Isaac Deutscher 1953

Rival Forces in Kremlin:
An Assessment As Supreme Soviet Meets

Source: The Times, 5 August 1953. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The Supreme Soviet of the USSR meets in Moscow today, when statements are expected to be made on the disgrace of Beria, one of the triumvirs who took over power on Stalin’s death. We print below extracts from a postscript which Mr Deutscher, the biographer of Stalin, has written for foreign editions of his book Russia after Stalin, recently published in this country by Hamish Hamilton.

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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 diehards of Stalinism and their associates. First, he humiliated the political police when he exposed its practices in connexion with the ‘doctors’ plot’. Next, he offended ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ when he, the Georgian, called for an end to Russification in Georgia, the Ukraine, the Baltic lands and 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 anyone 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.

Foreign Policy: Beria was less directly associated with the conduct of foreign affairs; but, as a member of the Politbureau (now the Praesidium), he exercised a strong influence in that field too. Bolshevist foreign policy has never been made by the Foreign Minister of the day, Molotov, Vyshinsky, Litvinov or Chicherin; it has always been the prerogative of the Politbureau. That foreign and domestic policies are closely interdependent has been an axiom. The man in charge of domestic security must therefore have had a considerable say in foreign affairs as well.

From March to June Beria acted in close alliance with Malenkov. Together they swayed the Praesidium, probably against Molotov’s and certainly against Khrushchev’s opposition or semi-opposition. Jointly they represented the strongest bloc of power within the Praesidium. 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.

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 all-round break with the old-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 of the occupation armies from Germany and Austria.

Berlin Riots: But the coalition of shocked Stalinist diehards, resentful policemen and anxious generals was helpless as long as the new policy was triumphantly carried forward on a tide of popular enthusiasm. 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 hitches were either not serious enough to permit the opponents of the new policy to launch a frontal attack on it, or else they did not provide convenient ground for such an attack.

It was Eastern Germany that gave the opponents of the new policy the opportunity they had eagerly awaited. The Germans who on 16 and 17 June descended upon the streets, clamouring for the dismissal of the government of Pieck and Ulbricht, assailing 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 reigned in Eastern 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 Semionov, 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.

In Russia as in the United States there exist groups which hold the view that all peace-seeking is futile, and regard with Schadenfreude any setback suffered by the conciliators. The position of such groups was now greatly enhanced, for the advocates of a tough policy in the West had effectively played into their hands. 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 was rather inept in some respects.

Premature Clemency: They had to admit that Moscow was over-hasty in making concessions and over-zealous in demonstrating its willingness to make further and more far-reaching concessions. Official spokesmen had many times confidently stated 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 – it did make concessions in advance of negotiations. Even from the viewpoint of the Soviet ‘appeaser’ the initiation of the mild course in Eastern Germany turned out to have been premature. It provoked a near-collapse of the Communist regime there.

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 anxious 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 stood also for reform at home, and not all the reformers need have been appeasers. Nevertheless, there exists a broad correspondence between the two aspects of policy; and amid the tension created by the events in Germany both aspects became vulnerable.

The sense of security and the optimism which had characterised Russia’s mood in the spring had 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.

In Russia After Stalin three possible variants of development for the post-Stalin regime were discussed: a) democratic regeneration; b) a relapse into Stalinism; c) a military dictatorship, the prerequisite for which would be a warlike threat to Russia from the West.

Army and Police: The East German events, followed by the call to revolt addressed to Eastern Europe from the West, presented Moscow with a substitute for a ‘war-like threat’, with half such a threat. This was not enough to bring about a military coup. But it was quite enough to bring back into action that coalition of groups in the army and police which had shown its hand in the affair of the Kremlin doctors in January. Roughly the same combination of cliques which had concocted the ‘doctors’ plot’ carried out a semi-coup against the reformers and ‘appeasers’ after 16 and 17 June. 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 lions. And Malenkov succeeded indeed in saving his position.

Beria was in a peculiarly vulnerable position. His name had been associated with the darkest aspects of Stalinism in the last 15 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 which 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 rejoiced at his downfall. The people believed that only now would the era of freedom begin for good, while the die-hards of the political police were confident that only now did the crazy spring of liberal reform come to an end.

In some respects the Beria affair is unique and cannot even be compared with any of Stalin’s great purges. None of Stalin’s victims wielded, on the eve of a purge, power comparable to Beria’s, and none had such a following within the bureaucracy. In 1936-38 Stalin had already his hands firmly on all levers of power and nobody dared to challenge his autocratic position.

Malenkov’s Position: Not so Malenkov. He 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 any other triumvir with equal indifference?

The fate of Stalin’s successors may yet prove less similar to that of Stalin than to that of Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins, who sent each other to the guillotine, while none of them enjoyed exclusive authority, with the result that all were destroyed. It is, of course, also possible that after a series of purge trials Malenkov may finally emerge as the new autocrat: but this is by no means certain. The divisions in the ruling group reflect conflicting pressures exerted upon it by outside forces which in the long run work either towards a military dictatorship or towards democratic regeneration. The Beria affair represents therefore 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 to strike at Beria, who nominally still had the whole body of the political police under his orders, and who at any rate could still rely on some section of the police to rally to his defence.

Gap in the Regime: Paradoxically, the regime now seems to make an attempt to repair its 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; 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. Until then a gap will yawn between the galvanised Stalinist method of government and the un-Stalinist mechanics of power. Across this gap a potential Bonaparte once again casts his shadow.

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 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 urges of society will sooner or later force open the road of reform once again. And then they will keep it open more firmly than they did in the liberal spring of 1953.