Isaac Deutscher 1953

The Kremlin Triumvirs: One Down, Two to Go

Source: The Reporter, 1 September 1953. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Lavrenti Beria’s downfall, announced 10 July, marks the end of a distinct phase in Russia’s political evolution after Stalin. During that phase which lasted from March till the end of June the advocates of reform at home and conciliation abroad were in the ascendant, while the diehards of Stalinism and the ‘anti-appeasers’ were compelled to yield one position after another. The East German revolt of 16-17 June brought into play a new factor that discomfited the reformers and conciliators and allowed their opponents to strike a counterblow, the first since Stalin’s death. To the world’s amazement, Beria, Stalin’s henchman, admiring biographer, and for many years chief policeman, was denounced as the arch-traducer of Stalinism.

The Beria affair is undoubtedly an incident in the personal rivalry among Stalin’s successors. It represents one stage in the process by which a candidate for the vacant post of the autocrat may strive to eliminate his competitors. But personal rivalry is only one of the elements of the drama, and in itself it is of secondary importance. More significant is the conflict of principles and policies hidden behind the clash of personalities.

From March to the middle of June one domestic reform followed upon another in close succession. The Stalin cult was virtually abolished. A campaign of ‘enlightenment’ was in progress, designed to make it impossible to replace that cult by the adulation of any other leader. The administration was being overhauled and shaken from its Byzantine totalitarian rigidity. A fairly comprehensive amnesty was decreed. The frame-up of the Kremlin doctors was declared null and void. The inquisitorial methods of the political police were bluntly condemned. The rule of law was proclaimed. Strong emphasis was placed on the constitutional rights of the citizen. Newspapers asked almost openly for the abolition of censorship and official control. The need for the ‘monolithic’ outlook was implicitly and even explicitly questioned.

The relaxation of over-centralisation in government was noticeable above all in the dismissal of Russifiers from high office in the Ukraine, in Georgia, and in other outlying republics. Russification was emphatically disavowed. Together with the cessation of anti-Semitic incitement, these moves promised a new and hopeful beginning in the treatment of the smaller nationalities.

Sweetness and Light: Last but not least, the government ordered a revision of the targets of the current economic plans. Consumer industries were to raise their output. A higher standard of living and contentment of the masses were obviously regarded as vital preconditions for the success of the new policy.

A new spirit made itself felt in the conduct of foreign affairs. Moscow consistently exercised its influence in favour of a truce in Korea, and not even Syngman Rhee’s provocations diverted the Russians (or their Asian allies) from this path.

In Europe Malenkov’s government began to explore the lines of retreat from Germany.

After General Chuikov had been recalled from Berlin the whole policy of the Pieck – Ulbricht government was dramatically reversed. The Iron Curtain between East and West Germany was nearly demolished. Labour policy was revised. The struggle between the government and the Evangelical Church was called off, and the church regained its former privileges. Collectivisation of farming was halted. The farmers who had fled to West Germany were invited to come back and take possession of their property. Private capital was also invited to return to industry and trade.

From the Russian viewpoint these moves made no sense at all unless they were part and parcel of a policy calculated to bring about the unification of Germany and the withdrawal of occupation armies. There was little doubt in Berlin that Moscow was really prepared to abandon the government of Pieck and Ulbricht. So strongly indeed did Soviet representatives in Berlin encourage this belief and so frankly did they negotiate with non-Communist leaders about a change of the regime that by this alone the Russians themselves unwittingly induced the people of Berlin to descend upon the streets, to clamour for the resignation of the Communist government, and to storm the government offices. ‘Russia is willing to abandon its puppets – let us remove them at once!’ – this was the idea behind the German revolt.

The week before, on 10 June, Moscow established diplomatic relations with Austria and proclaimed an end to the regime of occupation there. Restrictions on inter-zonal traffic were abolished in Austria as well. And on the same day, as a side-line, Moscow solemnly renounced all its claims on Turkey, the claims that had played a fateful role in the opening phase of the Cold War.

What was surprising in all these developments, domestic and foreign, was their extraordinary consistency and apparently frictionless progress.

Was it possible, one wondered, that the diehards of Stalinism and other opponents of ‘appeasement’ should be so weak and discredited that they were unable to put a brake upon the new course?

Where did Beria stand in all this? To which faction did he belong? In Russia: What Next? I expressed the supposition that ‘in the inner councils of the party Beria did not necessarily represent the anti-liberal attitude of the police’, that he may, on the contrary, have acted against the ‘diehards of the police’ as one of the promoters of reform.

This supposition appears to have been borne out by the facts. In the last period of his activity Beria represented the curious paradox of a semi-liberal police chief in a totalitarian state. The period up to the East German revolt might indeed be described as Beria’s Hundred Days.

Beria took upon himself the responsibility for two major political acts, two unforgivable ‘crimes’ in the eyes of the Stalinists and their associates. First he humiliated the political police when he exposed its practices in connection with the ‘doctors’ plot’. Next he offended Great Russian chauvinism when he, a Georgian, called for an end to Russification in Georgia, in the Ukraine, in the Baltic lands and in Central Asia.

Both these acts, the former more explicitly than the latter, had ostensibly been endorsed by the other party leaders. But as Minister of the Interior Beria was identified with these acts more closely than anybody else. No wonder that some of the old hands of the political police, resentfully straining to recover their sacred right to extort ‘confessions’ from their victims, and the Great Russian chauvinists joined hands to wreak vengeance on him.

Beria was less directly associated with the conduct of foreign affairs; but as a member of the Politburo (now the Presidium), he exercised a strong influence in that field too. Beria certainly had a decisive say in the affairs of East Germany and generally of Eastern Europe, which had a direct bearing on Russia’s internal security, and thus his opponents could easily blame him for ‘appeasement’ as well as for the domestic reforms.

The Opposition: From March to mid-June Beria acted in close alliance with Malenkov. Together they swayed the Presidium, probably against Molotov’s and certainly against Khrushchev’s opposition or semi-opposition. Jointly they represented the strongest bloc of power within the Presidium. The new policy aroused great hopes and was undoubtedly very popular, and as long as this was so nobody could challenge Malenkov’s and Beria’s joint authority.

Against this interpretation the old argument may be advanced that under a totalitarian regime the states of the popular mind and the social, cultural and moral trends at work in society are of no political importance. In his criticism of Russia: What Next? (in the Reporter, 7 July 1953) Mr George F Kennan, for instance, wrote: ‘... the majority of... students of modern totalitarianism... would be inclined to... feel that if the ruling group remains united, vigilant and ruthless, it need not defer extensively to, or be seriously influenced by, subjective feelings within the populace at large.’

And again: ‘In general, totalitarian leaders who retain their internal unity and their ruthlessness can scoff at subjective states of the popular mind...’

Mr Kennan’s words, written before Beria’s fall, reflected an assumption that there was no need for Western policy to take into account any genuine divisions within the Soviet ruling group, because no such divisions existed. This assumption has been proved wrong. But what conclusion is to be drawn from the fact that the Soviet ruling group does not ‘remain united’ and does not ‘retain its internal unity'? Surely the ‘subjective states of the popular mind’ do acquire some political significance thereby. And those states of mind may in part even account for the differences within the ruling group itself.

From the beginning, however, the forces opposed to the Malenkov – Beria policy were formidable. The old hands of the political police were not idle. Some party stalwarts were shocked by the break with the established canons of Stalinism. Some chiefs of armed forces pondered with alarm the implications of the quasi-liberal reforms: would the reforms not cause a slump in labour discipline and imperil the armament programmes? By dint of tradition the army has been the mouthpiece of Great Russian chauvinism and has viewed with suspicion and hostility the ‘centrifugal’ nationalisms of the outlying republics. Some marshals and generals could not adopt a favourable attitude towards a foreign policy obviously directed towards an eventual withdrawal from Germany and Austria.

But the coalition of shocked Stalinists, resentful policemen and anxious generals was helpless as long as the new policy was triumphantly carried forwards on a tide of popular enthusiasm.

The Trigger: Berlin: The first hitches apparently occurred on the home front. To judge from circumstantial evidence, labour discipline did slump in industry and collective farms lagged with food deliveries. But these troubles were either not grave enough to permit the opponents of the new policy to launch a frontal attack on it or else they did not provide convenient grounds for such an attack.

It was East Germany that gave the opponents of the new policy the opportunity they had eagerly awaited.

The Germans who on 16 and 17 June surged into the streets, clamouring for the dismissal of the government of Pieck and Ulbricht, assaulting the People’s Police, and meeting Russian tanks with a hail of stones, did in fact bring about an upheaval; but the upheaval took place in Moscow, not in Berlin.

Almost certainly a cry against ‘appeasement’ went up at once within the walls of the Kremlin. Army chiefs could now argue that it was the army that had to bear the consequences of the neck-breaking political experiments started by the civilians; that order had reigned in East Germany as long as General Chuikov ruled there with an iron hand; that the trouble began as soon as the General had been replaced by Semyenov as High Commissioner and a civilian regime had been established; and that then it was the army that had to rescue that regime.

Starting from the German issue, the critics could turn against the new policy as a whole. They could point out that not only Germany but the West at large was receiving Russian concessions as proof of Russian weakness, and that Washington in particular was using these concessions as the starting point for an intensified onslaught on Russia’s positions in Eastern and Central Europe.

Moreover, the ruling group saw that the new policy was indeed becoming a source of weakness for Russia. It plunged the whole of Eastern Europe into a turmoil; it caused a rapid deterioration in Russia’s bargaining position; it tempted American diplomacy to pass from ‘containment’ to ‘liberation'; and it threatened to rob Russia of the hastily garnered fruits of its victory in the Second World War without any compensating gains.

But after the earthquake in East Germany, after the tremors in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, after all the calls for a tough policy that resounded from Washington, the argument against ‘appeasement’ carried more weight in the Kremlin.

In Russia as in the United States there exist groups which hold the view that all peace-seeking is futile; these groups view with Schadenfreude any setback suffered by the conciliators. The position of such groups was now greatly enhanced.

There is no reason, however, to assume that after 16 and 17 June these extremists became the real masters of Soviet policy. The core of the ruling group still consists of men prepared to seek agreement with the West. But even the men of the ‘Centre’ must have been affected by the arguments against ‘appeasement’. They had to admit that the conduct of Soviet policy since Stalin’s death had been inept in some respects.

Official spokesmen had confidently stated many times that the government would never accept Washington’s demand that Russia must yield substantial ground before the West opened negotiations. In fact, Malenkov’s government behaved as if it had tacitly accepted that demand.

Even from the viewpoint of the Soviet ‘appeaser’, the initiation of the mild course in East Germany turned out to be premature. It provoked a near collapse of the Communist regime there. From the Soviet viewpoint it would have been justifiable to take such risks only after the West had agreed to an all-round withdrawal of the occupation armies.

Thus even the men of the ‘Centre’ who had hitherto backed the new policy had to recognise the need for a change in tone and perhaps in tactics, even if they were not at all inclined to give up the quest for ‘peaceful coexistence’. Finding themselves under deadly fire from the extreme groups, they were all too eager to disclaim responsibility for the ‘appeasement’ of recent months and to throw the blame for it on someone else.

The East German revolt also provided an opening for an attack on domestic reform. To be sure, not all the adherents of conciliation abroad also stood for reform at home, and not all the reformers need have been appeasers. Nevertheless, there was a broad correspondence between the two aspects of policy, and amid the tension created by events in Germany both aspects became vulnerable.

The sense of security and the optimism that had characterised Russia’s mood in the spring were gone. The cry for vigilance resounded anew and with fresh vigour. Soldier, policeman and Stalinist stalwart could point accusing fingers at the advocates of reform: ‘Your policy’, they could say, ‘has already brought disaster in Berlin and caused dangerous trouble in Budapest and Prague. Soon it may bring disaster nearer home. In Moscow the people are already whispering about an impending depreciation of the rouble, and the Minister of Finance was compelled to speak about this in public. Discipline is becoming slack in the factories. Trouble is brewing in the collective farms. The newspapers in their new-fangled zeal for free criticism are sapping popular respect for authority. If you are allowed to continue this policy, you will bring about a 16 June here in Moscow!’

Under this attack the alliance between Malenkov and Beria broke down. The attack was evidently powerful enough to make Malenkov feel that he could save his own position only by shifting his ground and throwing Beria to the wolves.

The Scapegoat: Beria was in a peculiarly vulnerable position. His name had been associated with the darkest aspects of Stalinism in the last fifteen years – with concentration camps, mass deportations and thought control, with the Iron Curtain, and with the purge trials in the satellite countries. He had performed all the unsavoury jobs assigned to him by Stalin. Yet after his master’s death he unmasked himself as a dvurushnik, and a ‘liberal’ at heart. His own police despised him as a ‘liberal’, and the people hated him as the chief of the police. His head, the head that belonged to the ‘most powerful and most dreaded man of Russia’, was therefore the easiest prize to win for the opponents of reform. Both the police and the people almost certainly rejoiced at his downfall – for contradictory reasons.

On the face of it, the fall of Beria might be seen as a necessary stage in Russia’s democratic evolution, and Malenkov has vaguely presented it thus. The chief accusation he levelled against Beria was that Beria had conspired to place the political police above party and government. Beria, so Malenkov stated, carried out the recent reforms only because he had to. These reforms having been decided on the joint initiative of the Central Committee and the Presidium, Beria pretended to carry them out loyally, while in fact he obstructed their execution. As if to confirm this version, the Central Committee restated its criticism of the Stalin cult, its opposition to the adulation of any leader, and its determination to secure ‘collective leadership’, free debate and the rule of law.

If this were all, one might indeed see the downfall of Beria as a further stage in Russia’s revulsion against Stalinism. But this is not all.

What is ominous in this grim affair is, of course, not Beria’s downfall but the manner in which it was brought about. He was denounced as a traitor and an enemy of the party and the people, as an agent of foreign imperialism who aimed at the restoration of capitalism. This amalgam of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s makes a mockery of the claim of the ruling group that it defended the principle of collective leadership against Beria. That principle implies unhampered expression of political differences within the leading group and ultimately within the party as a whole. But who will dare to speak his mind freely when he has reason to fear that for this he may be denounced as traitor and foreign agent? The Stalinist amalgam rules out free discussion and consequently ‘collective leadership’.

If it was possible to see a promise of democratic regeneration in Russia after Stalin’s death, this was so because denunciations of this sort had disappeared; they were becoming rarer and rarer even during Stalin’s last years. The many high officials demoted between March and June were not labelled foreign agents, spies or adherents of capitalism. They were charged with concocting false accusations, abusing power, imposing policies of Russification, and so on. These were plausible charges, self-explanatory within a certain political context, and fitting in with the circumstances in which the dismissed men, whether guilty or not, had operated. The charges were made in a moderate and sober language in which there was no hint of a witch-hunt.

In contrast to this, the accusations levelled against Beria were full of irrational, demonological overtones. The Soviet world was ordered to believe that the man who had been in charge of Russia’s domestic security during the Second World War was an agent of foreign imperialism.

The meaning of the Beria affair emerges even more conclusively from the fact that his fall became the signal for a new drive against the ‘nationalisms’ of the Georgians, Ukrainians and other non-Russian nationalities. It was no coincidence that during the liberal spring, Great Russian chauvinism was kept in check and the need was proclaimed to give more scope to the aspirations and demands of the non-Russian republics.

Policy towards the smaller nations is the most sensitive barometer of the general atmosphere of the Soviet Union. Liberalisation means less central control and more autonomy for non-Russians. Police rule implies strict centralisation, and its tightening usually leads to a drive against the ‘bourgeois’ nationalisms of the outlying republics.

Between March and June the talk was, characteristically, against utilising the bogy of ‘alleged bourgeois nationalism’ in the non-Russian regions. In what seemed a long-overdue act of historical justice the Russifiers were dismissed from office in Tiflis and Kiev. It should perhaps be recalled that the Stalin era began precisely with a struggle against the ‘nationalist deviationists’ in Georgia and the Ukraine. It was on this subject that Lenin, mortally ill, wrote his last great angry, stirring letter to the party. (The author has read the full text of this letter, which has remained unpublished to this day.) In it Lenin expressed the sense of shame and even of personal guilt which Stalin’s drive against the nationalist deviationists had aroused in him. He warned the party against the Great Russian chauvinism of the Soviet bureaucracy and of Stalin in particular, against the barbarous violence of that ‘truly Russian great bully’, who, evoking the need for strict central government, would oppress, insult and humiliate the non-Russian nationalities. Lenin passionately argued that it would be a thousand times better for the Soviet Republic even to forgo the advantages of centralised government than ‘to deliver the smaller nationalities into the hands of the Great Russian bully’.

There was therefore a curious historical symmetry in the circumstance that immediately after Stalin’s death the Georgian and Ukrainian issues reappeared on the agenda and that this time an attempt was made to tame the ‘truly Russian great bully’.

But the great bully seems to have come back to bait the ‘bourgeois’ nationalists of Georgia and the Ukraine, and his return is the surest sign of some reaction against the progressive reforms of preceding months.

Who’s Next? Malenkov has apparently embarked upon the slippery road of purges even before he stands on his own feet. His leadership is not yet acknowledged. His position of power is not yet consolidated. He must still speak and act as one of a team. The party is ‘rallying’ not ‘behind Comrade Malenkov’ but ‘around the Central Committee’. Malenkov’s position today is not appreciably stronger than Beria’s was yesterday.

If it was possible to overthrow Beria so easily, what guarantee is there that Malenkov cannot be disgraced with just as little effort? If party meetings could be so rapidly persuaded to acclaim the fall of one triumvir, may they not look upon the destruction of another with equal indifference?

The fate of Stalin’s successors may yet prove less similar to that of Stalin than to that of Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre, who went in turn to the guillotine. It is, of course, also possible that after a series of purge trials Malenkov will finally emerge as the new autocrat.

The divisions in the ruling group reflect in the last instance conflicting pressures exerted upon it by outside forces which in the long run work either towards a military dictatorship or towards a democratic regeneration. The Beria affair therefore represents only one moment in the kaleidoscopic movement of contemporary Russian history.

The army chiefs no longer watch the scene in passivity and silence. Their influence was clearly discernible in the affair of the Kremlin doctors. It was even more distinct in the Beria affair. Without the army’s assured support Malenkov would not have dared strike at Beria, who nominally still had the whole body of the political police under his orders, who at any rate could still rely on some section of the police to rally to his defence. It was no matter of chance that Moscow’s press and radio gave so much prominence to the speeches against Beria made by Marshals Zhukov, Vasilevsky, Sokolovsky, Govorov and others. During the great Stalinist purges the leaders of the officers’ corps did not appear so conspicuously on the political stage. Even so, Stalin felt his position to be threatened by Tukhachevsky. How much more may Malenkov’s position be imperilled by his marshals, whose military glory and popular appeal are far superior to Tukhachevsky’s?

Paradoxically, the regime now seems to be making an attempt to repair that shattered prop – the political police – with the army’s help. But for some time to come, until the Beria faction is completely eliminated, the political police will remain in a state of disarray, robbed of its normal striking power. Now more than ever the government will have to rely for its internal security on the army. It must take some time before the structure of power characteristic of Stalinism is restored, if it can be restored at all. Across this weakened structure lies the shadow of a potential Bonaparte.

Nor have the forces vanished which drove the ruling group to decree the reforms of last spring, although at the moment they may have suffered a severe setback. The reforms could not have sprung merely from Beria’s whim and ambition, or from anybody else’s. They met a need felt deeply and widely by the nation. Malenkov and his associates still pay a tribute to the popular mood when they go on declaring that they intend to pursue the course initiated after Stalin’s death. The popular mood compels them to tread a twisted path rather cautiously, and it may even compel them to keep part of their promise. Moreover, the recent reforms corresponded to Russia’s new social structure and outlook, which, although formed during the Stalin era, have become incompatible with Stalinism.

No shift within the ruling group, no court intrigue, no coup or counter-coup, and not even bloody purges can obliterate these basic factors, which continue to operate against the inertia of Stalinism. If they are not destroyed by a new world war and if they are not unduly cramped by fear of war, the popular mood and the needs of society will sooner or later force open the road to reform once again. And then they will keep it open more firmly than they did in the spring of 1953.