Ralph Graham

Two Books on the Soviet Union

(August 1946)

From Fourth International, Vol.7 No.8, August 1946, pp.245-249.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I Chose Freedom
By Victor Kravchenko
New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1946.

One Who Survived
By Alexander Barmine
New York. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1943.

During the last fifteen years the Soviet Union has been the subject of a tremendous literature. Books have rolled in a veritable flood from the presses of the principal publishing houses. Almost every journalist assigned to the Soviet Union wrote a book on his findings. Literary luminaries would make a six weeks’ tour of the Soviet Union under GPU guidance, then return home to write “authoritatively” on the “great Russian experiment.” Even the Dean of Canterbury added his quota to this literary output. The books were numerous and they fell almost unfailingly into one of two categories: either they were the work of the army of “fellow-travelers” and hired apologists of the Stalin regime, or they were the outpourings of persons with an anti-Soviet ax to grind.

Notably absent from the ever-growing collection were books by Soviet Russian citizens able to write critically and comprehensively about the Stalin regime. Nor is this surprising when one considers that critics were systematically “liquidated.” Victor Serge and Anton Ciliga contrived to escape from Stalin’s clutches and committed to writing some of their experiences and observations. From them the world gained some of the first true eye-witness revelations of life under Stalin. Now, in the books of Kravchenko and Barmine, we get the first rounded pictures of the more recent totalitarian rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy and what it means for the 180 million inhabitants of the Soviet Union.

No one can question the credentials of the authors. Both spent the major part of their lives under the Stalin regime. Kravchenko is an industrial engineer who held key posts in Soviet industry. He broke with the Stalin regime in this country, where he was on the staff of the Soviet Purchasing Commission during the war. At the time of the Bolshevik Revolution he was a young man, fired with enthusiasm for the socialist ideal. He fought in the Red Army through the civil war and intervention, became an ardent party member, and was called to military service again when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Barmine’s record is similar but more varied – Soviet industrialist, businessman, soldier, diplomat and journalist. He broke with the Stalin regime in 1937, while occupying the post of Soviet charge d’affaires in Athens, but his book was not published until last year.

Both Barmine and Kravchenko, unlike less fortunate Soviet officials who broke with Stalin (Ignace Reiss, Walter Krivitsky), have thus far managed to evade the murderous attentions of Stalin’s hired assassins. Kravchenko explains that inwardly he broke with the regime many years ago. But one cannot break with Stalin, and continue to live, if one remains in the Soviet Union. Only those sent on official missions abroad can leave the Soviet Union. Kravchenko had to wait a long time before the opportunity came. Barmine, as a Soviet diplomat, had the opportunity long before Kravchenko. But his determination to break came only after the monstrous purge of the Red Army in which many of his personal friends were sent to their deaths as “traitors” when he knew them to be loyal defenders of the Soviet Union.

In their flight from Stalinism, both authors have landed in the lap of capitalist “democracy.” This requires that we approach critically all the political conclusions which they draw from the arsenals of facts at their disposal. Both belong to the Souvarinist tendency which identifies Stalinism with Bolshevism. Kravchenko, however – without doubt unwittingly – destroys this false identification when he describes Soviet life and politics during the first years of the Revolution, when Lenin and Trotsky were at the helm of the Soviet state. The living, dynamic democracy and creativeness of those years contrasts all too sharply with the harsh suppression and dull conformity which the Stalinist bureaucracy introduced.

But of the facts which the authors set down, the experiences they relate, the observations they record – of these there can be no question. Both books ring true. They contain a wealth of circumstantial detail which is in harmony, and which fully tallies with all the information previously established. Even Stalin’s literary hatchet-men in this country have attempted no refutation. Stalinist reviews of the two books have consisted of sneering insinuations against the authors and a studious refusal to take issue with their presentation of facts.

Within the literary framework of personal narratives, Barmine and Kravchenko unfold the repellent story of the Stalin regime. For nightmarish horror no work of fiction can even begin to compete with these books. First, we are given glimpses of the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war – the glorious and heroic years of the first workers’ state. Then comes the rise to power of the usurping bureaucracy in the period of revolutionary ebb and defeat, with Stalin as the quintessential expression of the attitude and needs of the new ruling caste. We are taken through the period of the five-year plans, the forced collectivization of agriculture (“liquidation of the kulaks as a class”), the fantastic Moscow frame-up trials, the monstrous purges, Stalin’s man-made famine in which millions perished, and, finally, the war against Nazi Germany with all its terrible consequences for the Russian people.

Outstanding in a book woven of drama and horror is Kravchenko’s description of the great famine in south Russia and central Asia which followed as the inevitable consequence of Stalin’s adventuristic program of forced collectivization. Harvest in Hell is the lurid title of this chapter, and it reeks of death and ruin.

On a battlefield men die quickly, they fight back, they are sustained by fellowship and a sense of duty. Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables. There was not even the consolation of inevitability to relieve the horror. [Butter, for instance, was exported abroad from the very regions where people were dying of hunger, in order to get foreign currency with which to import machinery.]

The most terrifying sights were the little children with skeleton limbs dangling from balloon-like abdomens. Starvation had wiped every trace of youth from their faces, turning them into tortured gargoyles; only in their eyes still lingered the reminder of childhood. Everywhere we found men and women lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless.

Kravchenko was one of many thousands of Party men sent into the famine-bound areas to see that the new crops were harvested, to prevent the starving from eating the green shoots, to save the collectives from breaking down, etc., etc. So he knows whereof he writes. How many of the peasants died? No one knows. The regime of the Stalinist bureaucracy not only revealed no statistics of the famine victims, if, indeed, such statistics were gathered. It has never acknowledged to this day that there was any famine at all! Foreign press correspondents in Moscow were forbidden entry into the famine regions and prevented from sending abroad any of the facts that came to their attention. Some, who were transferred to other countries, and took the opportunity to write what they had heard while in the Soviet Union, gave estimates of three to five million dead.

The man-contrived famine followed upon the “triumphant completion” of the first five-year plan. Allowing for all the bureaucratic boasting and exaggeration, and the statistical fakery which was soon to be uncovered, the execution of this plan did provide the Soviet Union with some of the basic elements of a heavy industry. But at what cost in human life and welfare! The workers and the technical staffs were slave-driven at a murderous pace for several years without a let-up. Impossible norms of production and tempos of construction were set. The industrial population was worked to exhaustion. Meanwhile, with all the emphasis placed on the development of heavy industry, there was no corresponding growth of industries producing consumer’s goods. There were growing insufficiencies of food, clothing and housing. The workers’ standard of life dipped below that of Czarist times. A fearful poverty was superimposed on nervous exhaustion due to killing labor. Barmine gives a most graphic description of the Soviet capital at the end of the first five-year plan:

After the improvements of 1922-28, Moscow showed appalling changes. Every face and every house front was eloquent of misery, exhaustion and apathy. There were scarcely any stores, and the rare display windows still existing had an air of desolation. Nothing was to be seen in them but cardboard boxes and food tins, upon which the shopkeepers, in a mood of despair rather than rashness, had pasted stickers reading “empty.” Everyone’s clothes were worn out and the quality of the stuff was unspeakable. My Paris suit made me feel embarrassed in the streets. There was a shortage of everything – especially of soap, boots, vegetables, meat, butter, and all fatty foodstuffs.

I was much astonished to see crowds waiting in front of the candy stores. Fellow-travelers after a hasty trip through Russia would return home and tell glowing tales of the socialist paradise where crowds waited in long lines, not for bread, but for candy. The truth was quite different. Famished people sought anything to fill their empty stomachs. Even the revolting sweets made of saccharine and soya beans were gladly consumed, because they were almost the only edible things that could be bought – even then one pound of them cost an average day’s wages.

Manufactured goods were much scarcer than money, and money was scarcer than jobs. It was true, as propaganda abroad said, that there was no unemployment; but living on a workman’s pay was the hardest thing in the world. The housing crisis had reached a point never before known. In front of the empty co-operatives, long queues stood day and night in the hope of being allotted ridiculously small quantities of foodstuffs ...

I was struck by these material evidences of crisis, and still more by the nervous tension among Communists, intellectuals, technical specialists, and workmen; in short, among all those who had been most involved in the Five-Year Plan. Faces were marked with anxiety and fatigue, and minds were so exhausted that no one seemed capable any longer of controlling his reactions or of seeing things calmly. Everyone was caught up in a tangle of imperative instructions, resistant facts, constantly recurring difficulties, official lies, nerve-wracking needs, fears, and doubts.

To Stalin’s limited mind, it appeared that the whole economic process could be commanded and directed by Kremlin decree. Industrialization and collectivization could be carried through without any regard for the needs and desires of the workers and peasants. Having proclaimed the possibility of “building socialism in one country,” the job had to be carried through even if it meant wiping out half the population. When bureaucratic arbitrariness ran into objective difficulties and popular resistance, with the result that the whole economic fabric was torn and broken, Stalin’s answer was – the purge. Firing squads, secret murders in GPU cellars, show “trials” of alleged saboteurs and foreign agents, and mass deportations were his “remedy” for economic dislocation and breakdown. Since there could be no admission of fault or miscalculation at the top, scapegoats had to be found – and punished. Critics of the regime, real or suspected, had to be “liquidated.” Needless to say, these methods, while leaving the basic causes of the crisis untouched, served to deepen the economic chaos. The technical staffs of entire industries were wiped out in the purges. Such staffs cannot be created in a day.

Stalin’s purges naturally occupy a prominent place in the two books. We will give the floor to Kravchenko, who describes this grim business in its enormous scope, with special reference to Nikopol, where he was employed as an industrial engineer in a large plant. Kravchenko himself felt the brutish hand of the Stalinist inquisition and narrowly escaped “liquidation,” so that his testimony is not just that of an observer, but of a victim or near-victim. This is what he writes:

The outside world watched the several blood-purge trials staged in the former Hall of Nobles in Moscow. It failed to understand, it does not understand to this day, that the Moscow trials were just a formal facade, a show window, behind which the real horrors were being piled mountain high. The public trials involved a few dozen carefully selected and rehearsed victims. The purge involved hundreds of thousands, ultimately around ten millions who were sorted and disposed of rapidly; these to prison, these into exile, these for the forced labor battalions, these to die.

Crowds of women and children swarmed around the NKVD building in Nikopol at all hours despite bitter cold. The NKVD men would disperse them, but soon they were back again, weeping, screaming, calling the names of fathers, husbands, brothers. Many of these unfortunates were local inhabitants, but a lot of others had come from nearby villages, where the pogrom was striking down village Soviet chairmen, Party secretaries, Comsomol leaders, presidents of collective farms. This scene outside the NKVD I shall never be able to expunge from my memory. A great theatrical genius, hoping to convey mass despair, macabre and boundless sorrow, could not have invented anything more terrifying.

And in the midst of the storm, through the howling of the stricken and the grimacing of the suffering, press and radio announced the formal adoption of “the world’s most democratic Constitution” in November, 1936.

There was not one purge but several, a series. Each marked a new stage of crisis. The more unsure the regime felt, the greater and more cruel the repressions. Stalin carried through a ruthless war against the whole Soviet people. Victims were grabbed off from every department of government, every branch of the economy and social life, every layer of the population. Nor were the bureaucratic tops of the regime exempt. When the super-purge of 1936-38 tapered off, says Kravchenko:

there was not an office or enterprise, an economic or cultural body, a government or a Party or military bureau, which was not largely in new hands. Had a foreign conqueror taken over the machinery of Soviet life and put new people in control, the change could hardly have been more thorough or more cruel.

In addition to the thousands who died before firing squads, or who met more cruel death at the hands of sadistic torturers in the cellars of the secret police, millions were condemned to forced labor in camps in the most inhospitable and unhealthy regions of the country. Here under appalling conditions which Kravchenko is also able to describe as an eye-witness, unnumbered multitudes died, Kravchenko avers that in 1938

among Communists close to the Kremlin throne, whispered estimates placed the slave labor forces at more than fifteen millions; in the next few years the estimate would be closer to twenty millions.

Yet even this does not exhaust the estimate of victims. For everyone who was purged had relatives, friends and dependents who were made to suffer. Says Kravchenko:

millions who escaped the purge were maimed in their minds and wounded in their spirits by the fears and brutalities amidst which they lived. For sheer scale, I know of nothing in all human history to compare with this purposeful and merciless persecution in which tens of millions of Russians suffered directly or indirectly. Genghis Khan was an amateur, a muddler, compared to Stalin.

The purge of the Red Army was as sweeping and comprehensive as it was in other spheres. Barmine gives a “rough tally” of those who disappeared: three out of five marshals, eleven vice-commissars of war. Six of the eight generals who formed the court-martial alleged to have condemned to death Tukhachevsky and seven others of the High Command. Seventy-five of the eighty members (all generals and admirals) of the Supreme Military Council of the Red Army, including all the commanders of military districts, the commander-in-chief of the air force, the commander-in-chief of the fleet, and all but one of the commanders of the different sea fleets. Ninety per cent of all generals. Eighty per cent of all colonels. Approximately thirty thousand lesser officers.

It was this beheaded Red Army which had to go into battle against the Nazis. Barmine asserts that if Stalin had not shot the entire commanding staff of the army in 1937, “the battles which saved Russia would have been fought on the Vistula and the Nieman instead of the Volga and the Neva. Three peacetime years is not long enough for a beheaded army to grow a new brain.” The places occupied by such brilliant military strategists as Tukhachevsky, Bluecher, Yakir, Feldman, Kork, Uborevich – all “liquidated” in the purge – were filled by such utterly talentless marshals as Voroshilov, Budyenny and Timoshenko, whose only “qualification” was their servility to Stalin. Barmine testifies, and the whole world knows, that these military mediocrities neither attempted a strategy nor put into operation any plan. “All they used their gigantic manpower and equipment for was to stop successive holes in the dike through which the Germans were pouring.” Stalin soon had to remove these generals from the command and replace them with abler men. Meanwhile, the Red Army and the Soviet people paid, and continued to pay, a fearful price for Stalin’s purge of the armed forces. Hitler’s troops were able to overrun a large segment of European Russia, bringing death and ruin to the most populous regions. The Red Army suffered calamitous casualties without being able to stem the tide of invasion until much later.

But this is only a part of the picture. The Soviet economy, which was required to serve the needs of war, had developed in lopsided fashion under the five-year plans due to the fantastic disproportions inherent in the very plans themselves. Stalin imagined he could steamroller his way through the very toughest of obstacles by a prodigious sacrifice of human life and welfare. By the Soviet Union’s own unaided efforts, the country would not only be industrialized at terrific speed, but it would “catch up with and outstrip” the most advanced capitalist country, the United States. We know where Stalin’s adventurism in the economic domain led – to breakdown and chaos. Soviet economy had not recovered from the awful consequences of Stalinist “planning” when the Nazis invaded the country and the debilitated industry was called upon to furnish the mechanical sinews of war and the needs of an army of many millions.

How blighting were the effects of Stalin’s policies in the economic sphere is well illustrated by Kravchenko when he relates that Soviet soldiers died by the thousands at barbed wire barricades set up by the Nazis – because industry was unable to supply such a simple contrivance as steel wire cutters. As for battery flashlights – there just were no such luxurious aids for the Soviet soldiers. But industry could not even give them such a simple substitute as kerosene lanterns. Iron shoes for the horses were unobtainable, with the result that the cavalry and animal transport suffered. The soldiers marched and fought in canvas shoes.

These deficiencies were put down as the work of “internal enemies.” And so the repressions and purges went on in time of war as they had in time of peace – a “war within a war,” says Kravchenko, who attests that this was “the only part of the war effort that worked quickly and efficiently in the first terrible stage of the struggle” against the Nazis ... “It took precedence over measures of military defense.”

Amid the terrible sufferings of the Soviet masses, in peace as in war, one stratum of the population, the Soviet elite, not merely has its fundamental wants satisfied but lives in plush comfort. The degree of good or luxurious living depends upon the position of the individual in the hierarchy of the privileged, with the best naturally reserved for the ultra-privileged bureaucrats at the top of the social scale. While the masses go hungry and are clad in rags, the elite enjoy the best of food and clothing and plenty of it. While the workers live in the same squalid slums that existed under Czarism, Soviet officials occupy the newest and best apartment houses. The much-publicized rest homes and vacation spots are reserved for the ruling caste and the most privileged section of the workers. Bacchanalian feasts at which the bureaucrats gorge themselves on the finest of domestic and imported foods and wines are commonplace. They and they alone ride in the automobiles. Stalin himself lives like an Oriental potentate. His every whim is gratified at the expense of the Soviet budget and his whims are many and costly. He affects, for political purposes, a simplicity of living which is belied by too many contrary facts. Barmine’s book contains some matchless writing which shows the abysmal gulf separating the standard of living of the bureaucracy and its “chief” from that of the Soviet masses.

Kravchenko explains why the Soviet masses, while inwardly rebellious, nevertheless have endured thus far the parasitism and the repressions of the parvenu usurpers in the Kremlin:

They were impotent in their suffering; weakened by twenty years of war, revolution, undernourishment and systematic persecutions; dizzied by slogans and bewildered by lies; cut off completely from the outside world. Yet they never approved the brutality of their rulers. The bitterness was deepest in the Party itself, because it was mixed with a feeling of guilt and churned by galling helplessness as against the rulers and their might.

Disbelief in the framed-up charges against the Old Bolsheviks murdered by Stalin was universal, Kravchenko testifies: “They’re not fooled, they’re not fooled one bit.” And – “they are waiting for their chance to seize the rights which are theirs.”

During the war, when the abyss between the bureaucracy and the people assumed uglier forms than ever before, Kravchenko avers that he heard for the first time “open cursing of the officialdom” in Moscow. This was when the German army was at the very gates of the Soviet capital and the city was being evacuated. The bureaucracy monopolized the trains to remove themselves and their families from the danger zone, together with their furniture, their wardrobes and their mistresses, while thousands of wretched families camped amidst their bundles and suitcases at the railroad stations in the vague hope of a place or even a foothold on some train going anywhere eastward. At the same time – “as if to taunt the miserable mobs, comfortable caravans of official motorcars streamed out of Moscow, loaded with the families and household goods of the elite.”

If to the social chasm which separates the rulers from the masses one adds the immense cruelties of the Stalin regime, its totalitarian brutishness and disregard of human life, its glaring deceitfulness, fraud and hypocrisy, it is easy enough to understand that the rule of the Kremlin oligarchy, despite all its appearance of strength, rests on a seething foundation of enormous discontent. The latent mood of rebellion has penetrated even the hierarchy of the privileged. This is perhaps the most important of the political revelations in Kravchenko’s book.

The Red Army officers, the Stakhanovist workers, the factory managers, the industrial engineers and technicians, the state and collective farm managers, the party functionaries and government officials detest and fear the regime of which they are the social beneficiaries. To be sure, they enjoy the “good life” in matters of material comfort. But in the vast ocean of misery and oppression which surrounds them on all sides, many feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. The animosity of the humble worker and peasant assails them in a thousand tangible and intangible ways. And this is the least of their woes. Much more direct and palpable is the perpetual feeling of uncertainty and insecurity which pervades their lives and taints their material enjoyments. None feels safe. Everyone feels that if things go wrong – and things are always going wrong – he may end up in an NKVD cellar or a forced labor camp. The unease and apprehension of the Soviet elite are delineated by Kravchenko:

Let it be remembered that to thousands of the men and women around me I was a person of consequence, one of the Party elect. I had favors to dispense. Under my roof they found abundance and comfort – things and conditions for which all but a handful of people were tragically starved. My standards of life were modest, even bleak, when compared to those of men in my position in America. But in Nikopol, Taganrog, Pervouralsk or even Moscow they were so far above the average, so remote from the working-class level, that I seemed to live in a world apart. Few of those who envied their well-paid novi barii, their new masters, or caught a glimpse of the sorry splendors of our life, realized the weight of fear, lack of personal freedom and professional independence, the torment of uncertain tenure under which we enjoyed our advantages ... Our days seemed hurried and transitory – way stations to another assignment or to sudden extinction.

Kravchenko’s revelation of the “inner condition,” so to speak, of the privileged social caste upon which Stalin’s rule rests, is the first direct evidence from a competent source of the extreme instability of the regime. To begin with, the bureaucracy and the top stratum of the working class provided only a very narrow foundation for the rule of the totalitarian Kremlin clique. Now we discover that even this narrow foundation is weak and shaky, composed of elements which cannot but hate the dominant tops because of the fear and uncertainty which pervades and poisons their lives. In the course of eighteen years Stalin has been unable to establish, and harden, a homogeneous social formation which could serve as a reliable basis for his rule. Instead, we have a picture of a social formation, which, while enjoying all the material amenities of a privileged caste, is driven by the conditions of its political existence to hate and fear the regime of which it is the social beneficiary. This leaves the Kremlin clique in a position of such isolation that it can maintain its rule only by police methods – the methods of intimidation and violence not only in relation to the masses but towards the bureaucracy itself. What a glaring commentary on the views of those innovators in the realm of political theory who contend that the Soviet bureaucracy is – of all things! – a new ruling class! The innovators must explain the unique phenomenon of a “ruling class” which cowers in fear and terror before the political instrument of its own rule.

Some one may ask: If all the horrors depicted by the two ex-Soviet officials are true, why did the Soviet masses – also that rebellious section of the Soviet elite to which the authors belonged! – rise so magnificently to defend the Soviet Union in the war against Hitler? Why did they not seize upon the war crisis to settle scores with the hated tyrants who were the authors of all their misery? Neither Kravchenko nor Barmine refers to the fact that as yet there is no revolutionary party to lead the masses in struggle against the Stalin regime. But Kravchenko gives the following general answer to these questions – an answer which is eloquent testimony to the strong persistence of socialist ideas in the Soviet Union and a guarantee that Stalinism will ultimately meet its doom:

Like all of them (the Soviet people) I loved my country. I knew that it was something distinct from the gang who ruled and terrorized us ... The fact that I could muster a sincere enthusiasm for victory, a passionate hatred of the invader, though I detested the Soviet regime, is the key to the mystery why the Russians fought and in the end conquered. They did not fight for Stalin but despite Stalin. No one knows this better than the Kremlin clique itself ... In its propaganda to the armed forces and the population at large the Kremlin insisted that the invaders were intent on restoring landlords and capitalists. This was an effective morale builder and, indeed, offered the most solid common ground on which the regime and the people could meet. Except for a negligible minority, it should be understood, the Russians categorically did not desire such a restoration, under any disguise, no matter how sincerely they might detest the political and economic despotism of the Soviet system.

Kravchenko’s unexpected allusion to the “Soviet system” in this quotation is an example of the verbal trickery by which both he and Barmine, after their break with Stalin, facilitated their passage to the camp of capitalist “democracy.” After offering repeated proofs that what the Soviet masses detest is not the Soviet system but the Stalin Regime and that they sacrificed themselves in war to defend what still remains of the Soviet system (namely, the socialized economy), we are suddenly confronted with the assertion that it is the “despotism” of the Soviet system that is the object of popular hatred. This assertion blandly ignores the fact that Stalin had to destroy all of the Soviet system except its economic base, and all its living representatives, in order to clamp his usurpatory rule on the country. By identifying the Soviet system with its Stalinist destroyers, Barmine and Kravchenko reveal themselves as renegades from Socialism and demonstrate their willingness to serve its class enemies.

Significantly, the United States government readily gave refuge in this country to both these ex-Soviet officials and even afforded them protection against the NKVD assassins who were at their heels. Contrast this with the resolute and persistent refusal of the State Department to grant asylum to Leon Trotsky, who broke with Stalin but remained faithful to Socialism until his death!


Last updated on 10.2.2009