Isaac Deutscher 1957

New Line-Up In the Kremlin

Source: The Reporter, 8 August 1957. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The showdown between Khrushchev and his opponents that led to the expulsion of Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov from the Central Committee developed out of a situation in which Khrushchev was threatened with nothing less than the loss of power. In the weeks preceding the crisis he clearly found himself in a minority at meetings of the Presidium, where he was outvoted on major issues of policy.

Of the eleven members of the Presidium at least six regularly cast their votes against him – Molotov, Kaganovich, Malenkov, Pervukhin, Saburov and Suslov. Voroshilov vacillated, and even Bulganin’s attitude was uncertain. The majority of the Presidium appeared to be on the point of deposing Khrushchev from his post as the party’s First Secretary. This compelled Khrushchev to appeal against the Presidium to the Central Committee, as, according to the party statutes, he was entitled to do.

The opponents of Khrushchev were not a uniform group. Ever since Stalin’s death the alignment within the Presidium had been fluid. Yet some points about it have been quite unmistakable. Molotov and Kaganovich had been the official leaders of the Stalinist die-hards, and had fought a prolonged and stubborn rear-guard battle against all the reformist changes in Soviet policy, domestic and foreign.

Malenkov represented at first a different attitude. He favoured a pro-consumer line in economic policy and a relaxation of tension in foreign policy; but he was opposed to drastic de-Stalinisation and probably also to decentralisation of industrial management. Shepilov differed in foreign policy from both Molotov and Khrushchev, but he was opposed to Malenkov on economic policy. Pervukhin, Saburov and Suslov backed the Stalinists, the first two especially over the organisation of industry. As the struggle went on, the various groups, despite their different viewpoints, became more and more united in opposition to Khrushchev.

Battle on Three Fronts: After the Hungarian rising last October the Stalinist die-hards were in an aggressive mood and confident that they could regain power. It was only by a very slight majority, consisting of one or two votes, that Khrushchev had been permitted to make his ‘secret speech’ about Stalin in February 1956, and his position within the Presidium was even weaker when he initiated the overhaul of the entire Soviet industry last May. In early summer the conflict was brought to a head over three major issues.

* The industrial bureaucracy of Moscow and a section of the party machine were in revolt against Khrushchev’s decentralisation of economic management. Molotov, Kaganovich, Pervukhin, Saburov and probably Malenkov too led this revolt. Many of the big industrial managers who were supposed to leave the ministries in Moscow in order to take up posts on the newly-formed provincial economic councils delayed their departure from the capital in the hope that Molotov and Kaganovich might return to power and cancel Khrushchev’s reform.

* The next great controversy concerned Moscow’s attitude towards Mao Tse-tung, especially after the publication of Mao’s ‘hundred flowers’ speech, with its strongly anti-bureaucratic accents, its encouragement of greater freedom of expression, and its liberal attitude even towards workers’ strikes. All this was dynamite for Russia. The Stalinists refused to swallow Mao’s speech; and they adopted towards him an attitude so hostile that if it had become official it would have led to a momentous breach between the Soviet Union and China.

* Finally, Molotov and his associates were strongly critical of Khrushchev’s proposals, made in his televised interview with the Columbia Broadcasting System, for a withdrawal of American and Soviet troops from Europe, and they evidently took the view that he was inclined to go too far in making concessions on disarmament and in accepting Western suggestions on inspection in the event of a suspension of atomic tests.

It was in near panic that the Central Committee met on 22 June. Men of the Molotov – Kaganovich faction had been canvassing influential party members, talking about Khrushchev’s ‘treason’, hinting at his forthcoming dismissal, and inciting the heads of Moscow’s industrial trusts to resist his trust-busting operation.

However, at the Central Committee, the membership of which is much younger than that of the Presidium, the anti-Stalinist elements have been stronger than on the Presidium. Khrushchev counted on their support, and his calculation was correct.

Yet Khrushchev’s claim that the Central Committee has backed him unanimously may be dismissed as sheer fantasy. The Central Committee, too, is divided, and anti-Khrushchev factions are represented on it in strength. What determined the outcome of the session and the apparent meekness of the Central Committee was the attitude of the military elements, especially Marshal Zhukov’s personal intervention. For some time past Marshal Zhukov had been a virtual umpire vis-à-vis the opposed factions; and he now threw his decisive weight behind Khrushchev. Whatever various groups at the Central Committee may have felt about it, none dared to defy the army.

How strong, then, has Khrushchev emerged from the contest? The new Presidium, its membership enlarged from eleven to fifteen, is by no means uniformly pro-Khrushchev. Khrushchev’s own group consists of seven or eight members, not enough to give him a stable and comfortable majority. The Stalinist die-hards, among whom Shvernik and Suslov must be counted, have retained a few seats, and they are likely to enjoy from time to time Voroshilov’s support. Mikoyan maintains an independent attitude that is not without reserve towards Khrushchev. So does Bulganin. Marshal Zhukov is a newcomer to the Presidium, but from the moment of his appearance there he seems cast for the arbiter’s role.

Having eliminated his most influential opponents of the Stalinist old guard, Khrushchev cannot relish his dependence on the army. He has therefore made a determined attempt to bolster up his own position by an appeal to the country. He has denounced Molotov and Kaganovich for what they are: ‘narrow-minded and conservative’ Stalinists seeking to obstruct the country’s progress; and, at first with a somewhat trembling hand, he has tarred Malenkov and Shepilov with the identical brush.

At the same time he himself has come forward as advocate of further de-Stalinisation and ‘democratisation’, as champion of the people against the bureaucracy, as well-wisher of the peasants (to whom he promises further and substantial economic relief), as fighter for the rights of the non-Russian nationalities, and, last but not least, as the man who stands for a conciliatory foreign policy that would allow the Soviet Union to ease the burden of armaments and enable it to take care at last of its standard of living.

Is Khrushchev a Stalin? Is this Khrushchev’s bid for personal power? Is he emerging as Stalin’s real autocratic successor?

There are indubitable parallels between Khrushchev’s present showdown with his opponents and Stalin’s struggle with his rivals in the 1920s. The expulsions from the Central Committee, the threat suspended over Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov of a final expulsion from the party, the denial to them of an opportunity to state their case, the tarring of all of them with the same brush, and the barely-veiled exile of Malenkov to Ust-Kamenogorst, not far from Alma-Ata, where Trotsky was exiled in 1928 – all this tells a familiar tale and seems to point to a familiar end, to purges and the extermination of rivals.

On the other hand, Khrushchev’s drive against his opponents has not so far been marked by the degree of vehemence and the unscrupulous slander that were characteristic of Stalin’s campaigns against Trotsky, Zinoviev, Rykov and Bukharin. Nor has Khrushchev so far been given a personal build-up comparable in any way to that given to Stalin, even at the very early stages of his struggle for power.

More important, however, than these similarities and dissimilarities between Khrushchev’s and Stalin’s methods is the vast difference in the background. Stalin in his struggle for power relied on the political police; he was more or less independent of the army. But since 1953 the backbone of the political police has been broken, and Khrushchev can hardly recreate it. Nor is the Soviet Union of today in a mood to go once again through the holocaust of bloody purges, mass deportations and mass terror. If Khrushchev were to try such purges, as he well may, the outcome is sure to be different from what it was in the Stalin era. He would provoke either a popular revolt or the army’s intervention; in neither case would he stand the slightest chance of emerging as dictator.

Moreover, Stalin suppressed oppositions that sought to preserve some freedom in Soviet society. Khrushchev fights against an opposition that stands in the main for the preservation of totalitarian practices. It is he who speaks of the necessity to enlarge the area of freedom. In doing so he stimulates new energies and a new political ferment in Soviet society that will not allow him to build up his personal dictatorship even if he wished to do so. Pressures from China, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia are working in the same direction. Public opinion in the Soviet Union is growing and becoming a force to be reckoned with; it has received the changes in the Presidium as a signal for a further and deeper break with the Stalin era. De-Stalinisation has thus received fresh impetus, and is likely to develop at a stormy pace within the Soviet Union and in other Communist countries.

The repercussions should gradually be felt in foreign policy as well. Khrushchev has told Russia and the world that all these years the Soviet government has been hampered in its striving for ‘peaceful coexistence’ by internal obstruction on the part of its former foreign minister and his friends. The Soviet government has now freed itself of that obstruction, and Khrushchev has to prove to Russia and the world that he means what he says. He may be expected to take up as his major theme his proposals for an American and Soviet withdrawal from all European countries.

The Charges Could Boomerang: Immediately after the expulsion of Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich from the Central Committee, Khrushchev went to Leningrad to explain there in person the motives for the expulsion. To all the accusations contained in the Central Committee’s announcement he added new and significant charges directed exclusively against Malenkov. Malenkov, he stated, was responsible for staging the so-called Leningrad Affair in 1949 and also for the execution in 1951 of Voznesensky, a member of the Politburo and chief of the State Planning Commission. These charges have brought a new element into the political situation in the Soviet Union.

It is difficult to say whether, or to what extent, Khrushchev’s new allegations are based on facts. The bloody tangle of the Leningrad Affair, with its secret purges and its counter-purges, can hardly be unravelled by anyone who does not have access to the archives of the Soviet political police. As to Malenkov’s alleged responsibility for Voznesensky’s fate, Khrushchev’s latest version conflicts with an earlier account he has given to Eastern European Communists.

In that earlier version he related that Malenkov, Bulganin and he himself had jointly tried to save Voznesensky’s life. On the very day Voznesensky was executed, without knowing that the man was already dead, they interceded with Stalin, pleading that Voznesensky was innocent. Stalin received them coldly and replied: ‘Voznesensky was an enemy of the people and a foreign agent. He was executed this morning. Do you want to tell me that you, too, all three of you, are enemies of the people?’ Evidently one of Khrushchev’s own accounts of Malenkov’s role in this matter must be false.

Out To Get Malenkov: Whichever is the false version, what has induced Khrushchev to level against Malenkov this additional accusation about which the communiqué of the Central Committee was silent? Why did he single out Malenkov rather than Molotov and Kaganovich as the special target for attack?

Both Molotov and Kaganovich were involved in a long series of purges throughout the Stalin era. Molotov was the Soviet premier during the great purge trials of the 1930s, and so on a strictly constitutional view he may be held to bear the chief responsibility for the judicial murders of those years. Why, then, does Khrushchev spare Molotov and Kaganovich the kind of accusation with which he has chosen to charge Malenkov?

Evidently the charges against Malenkov contained in the Central Committee’s announcement have not been enough to convince the Soviet people and to justify his expulsion in their eyes. The politically conscious section of the Soviet public can readily accept as true all that is now said against Molotov and Kaganovich. It has known them as foremost Stalinist leaders, second only to Stalin, since the 1920s. It has watched them since Stalin’s death and has guessed from their taciturn and reserved behaviour what their real attitude towards de-Stalinisation must have been; and it finds only too plausible the accusation that they have obstructed the new reformist trend of Soviet policy. There is, indeed, nothing in the charges raised against Molotov and Kaganovich that savours of crude invention or slander. Ordinary Soviet people probably rejoice over their fall as they rejoiced over Beria’s fall; they see in it a promise of better times.

This, however, could not have been the country’s first reaction to Malenkov’s disgrace. Until quite recently, Malenkov owed his popularity – which by all accounts was great – to the fact that he was the man who initiated the era of reform on the very day of Stalin’s death. It was primarily with his name that the process of de-Stalinisation had been associated up to the time of the Twentieth Congress in February 1956. It was he who tried to give Soviet economic policy a new bias in favour of the consumer and who was therefore attacked and overthrown by those who held that heavy industry must continue to have absolute priority. It was Malenkov, also, who initiated the détente in foreign affairs and insisted that atomic warfare threatened mankind as a whole with destruction (and not merely capitalism, as Molotov and Khrushchev have argued).

In short, the Soviet public, rightly or wrongly, saw Malenkov as the antagonist of the Stalinist old guard. It must therefore have received with utter incredulity the claim that he had been a Stalinist die-hard plotting with Molotov and Kaganovich.

Khrushchev thus found himself compelled to try and prove to the country that Malenkov was not in fact the kind of man that the country had taken him to be. He had to make a special effort to destroy Malenkov’s popularity. There is no surer way of destroying a man’s popularity in Russia today than to expose his association with any of the blood purges of the Stalin era. So Khrushchev has unearthed the victims of the Leningrad purge and has laid them and Voznesensky’s corpse at Malenkov’s door. In so doing he may have succeeded in achieving his purpose.

But Khrushchev has probably achieved more than he intended. He meant to defeat his rivals and to deprive them of all influence, but not to stage a purge in the old Stalinist style. Now, however, the logic of his actions drives him to do precisely this. He cannot lay the corpses of Voznesensky and others at Malenkov’s door without staging a trial with Malenkov in the dock. He cannot easily put Malenkov in the dock without placing Molotov and Kaganovich by Malenkov’s side. Nor can he put Molotov on trial without going over Molotov’s record, including the chapter of the great purges.

Khrushchev has his own good reasons for shrinking from this course of action. He has set out to destroy Stalin’s old guard; yet he himself is one of it. In all the charges he is making against Molotov, Kaganovich and Malenkov, there is hardly a single one that could not be turned against him as well. They, he says, have obstructed de-Stalinisation. But has he not done the same? Has he not just told us, ‘We are all Stalinists'?

They, he claims, have obstructed the détente in international affairs. But can the same charge not be made against him on the ground of some of his more militant pronouncements on foreign policy?

They, he asserts, have stood in the way of an improvement of the standard of living of the Soviet people. But has he not been the foremost champion of the school of thought that holds that ‘heavy industry must come first'?

Their hands are stained with the blood of innocent party members; but are Khrushchev’s hands immaculate?

Of course they are not. He could not otherwise have reached the top of the Stalinist hierarchy and survived there. In his ‘secret speech’ at the Twentieth Congress he related the grim circumstances under which Kossior, the Stalinist ‘boss’ of the Ukraine, had been purged in the 1930s. What he did not say was that he himself took Kossior’s place at the head of the Ukrainian organisation. In the Soviet Union, however, people in their forties remember this, and they know that he could not have taken Kossior’s place if he had not enjoyed Stalin’s complete confidence and if he had not been one of the most zealous purgers. There are presumably still enough men alive, in the Ukraine and in Moscow, who have been victims of Khrushchev’s purges and who would readily give evidence against him on this count.

It was, therefore, a most risky undertaking for Khrushchev to raise the issue of his erstwhile colleagues’ responsibility for the purges, and until July he refused to raise it. Now the departure has been made and he cannot know where this may lead him. His plan may be that Malenkov (or Malenkov, Molotov and Kaganovich) should be tried in camera, as Beria was tried, in order to avoid exposing the skeletons in the closets of the old guard. But in Beria’s case, it was easy to justify the secrecy of the trial on grounds of state security; it will be more difficult to do so in Malenkov’s case. And so, with Malenkov’s removal to a place eighteen hundred miles from Moscow, the issue has been shelved for the time being. But for how long?

It is enough to state the implications of Khrushchev’s latest move to realise into what a turmoil the Soviet leadership is plunging. The Stalinist old guard is no longer in a position to exercise power; its chief destroyer comes from its own midst. At the same time, however, the country is paying the ultimate penalty of totalitarianism: while the Stalinist ruling group is disintegrating, no coherent opposition group exists that would be able to come forward and form an alternative government. Khrushchev’s ascendancy may well be short-lived.

A repetition of Stalinist purges amid the present intense and widespread revulsion against Stalinism can only convulse the country and stir up popular revolt. But any early popular revolt is likely to be leaderless and therefore to be doomed. There are still the dark horses around Khrushchev: Marshal Zhukov on the one hand and on the other the younger men who have been brought up by the Stalinist old guard but have not belonged to it and who have now taken their places in the new Presidium and in the Central Committee. It is from these dark horses that the political initiative is likely to come during the next few years.

Zhukov’s ‘Great Speech’: As a matter of fact, Zhukov waited only a few days to make a major and independent political move during Khrushchev’s and Bulganin’s absence from Russia. On 15 July, just before the two eminent travellers concluded their tour of Czechoslovakia, the Marshal delivered what Pravda calls a ‘great speech’ to the workers of the Leningrad ‘Bolshevik’ factory. Pravda has printed only a summary of the speech, clearly indicating that its most important part is not, or is not yet, fit for publication. The Marshal has thus made a ‘secret speech’ of his own; and even Pravda’s scanty and embarrassed summary suggests that it may be not less important than Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’. Khrushchev at the Twentieth Congress exposed Stalin with shattering effect; Zhukov has exposed Stalin’s old guard – of which Khrushchev, after all, was a member – and the effect may be not less shattering.

Ostensibly, the Marshal launched his attack only against Molotov, Kaganovich, Malenkov and Shepilov. But he conducted it in a manner very different from Khrushchev’s. The great and startling novelty of Zhukov’s Leningrad speech was that he took what may be described as the strictly constitutional view.

In effect, Zhukov demanded that the entire record of the Stalin era be brought to light; and, without waiting, he himself went on to divulge parts of the record about which Khrushchev, the Presidium and the Central Committee have so far kept silent. Zhukov said that Malenkov, Kaganovich and Molotov resisted stubbornly any action designed to unmask and to bring to book those guilty of the lawlessness of the Stalin era, because ‘they feared their own responsibility... for transgressing their own prerogatives and for their own lawless acts’. ‘Then’, Pravda relates, ‘Zhukov listed the cases in which... Malenkov, Kaganovich and Molotov violated the law.’ This was certainly the crux of Zhukov’s speech, but Pravda significantly did not reproduce the full text.

If the Marshal’s words mean anything, then he has raised the demand that all those implicated in the judicial murders of the entire Stalin era be brought to trial. It is significant that he chose a vast public meeting and not a closed party conference as the forum from which to voice this demand. He was obviously out to force Khrushchev’s hand and to make it very difficult for Khrushchev to avoid a public trial of Stalin’s old guard.

In other respects, too, the Leningrad meeting was more than an ordinary event. It was a dramatic opening of what looks like Zhukov’s bid for leadership, a test of his popularity in the country.

The victor of Berlin combined caution with boldness. He made a flattering remark about Khrushchev, giving him full credit for the slogan about ‘catching up with the American production of meat and milk'; but he gave Khrushchev credit for nothing else. The acclaim with which the Leningraders greeted the Marshal strongly overshadowed the reception they had given Khrushchev some days earlier. Zhukov was given a more tumultuous greeting than any other Soviet leader since Stalin’s death, and the hurrahs repeatedly broke into his speech. He addressed the crowd in a personal tone that is most unusual – indeed, almost forbidden – in the Soviet Union. He spoke of himself as one who had come from the working class. He reminded the Leningraders that he had been in charge of the defences of their city in those dark and heroic days of the autumn of 1941 when they had fought German tanks in the suburbs, and that it was he again who had commanded those later operations that broke the German blockade of Leningrad. As he recalled his part in this glorious epic, the other members of the Presidium, including Khrushchev himself, may well have looked like pygmies by comparison.

The Travellers Return: Khrushchev and Bulganin must now deal with the consequences of this event, which has demonstrated to them the instability of the present situation in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev could not have been entirely unaware of this instability, and may have had urgent reasons for going to Czechoslovakia so soon after the grave domestic upheaval. He feared a Stalinist ‘revolt’ in Czechoslovakia – a Hungary in reverse – or at least a protest of the Czech leaders against the expulsion of Molotov and Kaganovich.

Czechoslovakia is still ruled by an unrepentant Stalinist old guard that has not even undergone any reshuffling, by the same men who staged the trials of Slánský and Clementis and who have hitherto been closely connected with Molotov. There can be no love lost between them and the new leadership in Moscow. If Khrushchev had some ground to distrust them, they had reason to fear that he might seek to undermine their authority.

But Khrushchev could not risk a conflict with the Czech Stalinists just now. The influence of the Stalinist die-hards in Moscow is not yet negligible, even though it has been rapidly declining. A Stalinist ‘revolt’ in Czechoslovakia might have strengthened the Russian Stalinists and weakened Khrushchev’s position. Consequently he went to Prague to strike a bargain with the Molotovites there. This accounted for his apparently contradictory behaviour in Czechoslovakia, where he spoke at times as if he had been Molotov’s mouthpiece – making scathing remarks about Tito and taking a ‘tough’ line vis-à-vis the Western powers – and committed thereby precisely those offences for which Molotov has just been censured and punished.

In Moscow Khrushchev has been eager to point out the gulf that separates him from Molotov, but in Prague he was anxious to ingratiate himself with the Molotovites in order to forestall an open break with them. A bargain was struck: Khrushchev promised to do nothing to carry de-Stalinisation into Czechoslovakia, and the Czechs accepted the expulsion and denunciation of their former patrons in Moscow.

The events in Leningrad and in Czechoslovakia are, of course, not unconnected. They illustrate the contradictory pressures to which the present Soviet leadership is exposed.

Khrushchev and Bulganin have emerged from the rather pro-Stalinist climate of Prague only to face what looks like the beginning of a new anti-Stalinist gale at home.