Poles. The latter, he said, cultivated a romanticism utterly alien to the Russians. They lived in their national past while the Russians, finding in their past and present little that was worthy of attachment, fixed their gaze exclusively on the future. The thoughts and emotions of the Poles hovered mournfully over ancestral graves, while Russia was full of ‘empty cradles waiting for children to be born’.

Herzen’s reflections must have sounded topical to many Russians even in the middle of this century. Since his days revolutions have followed one another; whole classes of Russian society have disappeared or have been liquidated; new classes have grown up or have been forcibly brought into existence by government decree; national institutions, beliefs, ideas and illusions have been destroyed and manufactured wholesale; and the whole social and moral climate of the country has changed so much that it seems that even the old character and temperament of Russia has suffered complete extinction or complete transformation. And yet mid-century Russia was still the ‘unfinished building smelling of new plaster’ – and of smouldering ruins. Nothing in it ‘had yet attained its object, and everything was changing, often for the worse, but anyway changing’.

When one thinks how many generations of Russians have consoled themselves with the thought that their national existence was ‘an unfinished building’ one may, at moments, feel with a shudder that a Sisyphean curse hangs over Russia’s labours. This must have been the feeling with which, in 1945-46, many millions of demobilised soldiers and wartime evacuees were returning to their homes in Western Russia and in the Ukraine. They found their native towns and villages razed to the ground. They found that the coal mines, the steel mills and the engineering plants they had built, amid blood and tears, under the prewar Five-Year Plans, were flooded, demolished or dismantled and carried away. The Western provinces of the Soviet Union, where so many gigantic battles had been fought, were heaps of ruins; and the tools were lacking with which to clear the ruins away. Twenty-five million people lived in mud huts and dug-outs. And, in 1946, as if to fill the cup of bitterness which victorious Russia was draining, a calamitous drought, the worst within living memory, scorched the fields and blighted the crops. Bled white, half-crazy with suffering, hungry, half-naked and barefoot, Russia began to build anew.

A few statistical indications will show that this is not an over-dramatised description of the condition in which Russia emerged from the war. When the last shots were fired, Soviet industry produced less than two-thirds of its prewar output; and, of course, the bulk of its produce consisted of munitions. The annual output of steel was down to about 12 million tons, only a little more than half the prewar output. The factories were turning out about 40 per cent of the clothing and footwear they used to produce, and most of it went to the armed forces. Even before the drought, the sugar plantations yielded less than a fourth of their normal crop. The Soviet consumer could not get more than one-fourth or one-fifth of the very meagre rations of meat, fat and milk he consumed before the war. Apathy and weariness threatened to thwart recovery. The Politbureau strove to stir and shake up the working class with exhortation, threat and promise; and a note of genuine alarm sounded in all its appeals for higher production.

Yet five years after the surrender of Hitler’s armies Russia’s recovery was well under way. The momentum of that recovery was the most important development of the first postwar decade. In 1945 Russia still ranked as only the fourth or fifth among the industrial powers of the world; in 1950-52 she was indisputably second only to the United States. Her steel output, approaching 40 million tons per year, was three to four times as large as it was towards the end of the war and more than twice as large as in 1940. It was this recovery which enabled Russia to consolidate and expand the positions of power which she had precariously acquired through military victory.


How can a nation achieve so startling an advance within so short a time?

This is not the first time in history that a nation has found its economic ascendancy stimulated and speeded up by military victory. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870, for instance, led not only to the unification of the German states under Prussia’s leadership but also to the rapid rise of Germany’s modern industry. The contribution which Bismarck levied on defeated France amounted to a transfusion of economic power from the Third Republic to the Hohenzollern Reich. The French payments fed the orgies of financial and industrial speculation which were characteristic for the Gründerperiode of the 1870s and 1880s. Up to 1870 France had been the leading industrial nation on the Continent. She lost that position to Germany never to recover it.

Stalin’s reparation policy resulted in a similar transfusion of economic power. The dismantling and confiscation of industrial plant in defeated countries, the reparations from current production, the mixed joint-stock companies set up, under Russian management, in Eastern and Central Europe, all served to transfer wealth from at least eight countries to the Soviet Union. This policy could not but rekindle the hatred of Russia among her neighbours; and it piled up before the Russian government dangerous problems and difficulties which were to outlast Stalin. But it cannot be doubted that the policy was a powerful catalyst of Russia’s economic growth. It deprived Germany of the rank of the leading industrial power on the Continent with the same finality with which Germany had deprived France of that rank after 1870.

However, important though this transfusion of economic power was, it was not decisive for Russia’s ascendancy. Turning from war to peace, the Soviet Union found a firm and solid basis for its recovery in those industries which it had built up in its eastern provinces, in the Urals and beyond, in the 1930s and which it had feverishly expanded during the war. The east had fed with munitions the retreating and advancing Soviet armies; and now it supplied the sinews of reconstruction to the western provinces. No wonder that the Soviet east loomed very large in the mind of mid-century Russia. Even after the rehabilitation of the western lands, it was in the east that the pulse of the Soviet economy beat more strongly. More than half of the industrial plant remained in the Urals and beyond.

The tempo of postwar industrialisation represented a triumph of Soviet planning. After the economic setback of the war, it was even more important than before that the nation’s resources should be marshalled, allocated and used in accordance with a single national plan enforcing a severe economy of scarce materials and tools and a strict labour discipline. The techniques of planning, which had first been developed awkwardly and with many costly and even tragic mistakes in the 1930s, were now brought up to a high standard of efficiency, even though they were still hampered by bureaucratic rigidity. The theory of planning was one of those very few fields in which the general intellectual depression of the Stalin era did not prevent the achievement of definite progress. The planners had at their disposal an amazingly effective ‘secret weapon’: the famous theorems of ‘simple and expanding reproduction’ which Karl Marx had developed in the second volume of Das Kapital. Those theorems, modelled on Quesnay’s Tableaux Economiques, describe the composition and circulation of a nation’s productive resources under capitalism. Adapted by Soviet planners to a publicly-owned economy and further developed, they helped to produce results which future historians may well describe as the most momentous feat in social technology achieved in this generation.

But the planners with their theorems would have been suspended in a vacuum without the sustained daily labour of the many millions of workers, skilled and unskilled, and of the technicians and managers. Many of the workers and managers did their work willingly and even enthusiastically, bringing into it something of that spirit of devotion and sacrifice which had enabled Russia to win the war. Few could blame Stalin’s government for the ruins and for the miseries which attended Russia’s victory – these were seen as the work of Hitler, not of Stalin. But there was also in the Soviet people much despondency and plain demoralisation, against which the government proceeded to use the well-tested instruments of totalitarian terror. This bred new grievances and new resentments all the more poignant because the terror was applied to people whose self-confidence had been heightened through victory and who had been sustained in the ordeals of battle by the hope that postwar Russia would be a freer and better country than the Russia of the 1930s with her cruel labour codes, purges and concentration camps. The rulers resolved to nip in the bud any incipient opposition. They resorted once again to the tightest thought-control. Once again Zhdanov came forward as the intellectual Inquisitor of the day.


Thus, feats of planning, enthusiasm for reconstruction and a most severe and comprehensive discipline combined to enable Russia to make the new stupendous jump ahead.

To accumulate wealth, the maximum of wealth in a minimum of time, was the overriding purpose of Stalin’s policy in his last years. More coal, more steel, more machine tools! More oil wells, more railway lines, more waterways, more power stations, more atomic piles! Mid-century Russia was worked up into a frenzy of accumulation. Implacably the employer-state kept down the wages of workers, grabbed the earnings of peasants, and feverishly ploughed back its fabulous profits into the national economy.

Mid-century Russia was nearly completing ‘Primitive Socialist Accumulation’. Nobody dared to utter these words, because the man who had first put forward the formula, Eugene Preobrazhensky, had been denounced and purged as a traitor and an enemy of the people. An old Bolshevik and an original theorist and economist, Preobrazhensky had, even in Lenin’s last years, opposed the party’s drift towards the totalitarian state, and later he joined hands with Trotsky. But, paradoxically, it was he who supplied in advance the text for Stalin’s work, without suspecting for a moment to what ruthless use his theory would be put.

Marx describes as ‘primitive accumulation’ the ways and means by which the early middle-classes accumulated wealth in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when modern industry was still too small and too feebly developed to expand on its own, ‘legitimate’ profits. The main sources of early capitalist wealth, Marx argued, were the dispossession of the yeoman-peasantry, colonial plunder, piracy, and later also the underpayment of wages. Only with the growth of industry and its productive power did the normal profits of the capitalist entrepreneur become substantial enough to serve as the main source for the further, normal accumulation of wealth. It was only then that a respectable and civilised capitalism could expand without necessarily robbing workers of their wages and plundering other classes of society.

Before the Russian Revolution it had never occurred to Marxists that socialism, too, might pass through a phase of Primitive Accumulation. They had always assumed that the already accumulated bourgeois wealth, when nationalised, would serve as the basis for socialism. But there was not enough of that wealth in old Russia; and still less of it was left by the time the Bolsheviks had won the civil war and began to look to the future. When in the early 1920s Preobrazhensky expounded the idea of Primitive Socialist Accumulation he caused an uproar of Bolshevik indignation: it was still blasphemous to suggest that socialism could be built by methods comparable to those employed by early capitalism. Yet, the whole social history of Stalinism, right up to the middle of the century, was nothing but the massive and awe-inspiring epic of Primitive Socialist Accumulation. As its promoter, Stalin expropriated the private farmers, confiscated the produce of the collective farms, and kept the industrial working class, ever swelling in numbers, on a bare subsistence level.

But towards the end of his life the great pirate of socialism had done his job. Russia’s new wealth had grown so enormous that it could now expand rapidly by itself, from the surplus of its own produce, by means of normal accumulation rather than by means of plundering the working classes and the peasantry. But Stalinism could not free itself from all the habits and the powerful inertia of Primitive Accumulation; and it resisted mentally the demands of a new time which called for a transition to normal accumulation.

The wealth of the nation stood in the sharpest contrast to the poverty of the people. In its main branches Soviet industry was now producing per head of the population as much as was produced, say, in France, though still less than in Britain and the United States. To see the advance in the proper perspective it is well to remember that twenty to twenty-five years earlier Russia was still much nearer in this respect to the level of India and China than to that of France. This is not to say, however, that the Soviet people enjoyed anything like French living standards. The industrial wealth of the nation consisted primarily of producer goods which were used to turn out more producer goods, and only a minimum of articles of consumption. In its frenzy of accumulation Stalinism seemed spellbound by that ‘production for production’s sake’ in which Marx had seen the lunacy of capitalism. Under nearly all the Five-Year Plans the consumer industries had failed to reach the very modest targets set to them. By 1950 there was little or no starvation; but Russia’s staple diet was still bread, potato and cabbage. The city dweller consumed hardly more than half a pound of meat in a week, one-sixth of the American consumption; and not more than a pound of fats of all sorts in a month. For clothing he had to do with about 20 yards of cotton fabric per year, while the American had 60 yards and the Briton 35; and the Soviet citizen could obtain almost no woollen fabrics, no rayon and no nylon. Statistically he was able to buy one pair of shoes per year, while the average American bought three, and the average Briton at least two pairs.

Worst of all was the housing situation which resembled the dismal picture of the slums of early Victorian England described by the young Engels. During a quarter of a century, between 1925 and 1950, the urban population of the Soviet Union grew by about 50 million people, as much as the whole population of the British Isles, the vast majority of the newcomers being peasants shifted from the countryside. The cities and towns had not been prepared for so formidable an influx. The housing programmes were absurdly inadequate. Stalin’s upstart bureaucracy and he himself were more interested in erecting grandiose public edifices and monuments, unsurpassed in respectable banality, than in building dwellings for human beings. Under the first postwar Five-Year Plan 100 million square metres of housing space was provided; but this was too little to make good even the wartime destruction of housing. The average space for every homeless or virtually homeless town-dweller amounted at the most to four square yards, less than any decent farmer would allow his beast of burden. Lack of accommodation for workers threatened at times to disrupt the industrial plans. In Stalin’s last years the few startling cases in which Soviet citizens dared openly to criticise Ministers were those connected with the housing scandal.


While, despite all her miseries, urban and industrial Russia was forging ahead with mighty vitality, rural Russia sluggishly lagged behind. The war had robbed the farms of manpower, tractors, horses and cattle. Yet the structure of collective farming did not collapse – it was only weakened. Much as the peasant originally resented collectivisation, he now knew that there was no way back from it. The old private smallholding had been inseparable from the horse, its chief traction power. But the horse had since been disappearing from the countryside; and its place on the fields had been taken by columns of huge tractors operated by the state-owned Machine Tractor Stations and suited for work only on large-scale farms. The first thing the government did after the war was to restore and re-equip the Machine Tractor Stations, which formed the most massive links between town and country and the instruments of the town’s economic predominance. The peasant knew that he could not do without the help of the Machine Tractor Station and that he could benefit from it only as a collective farmer. But not all the economic energy of the peasantry was directed into collective channels. The kolkhoz remained an economic hybrid, semi-collective and semi-private. Beside the commonly-owned fields there were still the residual tiny smallholdings privately owned by members of the kolkhoz. The peasant tenaciously clung to his smallholding, and often tried to develop it at the expense of the collective economy. He had to divide his time between the collective field and his own plot which competed intensely for his labour.

The still smouldering resentments of the peasantry and the cleavage inside every farm between its collective and its private elements accounted for agriculture’s lagging behind industry. This was the most important domestic issue which preoccupied Stalin’s Politbureau in its last years. If industry was to grow, farming had to feed the continuously expanding urban population; and the growth of agriculture had to be stimulated especially in the east where there were too few settled farming communities around the new industrial centres. Otherwise the whole convoy of the Soviet economy would in the end be compelled to move at a pace dictated by its slowest sector.

In 1950 rural Russia was once again in the throes of an upheaval which affected the lives of a hundred million people. In the spring of that year the government decreed a merger of farms throughout the Soviet Union. This was the most sweeping change since the initial collectivisation of the early 1930s – a supplementary collectivisation. At the beginning of 1950 there existed in the Soviet Union 250,000 collective farms, each with an average acreage of about 1000 acres. By the end of the year there were only 120,000 farming units, each covering about 2500 acres. The reform aimed at weakening or destroying what had survived of the old individualistic village. The pre-1950 collective farm was fitted into the framework of the old rural community: in most cases the peasants of one village had been organised in one collective farm. Under the supplementary collectivisation not only farms but entire communities were merged. The Politbureau hoped that the enlarged farms would be more efficient and easier to control and manage.

The peasantry accepted the merger with reluctance, but without any of that desperate resistance with which it had fought against the initial collectivisation. It mattered little to the peasant, at least immediately, whether the collective fields he tilled belonged to a smaller or a larger kolkhoz. And the memories of the pitiless suppression of the rebellion of the early 1930s were still alive and discouraged new acts of resistance.

The supplementary collectivisation, however, could not lead to a rapid and massive rise in agricultural efficiency. The Stalinist Politbureau was divided over policy towards the peasantry and decreed the merger of farms as a palliative. So many years after the liquidation of the various Trotskyist and Bukharinist oppositions the ghost of the old controversy still haunted the Kremlin. Some members of the Politbureau argued that in order to obtain higher crops, and a bigger output of meat and dairy produce, it was necessary to give more scope to the peasantry’s repressed but still surviving individualism. This meant lower agricultural taxation, payment of higher prices for food to the peasants, and a more abundant supply of cheap industrial goods to the countryside. Other members of the Politbureau held, on the contrary, that the peasant’s individualism should be curbed and suppressed even more severely than hitherto, and that collectivisation should be carried to its extreme conclusion. The country had a glimpse of the controversy when N Khrushchev, then leader of the Moscow branch of the party, proposed in public that the merger of the collective farms should be accompanied by a resettlement of the rural population. The farmers, he urged, should be shifted from their houses and huts to special settlements, Agrotowns, which were to be built in the centre of the new enlarged kolkhoz; and the kolkhoz should take possession of the privately-owned plots of land which usually adjoined the farmer’s old dwelling. Khrushchev’s scheme was supported by other party dignitaries, but it was emphatically disowned by the Politbureau. Stalin was afraid, not without reason, that so drastic a policy would plunge the countryside in bloody turmoil; and in his old age, beset by grave international problems, he was not prepared to start another collectivist crusade. Nor was he willing to adopt the alternative policy of concessions to the peasantry. True to himself to the end, he played for time and meanwhile he attempted to strike a balance between conflicting policies. He was to leave his successors to grapple with the unresolved crisis in agriculture.


With all her unresolved problems mid-century Russia was the prodigy of modern history. An incredulous world witnessed her breaking the American monopoly of atomic energy: in 1949 it learned about the event from an official announcement put out by the White House, not by the Kremlin. More than anything else that event drove home to the West the meaning of the transformation that Russia had undergone under Stalin. Who would have believed it possible that ‘backward, inefficient, semi-Asiatic’ Russia should be able to overtake so rapidly the old industrial nations of Western Europe and to reach the threshold of the atomic age second only to the United States?

In 1945 it was still possible to wonder just how enduring would prove Russia’s military ascendancy over Europe. It was still plausible to see in Stalin merely a modern successor to Peter the Great who had also worked ruthlessly to modernise Russia, to teach her the crafts of more advanced countries, to build up her military power, and to extend her influence abroad, but whose achievement had, on the whole, not outlasted his own reign. The flow and ebb of Russian power was familiar in a later age, too. The armies of Alexander I had marched triumphantly into Paris as Stalin’s soldiers marched into Berlin. Nicholas I, the gendarme of the counter-revolution, had dictated his will to Russia’s small neighbours and had treated Prussia as his vassal. But then Russia’s power slumped; her armies returned home; and her influence abroad shrunk because her internal structure was too weak and obsolete to back it up. Whatever some of the Tsars had done to modernise Russia, their achievement was superficial and ephemeral: economically Russia remained the least developed of the great European powers. It was from her fitful attempts to emerge from backwardness and from her equally fitful relapses that the feeling sprang, so aptly expressed by Herzen, that Russia was for ever the ‘still unfinished building’, rising and crumbling and rising again and always as far from completion as ever.

At the end of the Stalin era, however, for the first time in history Russia’s power rested on solid and stable industrial foundations. Stalin’s achievement therefore was different in kind from that of Peter the Great. Peter the Great broke open a ‘window to Europe’, but he left the entire edifice of Russia rickety and backward. Stalin, on the contrary, slammed, blocked up and blacked out all of Russia’s windows to the outside world; but he rebuilt the whole edifice to its foundations, and modernised and expanded it beyond recognition. The blackout was designed to keep out all external influences that might have interfered with the work of construction inside, and it prevented the builders from comparing their own existence with what was going on outside.

Russia’s hermetic isolation from the world was a precondition of Primitive Socialist Accumulation. But it was carried to the most grotesque excess when Primitive Socialist Accumulation was already far advanced. Mentally trapped behind the slammed doors and windows, Russia was taught to distrust and despise the world outside, to glory in nothing but her own genius, to care for nothing but her own self-centred greatness, to rely on nothing but her own selfishness, and to look forward to nothing but the triumphs of her own power. Stalinism tried to annex to Great Russia all the feats that the genius of other nations had created. It declared it to be a crime for the Russian to entertain any thoughts about the greatness, past or present, of any other nation – to ‘kowtow to Western civilisation’ – and a crime for the Ukrainian, the Georgian and the Uzbek not to kowtow to Great Russia. Stalin himself, the clumsy and inarticulate yet awe-inspiring deity of mid-century Moscow, stood as the embodiment of that Great Russia, of her history, power and genius.


There can be no doubt that the enlightened elements among the Soviet people felt oppressed by the mental isolation from the world, to which Stalinism subjected them; and some of them reacted with acute claustrophobia. In fact Russia’s isolation was receding into the past, and this made the self-centredness of Stalinism all the more unbearable. In the era of Socialism In One Country nothing was more natural for the Russian communist than to cling desperately to his solitary ‘rampart of socialism’. But several smaller ‘outposts of socialism’ had since risen in Eastern and Central Europe; and the Chinese revolution was just erecting another gigantic rampart in Asia. The feeling of isolation could not but begin to dissolve in Russia. Yet to the end Stalinism went on to fan it, to exacerbate it, and to exploit it to the utmost.

The victory of Chinese communism did not at once make its full impact on Russia. For years Soviet citizens had read in their newspapers about obscure guerrilla fightings in various parts of China. But these stirrings of a remotely creeping revolution did not in their eyes change the picture of the world to which they had become accustomed. And when as if suddenly the Chinese revolution ceased to creep and rose for its Marathon race, and when the old order of China came down with a crash, the event was so unexpected in its magnitude as to appear almost incomprehensible and unreal.

Before the Chinese revolution most of Russia’s wartime and postwar acquisitions were still tenuous. The new communist regimes in Eastern Europe were only limited and local gains; and each of those regimes might have turned out a broken reed. With Warsaw and Budapest and even Prague in communist hands, Socialism In One Country and its mentality had not yet outlived their day. But the Chinese revolution shook the world as it had not been shaken since 1917. It brought a supreme triumph to Stalinism. Yet in the cup of victory, mixed with the wine there were a few drops of poison. The rise of Chinese communism rendered ridiculous some of the Stalinist habits of mind, especially its self-centredness and self-adulation. China suddenly reopened the vistas of international revolution which had inspired Bolshevism in its early, Leninist days and which later seemed to have hopelessly faded. It was as if the ghost of early Bolshevism mocked the ageing Stalin. He shrunk convulsively and tried to pull his party even deeper into its Russian shell, into its spurious Great Russian pride and xenophobia. For a few years the deafening din of an official chauvinistic Great Russian propaganda was the only sound that came out of Russia. The mental horizon of Stalinism contracted most pathetically just when communism was achieving undreamt-of material expansion.

In a way the last years of Stalinism were as nightmarish as were its middle years. True enough, there were none of the volcanic outbursts of terror which occurred in the 1930s. On the contrary, the terror seemed to have spent much of its impetus. Up to the time of the scandal with the Kremlin doctors, that is up to 1953, there was no unearthing of sinister conspiracies in Moscow, no hectic search for traitors and enemies of the people, no witches’ Sabbath comparable to that of 1936-38. During the whole closing phase of the Stalin era only one member of the Politbureau, N Voznessensky, the head of the State Planning Commission, was purged; he disappeared suddenly and noiselessly, without being called upon to prostrate himself and confess his crimes in public. Other party members charged with heresy or deviation suffered mild demotion but escaped the extreme forms of punishment. Yet the outward surface of Soviet life was more monotonous and more deadly uniform than ever before; and it was this unrelieved monotony that was almost as excruciating as were the bloody spasms and convulsions of the 1930s. With the Stalin cult at its dizzy height, with all thought stagnant and congealed, it looked as if Russian history had come to an uncanny standstill. This was, of course, an optic illusion: the appearance of stagnation concealed an intense movement.


Late in the last century Frederick Engels wrote about the United States:

The Americans may strain and struggle as much as they like, but they cannot discount their future – colossally great as it is – all at once like a bill of exchange: they must wait for the date on which it falls due; and just because their future is so great, their present must occupy itself mainly with preparatory work for the future, and this work, as in every young country, is of a predominantly material nature and involves a certain backwardness of thought... [1]

Engels’ words could a fortiori be applied to Russia at the middle of this century. The contrast between her material progress and the backwardness of her thought was her most striking characteristic. Yet the most idealistic elements of Soviet society could not but ‘strain and struggle’ in muteness, and try to ‘discount’ their ‘colossally great’ future. Once again they fixed their gaze on the vision of that future, on those ‘empty cradles waiting for children to be born’ which Herzen had seen.

The only relatively free debate which occurred in mid-century Russia was concerned with the ‘transition from socialism to communism’. To outsiders this was bizarre scholastic quibbling over esoteric dogma; and this in part it was. But to those engaged in it the dispute offered an occasion for dreaming aloud, dreaming about the day when the nightmares of the present would dissolve, when the state with its all too familiar terrors would wither away, after all, when the social inequalities of the Stalin era would be overcome, and when the mastery of man over man would become a memory of the past.

* * *

No other modern nation has been as creative and as tragically wasteful of energies, men, ideas and dreams as contemporary Russia. At mid-century her birth-rate was probably higher than that of almost all other Western nations; so was her mortality. Even before the war, for every child born in New York more than two were born in Moscow. But for every funeral in New York there were nearly two funerals in Moscow. The Russians were consequently an astonishingly young nation. But throughout the Stalin era, the young people had little time to enjoy the taste of youth; very early they had to shoulder the burden of grim maturity, and they grew old with frightening rapidity.

This was symbolic of the Stalinist way of life and of the production of material and spiritual wealth. The government had made the people build thousands of factories and mines under a single Five-Year Plan. Then thousands of factories were destroyed or burnt down through war, hundreds of mines were flooded, scores of cities were razed, and flourishing lands were turned into deserts. Thousands of new schools and scores of universities were opened under each Five-Year Plan; and, at great expense to society, a generation of educated and intelligent people was brought up, of which the most civilised nation would be proud. Yet a terribly high proportion of that new intelligentsia was swallowed by concentration camps opened simultaneously with the universities. The brains of those who escaped this lot were flattened and stultified by the bureaucratic machine which absorbed them. At mid-century 37 million people were being educated at Soviet schools of various grades. This achievement did the greatest credit to a people many of whom had lived in illiteracy until recently; and in any case it was an encouraging promise for the future. But how many of those who received their education could be confident that they would be allowed truly to serve society with their brains?

No nation in the last century was as productive as Russia of epoch-making ideas, world-embracing Utopias and momentous revolutions. Yet nowhere were ideas, Utopias and revolutions as cruelly perverted. But the fertility of the Russian mind was by no means exhausted. In ideas, as in population, the balance of the high birth-rate and the high mortality remained unknown.

And there were a multitude of empty cradles all over the place.


1. Friedrich Engels to Friedrich Sorge, 31 December 1892, available at < > – MIA.