Isaac Deutscher 1954

Ferment of Ideas in Russia: I:
Revolt Against Orthodoxy of Stalinist Era

Source: The Times, 16 November 1954. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The ferment of ideas in Russia which has come to the surface since Stalin’s death continues to develop. For more than a year the Russian intelligentsia have been plunged into a controversy the like of which they had not known for nearly a quarter of a century.

Scientists, men of letters, artists and educationists have all argued the issues which preoccupy them; and they have sometimes done this with a zest which shows them to be, after all, the descendants of the old Russian revolutionary intelligentsia. Behind the controversy there have been attempts, some audacious and others timid, at a ‘revision of the values’ inherited from the Stalin era.

All the recent debates have contained an implicit protest of the Soviet intelligentsia against the mental sterility and mediocrity to which Stalinism had condemned them. Economists have vented their resentment at an orthodoxy under which they were reduced to the role of Stalin’s gramophone records. Biologists have reacted against the humiliation they had suffered at Lysenko’s hands. Physicists have declared that they have had enough of the chauvinistic Great Russian swank, which was en vogue until recently, and of isolation from Western science.

Painters and sculptors have revolted against that ‘socialist realism’ which has compelled them to dress, in shoddy style, Stalin and his entourage as demigods. Novelists and poets have expressed disgust at the patterns into which thought control had sought to constrict their creative imagination, at the compulsion to produce dramas without real conflict, novels without living people, and lyrical poetry without genuine feeling. ‘We have had enough of your Stalin Prizes’, is a fair summing-up of the protest uttered by Ovechkin, the rising star of Soviet literature in the post-Stalinist era. The youth of Russia, the students at the universities of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, have rebelled against the hypocrisy and rigid formalism of the Stalin cult.

Rulers’ Two Souls: The attitude of Stalin’s successors towards these developments is equivocal. Two souls seem to dwell in the breast of the Malenkov government. It was that government itself which initiated the present heart-searching when it buried the Stalin cult together with Stalin, when it ordered party propagandists to launch the attack against the ‘un-Marxist cult of the single leader’, when it intimated to the people that the time had come to do away with the totems and taboos of the Stalin era, when it thrust into dramatic relief Stalin’s failures in various fields of policy, and when it threw open the heavy gates of the Kremlin to the man in the street and to the youth of Russia. The intelligentsia have taken all these gestures and hints as a promise of a new era, an encouragement and a challenge to their thought, courage and dignity. Not for nothing did Ilya Ehrenburg call his new and controversial novel The Thaw.

Stalin’s closest associates and successors were indeed the first to break the ice. But soon they began to wonder in perplexity whither the drifting floes might not carry them. They had done away with the Stalin cult, by which they themselves had been oppressed, with a sigh of relief but also with mental reservations. Malenkov, Khrushchev and Molotov, not to speak of Beria, had owed their positions of power to Stalin. In varying degrees they had all been his accomplices. A frank and a radical disavowal of Stalinism would threaten to bring discredit upon their own heads. They cannot allow the Soviet people to know the full truth about the Stalin era. They cannot drag the corpse of their Master through the mud and at the same time save their own faces. Having at first quietly abandoned the cult they could not then but seek to salve its wreckage. Having sneaked away from Stalinist orthodoxy they cannot but try to sneak back to it.

Stalinist orthodoxy and discipline fitted an essentially primitive, pre-industrial society engaged in feverish industrialisation and collectivisation. The discipline resulted from the attempt to impose on the Russia of muzhiks an ideal and a way of life for which that Russia was not prepared, either materially or mentally. The primitive magic of Stalinism, the deification of the Leader, and the bizarre and elaborate rituals of Stalinism had all sprung from Russian backwardness and all served to tame that backwardness.

Because the vast and swift transformation of the whole social outlook of Russia undertaken by Stalin was not based on the will and understanding of the people, its origin had to be traced back to the superhuman wisdom and will of the Leader. Opposition was branded as the devil’s work, especially when it was inspired by the Marxist tradition which was irreconcilable with the cult of the Leader and the primitive magic. Throughout the Stalin era the rulers, the ideologists, and the policemen too, were constantly engaged in turning the modern conceptions of Marxism into the idiom of primitive magic and in translating the do’s and don’ts of that magic into the vocabulary of Marxism.

A New Intelligentsia: After decades of this ideological diet the Soviet intelligentsia are visibly suffering from moral nausea. This is a very different intelligentsia from that which witnessed Stalin’s ascendancy. Their background is not the inert and helpless Russia of the muzhik but the second industrial power of the world which has reached the threshold of the atomic age almost simultaneously with the United States. To be sure, much of the old primitivism and barbarism remains embedded in Russian life. But while the old intelligentsia suffered acutely from the discrepancy between their own intellectual progress and the nation’s poverty and backwardness, the present generation of the intelligentsia suffers even more acutely from the contrast between the nation’s material progress and the backwardness of its spiritual climate.

This state of affairs concerns Soviet society as a whole, not merely the intelligentsia. The working of the national economy, the functioning of social institutions, and the efficiency of administration are affected by it no less than academic life, literature and the arts. The monolithic thought-control which Stalinism had used to force through industrialisation and collectivisation, and to make Soviet society accept all the attendant miseries, has now become a formidable obstacle to further progress in technology, government and social organisation. Having for decades lived under its own brand of McCarthyism, with its loyalty tests, charges of un-Soviet and un-Bolshevist activities, witch-hunts, and purges, terroristic suspicion and suspicious terrorism, Soviet society is now driven by self-preservation to try to regain initiative and freedom of decision and action.

Twists of Policy: The twists and turns of official policy are reflected in the recent fortunes of the Stalin cult. For months after Stalin’s death his name was not mentioned publicly. The silence about him could not have been deeper if he had died a hundred years earlier; and its meaning was underlined by the emphatic denunciations of the ‘un-Marxist cult of the single leader’.

But there was something unreal and awkward in that silence. There was in it a sense of tension and embarrassment which came from the fact that the new skeleton in the Soviet cupboard was the omnipresent deity of yesterday. After a lapse of time Stalin began to be mentioned once again, as if casually, by the propagandists. Discreet reminders followed of his merits so quickly forgotten. Then he was stealthily half-restored to the apostolic succession of Marx – Engels – Lenin. Even now, however, the place accorded to him in the historical retrospects is not more than a modest footnote to the epic story of Lenin, the revolution and the Soviet state. Salvaged from the refuse heap, soiled and defaced, Stalin’s figure has been granted a new but rather meagre allowance of ideological respectability. These posthumous vicissitudes of the Stalin cult, so comic to the outsider, are gravely portentous to the Soviet citizen, to whom they indicate how far he is, or is not, allowed to drift away from the old orthodoxy and discipline.

The debunking of Stalinism is now evidently under a ban. But quietly the departure from Stalinism continues in many fields. Where orthodoxy hampers technological progress and economic efficiency the canons of Stalinism are being jettisoned without much ado. At the same time the reaction against Stalinism is being curbed and discouraged in those fields where it may directly impinge upon the political stability of the regime. But it is not easy to draw a line between social efficiency and political expediency, because often their requirements conflict with one another.