Isaac Deutscher 1955

Behind the Soviet Façade

Source: The Reporter, 10 March 1955. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

I: H-Bombs or Houses?

Malenkov’s sudden resignation on 8 February from the post of Soviet Prime Minister was the outcome of a dramatic struggle that had gone on in Moscow’s ruling circles throughout 1954 and that concerned every major aspect of Soviet domestic and foreign policy. It is now possible on the basis of circumstantial evidence to trace the main phases of the struggle and to describe the broad alignments that were formed in the process and the crucial issues that were at stake.

Early last year the Presidium of the Central Committee, the government departments and Gosplan (the State Planning Commission) began to formulate the principles on which the sixth Five-Year Plan was to be based. The Plan will start to operate next year, and will determine the development of the Soviet economy up to 1960. Its special importance lies, among other things, in the fact that it will aim for the first time at a comprehensive and close coordination of the Soviet economy with those of the entire Soviet bloc.

The crucial issue over which the struggle which led to Malenkov’s downfall was waged can be listed under the following headings.

The Lines Are Drawn: As the debate over these issues proceeded, two distinct groups formed themselves within the Presidium. The group headed by Malenkov and Minister of Trade Anastas I Mikoyan saw the main objective of the new Five-Year Plan in achieving a continuous and massive rise in Soviet standards of living, a rise which would result in an approximate doubling of consumption between 1955 and 1960. To attain this objective, light industry would have to be given priority in the allocation of capital equipment, manpower and raw materials; and the general tempo of its expansion would have to be quicker than, or at least equal to, the tempo of development in heavy industry throughout the coming five-year period.

The advocates of this policy, headed by Malenkov, argued that in view of the enormous success achieved in the reconstruction and expansion of the heavy-industry base, the Soviet Union could well afford such a programme. Indeed, they said, the mood in the country and considerations of social and political stability demanded a long respite from the forcible industrialisation of the Stalin era. They pointed to the lack of balance between the various branches of the Soviet economy, to the long neglect of consumer industries, and more especially to the intolerable condition of Soviet housing.

The debate was indeed concentrated more on the housing problem than on consumer industries in general. In the last thirty years the urban population of the Soviet Union had increased by over fifty million people and by not less than seventeen million in the last five years. The houses newly built had been barely enough to make good wartime destruction. The overcrowding of the Soviet cities, towns and industrial centres had become a social calamity; and it affected most adversely the morale and industrial efficiency of the working class. Therefore housing loomed larger in the controversy than the output of clothing, footwear, etc – fully as large as the shortage of meat and dairy produce. At least a decade of building on a gigantic scale would be needed to clear the slums left behind by Stalin’s industrial revolution and to bring the housing conditions of the Soviet people nearer the standards of any modern industrial nation. But a housing programme on the scale required would obviously and most heavily compete for materials and manpower with the basic industries.

From the beginning, Defence Minister Nikolai A Bulganin and Deputy Prime Minister Lazar M Kaganovich were apparently the chief opponents of this ambitious pro-consumer programme. Communist Party Secretary Nikita S Khrushchev seems to have joined them only later, not without hesitation. From the Presidium of the Central Committee the controversy spread to government departments, planning authorities, universities, the general staff of the Soviet Army, and the editorial offices of the most important papers. Although the general public was kept in the dark, wider circles were in fact drawn into the debate than appeared. Indeed, no controversy as wide as this had occurred in Russia for at least twenty-five years.

Bulganin and Kaganovich found powerful allies in the army and in Gosplan. The Malenkov – Mikoyan view, on the other hand, found widespread but less influential support in academic and journalistic circles, among the intelligentsia, among the heads of the light industries, and in party cadres concerned closely with the nation’s morale.

It was apparently with the greatest surprise that Malenkov saw the economic planners arrayed against his policy – he must have expected Gosplan to lend strong support to his pro-consumer line. But the spokesmen of Gosplan argued that his programme was unrealistic, and that Russia’s present industrial base could not yet support it, especially the extensive housing programme. On behalf of the Gosplan ‘brain trust’, S Strumilin, the veteran chief of Gosplan, pointed out that as a rule the producer industries must expand at the rate of at least eighteen per cent if the consumer industries were to expand by as much as ten per cent per year. Otherwise, after a short time the consumer industries would stagnate for lack of machinery. Heavy industry must therefore still be given top priority even if only to enable it to sustain a rather modest rise in standards of living. It was imprudent and positively dangerous, so the Gosplan leaders concluded, to arouse exaggerated popular hopes: only during the first two or three years of the next Five-Year Plan could consumer industries, including the building industry, expand by about twelve per cent annually; afterwards even that rate could not be maintained. Throughout that period the rate of expansion in heavy industry would have to be of the order of twenty per cent, and industrial construction would have to come before housing.

The Gosplan spokesmen also insisted that the coming Five-Year Plan ought to initiate the reconversion on a fairly large scale of Soviet industry, from coal to atomic energy. This again would require heavy capital investment. Finally Gosplan waited for party leaders to make up their minds about whether and how much the Soviet Union should contribute to the industrialisation of the People’s Democracies. There too the question had to be resolved whether heavy or light industry would be favoured. The Malenkov group favoured light industry throughout the Soviet bloc, while its opponents were inclined to favour the development of the basic industries in Eastern Europe as well.

The debate was further complicated by conflicting predictions of armament expenditures in the coming five-year period. The pro-consumer group hoped that Soviet diplomacy would by means of its ‘peace offensives’ bring about a decline in international tension and a stop or a slowing down in the armament race. The opponents of the Malenkov group dismissed this view as wishful thinking.

The army leaders were from the beginning alarmed by the Prime Minister’s ‘consumptionist’ bias. They saw in it a threat to the Soviet military potential and almost certainly argued that it was dangerous to tie up a high proportion of the country’s resources and manpower in light industry. If the threat of war arose suddenly, heavy industry could be switched over to the production of munitions almost overnight; the reconversion of light industries, on the other hand, would be difficult and slow. The army was therefore interested on principle in seeing as much labour and materials as possible concentrated in the basic industries. The Marshals joined hands with the leaders of Gosplan in an otherwise somewhat unnatural alliance against the Prime Minister and his supporters. The Gosplan – army bloc finally brought Khrushchev over.

Answer to NATO: International developments continuously and closely influenced the course of the controversy. The rejection of EDC by the French Parliament last summer strengthened the Malenkov group for a while. Khrushchev vacillated. But early in the fall the Presidium was no longer in the mood of exultation it had felt immediately after the rejection of EDC. Molotov evidently reported that the NATO powers were after all likely to obtain France’s agreement to Germany’s inclusion in NATO. By the beginning of October the Presidium had already adopted draft directives for the Five-Year Plan. These provided only for a modest growth of consumer industries, and this only in the first two or three years of the coming five-year period.

By the beginning of October, too, the Presidium had already prepared a tentative scheme for the Soviet ‘counter-moves’ to the inclusion of West Germany in NATO. The scheme provided for a massive rise in armament expenditure. (The ten per cent increase in the 1955 defence budget, announced just before Malenkov’s resignation, is only a first instalment.) The scheme also provided for the setting up of a joint command for all the armed forces of the Soviet bloc, a counterpart to SHAPE. The Presidium had also resolved to propose to Mao Tse-tung that he should decree universal military service in China.

The implications of this last proposal were staggering. China had so far refrained from introducing conscription because industrial weakness would not allow the arming of conscripts. Conscription in China of one year’s class alone would yield about four million military recruits. The training of, say, five classes could in a few years place at the disposal of the supreme command of the Soviet bloc a new reserve of twenty million soldiers. (Apparently Molotov had in mind this countercoup to the armament of West Germany when he said at the last session of the Supreme Soviet that the ‘Western imperialists’ would adopt a different language vis-à-vis Russia once they saw what the Soviet counter-measures were.) But in order to obtain so vast a strategic reserve, the Soviet Union would have to build up China’s industries and also supply much of the ready armament from its own stocks.

It was with this scheme that Khrushchev, Bulganin and other Soviet leaders went to Peking last October to obtain Mao Tse-tung’s consent. (The factions in Moscow had, of course, vied with each other for his support.) Mao consented to work on the basis of the new military-industrial scheme. Thus a decisive blow was struck at the hopes for a rapid expansion of Soviet consumer industries.

The defeat of the Malenkov group was sealed when the French Parliament ratified the London and Paris agreements at the end of last year. Malenkov’s resignation was a foregone conclusion. The chief opponent of the consumptionist policy, Marshal Bulganin – backed by Khrushchev, army leaders, Gosplan and all who mistrusted the ‘liberal’ trend of the Malenkov regime – stepped forward as candidate for the Premiership. Significantly, on the day after Malenkov’s resignation Peking decreed universal conscription.

The intensified building up of Soviet heavy industry, increased armament expenditure, the new Chinese Army, and supreme Soviet command over all the armed forces from the China Sea to the Elbe – these are the new ‘positions of strength’ from which Molotov expects to negotiate with the West.

II: The Marshals in Politics

The appointment of Marshal Zhukov to the post of the Soviet Minister of Defence has emphasised the growth of the military influence in the Soviet government. The Marshal is not only Minister of Defence – he has also been introduced into the inner Cabinet as one of the Vice-Premiers. Thus, three Marshals now stand at the head of the Administration: Voroshilov as President, Bulganin as Premier, and Zhukov.

Never before in the history of the Soviet Union has the military element been so strongly represented in government. To keep the military influence within very narrow limits was a matter of deliberate policy. The leaders of the Bolshevik Party had always had the precedents of the French revolution in their minds and had given much thought to the idea that in Russia, too, a Bonaparte might one day ‘climb to power on the back of the revolution’. Both Stalin and Trotsky, for all their bitter disagreements, agreed on this, and each, from his own angle, kept an anxious eye on the danger of the ‘potential Bonaparte’. Stalin himself eventually donned the Generalissimo’s uniform and acted a half-phony Bonaparte in order to keep out any authentic candidate for the role. He sent three popular Marshals of the prewar period – Tukhachevsky, Bluecher and Yegorov – to their death; and then he relegated to obscurity the victorious Marshals of the Second World War and exiled Zhukov, whose name had become a legend to the Russian people, to the backwater of Odessa.

Are Stalin’s heirs then no longer obsessed with the fear that the phantom of a Russian Bonaparte may materialise and turn against them? It is difficult to believe it. But evidently they could not help yielding so much ground to the military.

After March 1953, amid all the uncertainties of the struggle for the succession to Stalin, while the triumvirate of Malenkov, Molotov and Beria was breaking down in ignominy, the Marshals gained in status, prestige and influence. They represent an element of stable authority. For the present they wield the only instrument of power capable of dealing effectively with any internal disorder, should disorder arise. The other instrument, the security police, has been discredited, disorganised and shattered, first by the exploding of the ‘doctors’ plot’, then by Beria’s disgrace, and finally by the extensive purging of Beria’s followers. The prerogatives of the security police have been drastically curtailed and its self-confidence and striking power have been broken. Nobody represents the political police in the Presidium of the party, while in Stalin’s days the chief of police, as long as he was its chief, was one of the first members of the Politburo. The head of the Security Committee, which was formed after Beria’s downfall, is an obscure and subordinate official who has only recently been promoted to the rank of junior Minister.

Stalin’s regime was predominantly, but not entirely, a police state. What replaces it is not yet a military dictatorship. It is still the rule of the party, but that rule contains an unmistakable and growing ingredient of a military dictatorship. The Marshals, aware of their strong position, are demanding a say in the conduct of affairs; and the party leaders cannot ignore the claim.

Vasilevsky vs Zhukov: Soviet military leaders, however, do not form a single group united in outlook and aspirations. For obvious historical reasons the Soviet officers’ corps is even now more heterogeneous than the officers’ corps of any other country. Its members are divided over issues of strategy and policy and by differences in background and tradition, not to speak of clashes of personal ambition. These cleavages have in recent years been epitomised in the antagonism between two Marshals: Vasilevsky and Zhukov. The rivalry of these two soldiers was just beneath the surface in the latest governmental crisis in Moscow. It is indeed a striking outcome of that crisis that the rise of Zhukov is accompanied by a quiet eclipse of Vasilevsky. Vasilevsky is now Zhukov’s subordinate – though presumably he still holds the office of Vice-Minister of Defence – while during the last ten years he was Zhukov’s superior.

The antagonism between the two Marshals goes back at least to the time of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942. Ever since then it has been reflected in all of Moscow’s military arrangements and shifts of power. The personal rivalry has been tied up with conflicting claims to credit for victories, to honour and glory.

But apart from this, the two Marshals also represent two different outlooks in the Soviet officers’ corps. While Vasilevsky has been its most powerful chief of staff, Zhukov is its greatest combat general. Vasilevsky’s domain is over-all planning and logistics. He has kept aloof from other aspects of army life. Zhukov, on the other hand, has come to be looked upon as the very embodiment of the army, of its endurance, courage and popular spirit – in a word of all those qualities which Tolstoy in War and Peace attributed to Kutuzov, and which Russians still like to attribute to their military heroes.

Vasilevsky came to the Red Army as a ‘specialist’, not as a Communist. In the early years of the Soviet regime many professional officers served the Soviet government from a feeling that, whatever their political reservations, they owed allegiance to the only effective government of Russia. In the minds of those soldiers Russian nationalism prevailed over dislike of Communism.

The most eminent of them was Marshal Shaposhnikov, a general staff officer in Czarist days. Vasilevsky was Shaposhnikov’s disciple and follower, and he succeeded Shaposhnikov as chief of staff. It is characteristic of Vasilevsky that he refused to join the Communist Party until 1938; at the age of forty-three, after the Tukhachevsky purge, he at last took that step in order to demonstrate his loyalty to the government in view of approaching war. During the Second World War Vasilevsky was one of the chief inspirers of the vehement nationalism of those years and of the glorification of old Czarist military traditions, legends and heroes. In the postwar years he stood for a rigorous political regime inside the Soviet Union and for keeping it and the Soviet bloc hermetically isolated from the West. He feared that contact with the West would have a disintegrating effect on popular morale. He threw the whole weight of his influence behind the reactionary campaigns waged in the close of the Stalin era against ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’, against ‘kowtowing before the West’, against the Jews, etc.

It is almost certain that Vasilevsky lent a hand in concocting the ‘doctors’ plot’. When the accusation against the doctors was being prepared, Vasilevsky was singled out to be presented to public opinion as the conspirators’ chief target. And, curiously enough, Zhukov was not even mentioned among the military leaders whom the conspirators allegedly planned to assassinate. Vasilevsky enjoyed Stalin’s confidence and was Minister of Defence in the dark years 1950-52, and until the moment of Stalin’s death.

He Liked Ike: Zhukov’s background is very different. Of peasant origin, a workman in his youth, he volunteered for the Red Army early in the civil war. He joined the Communist Party in 1919, when Bolshevik fortunes were at their lowest ebb and the White armies were almost within reach of Moscow and Petrograd. Mentally formed in the Leninist period, he adapted himself to Stalin’s regime but apparently preserved much of his early Communist conviction, some internationalist sentiment, and an informal kindness and even warm-heartedness in personal relations.

Both as a commander and as head of the Soviet military administration in Germany he resented the interference of the security police with the army and chafed at Stalin’s suspicious control over his own doings in Berlin. That control was so clumsy and so obvious to Western commanders that it made Zhukov’s proud face blush. He could not conceal his humiliated embarrassment from General Eisenhower, with whom he established something like a friendly relationship, but before whom he also defended with dignity his Communist convictions. For his disregard of some of the instructions from Moscow, for the informality of his behaviour, and, above all, for his dangerous popularity, Zhukov had to pay the penalty. Only after five years in Odessa was he allowed by Stalin to reappear in public. But at the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 1952, Stalin prepared his last humiliation. At that congress Vasilevsky was elected as a full member of the Central Committee of the party, while Zhukov, the authentic veteran Communist, was elected only a candidate member.

Zhukov seems by all accounts to be a more sympathetic character than Vasilevsky. Whether President Eisenhower will find him ‘easy to get along with’ is another question. The memories of the ‘soldierly friendship’ of the two Allied commanders hardly carry much weight in the shaping of foreign policy. They will certainly carry little weight with Molotov, who remains in charge of diplomacy. But Zhukov’s rise does indicate that the party leaders, while yielding to the army’s pressure for more toughness in both foreign and domestic policies, are nevertheless anxious to keep at bay the more extreme, xenophobic and politically ambitious elements of the officers’ corps, the elements that presumably follow Vasilevsky’s lead.

The present alignment is to all intents and purposes an alliance between the ‘tough’ party leaders and the moderate, party-minded soldiers. But even the moderate soldiers have evidently turned against Malenkov’s ‘soft’ policy; and Zhukov, too, seems to fear that ‘Soviet softness is mistaken for weakness by the West’.