From Fourth International, Vol.12 No.5, September-October 1951, pp.156-160.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The following questions were submitted to two Ukrainian refugees from the Soviet Union belonging to the group of revolutionary socialists who publish the magazine Vpered (Forward) today in Germany. A. Babenko represents the elder generation of this tendency who remember the Russian Revolution and the developments during the first two decades of the Soviet Union. A. Wilny speaks for the younger generation which has known nothing but the iron rule of the Stalinist autocrats. Whatever contrasts are expressed in their opinions reflect not differences in political positions but their different ages, experiences and education.
The magazine Vpered with which they are associated supports the underground movement of revolutionary socialists called the UFA now combatting the MVD (formerly GPU) within the Ukraine because “the UFA stands clearly against the restoration of capitalism.” It is “for the continuation of the revolution in the Soviet Union, for its new stage of development which must destroy the dictatorship of the bureaucracy and establish in its place the new regime of classless democracy based upon the socialization in the means of production and planned workers economy. We exclude now and forever the restoration of private property and private capitalism which is as unacceptable to the Soviet peoples as the restoration of feudalism would be for Western Europe or America.”
As against the Trotskyists, Vpered characterizes Stalinism as the system of State Capitalism, “the highest and final stage of development of the capitalist system because it brings the concentration of capital and the socialization of labor to the highest possible point.” However, as against those proponents of Stalinism as State Capitalism who regard it as more barbarous than Western monopoly capitalism, the Vperedists believe that “as the highest stage of social and economic development toward socialism, (the Stalinist system) is the most progressive system in the world. But it is progressive only as monopoly is progressive compared to small business.”
Vpered vigorously fights all the reactionary groups amongst emigré circles from the USSR; condemns the Ukrainian and Russian Mensheviks abroad as “restorationists of capitalism” and “interventionists”; and sharply opposes the program of the US State Department’s Voice of America.
“The atomic bomb will never save the Western bourgeois world,” its editors wrote in 1950. “It is bankrupt as against Stalinism. The idea of the ‘defense of democracy’ plays the same role today as the idea of ‘defence of the Czar and the Holy Motherland’ did in the Russia of 1917. There is only one. real way to prevent war: that is to establish real socialism in the Western world. This would immediately dissolve all the imaginary strength of Stalinism. But in the event of war, if it becomes inevitable, there seems to be only one end for it: it will be concluded like the First World War by a wave of revolutions all over the world.”
It is from this general standpoint that both Babenko and Wilny speak. An article by Wilny on the diverse trends in the recent emigration from the USSR appeared in the May-June 1951 issue of Fourth International. – Editors.
* * *
(1) Tell us something about yourself – age, birthplace, education, occupation, bou; you happened to become a refugee from the Soviet Union.
BABENKO: I’m 51 years old. I was born in the Ukraine where I graduated from the economics faculty of a university and a Marxist school of literature and art. In the USSR I was a journalist and lecturer in a Communist school of journalism. I fled the USSR because I was repressed as a member of the opposition. I had spent four years in a Siberian concentration camp and been penalized by a two year withdrawal of rights. Strictly speaking, I didn’t flee from the USSR but was displaced by the Nazis into a labor camp as an “Ostarbeiter.” Then after the war I refused to go back, so now I’m a “refugee.”
WILNY: I am 25 years old, born in the Soviet Ukraine. Education – Soviet High School (10 classes). Occupation in the USSR – besides studying. I have been the leader of the school Pioneer Detachment (Communist youth organization). Deported by retreating Germans; until the end of war worked as an “Ostarbeiter” in German industry and agriculture. After the war refused to return to the USSR though the Americans twice tried to deport me by force. I escaped all the “liberators.”
(2) What is life like generally m the USSR today? Is fear universal’ Do people come back from the prisons, the concentration camps and slave labor armies?
BABENKO: According to the Soviet press, living standards in the USSR are worse now than before the war, real income has not reached the pre-war level. Before the war people who served their sentences were returning home from the concentration camps and slave labor armies but there was a tendency to detain them. For instance, in a concentration camp where I was confined, when a prisoner had been released he was examined by guards and when they found something taken from the camp like linen, etc. they sentenced him for two years as a “petty thief.” So I was compelled to leave behind my own underwear and other things in order to avoid that kind of trouble. How they do it now, I don’t know.
WILNY: Immediately after the war the standard of living was unbearable. In 1946-47, as many indications prove, there was serious discontent in the population, a new famine in the Southern part of the Soviet Union, several revolts in the cities when hungry war veterans and women ransacked the food stores, beat the police in the streets, etc. These revolts were especially reported as taking place in Leningrad and in Poltava. After that life improved considerably though even with the last official roll-backs in prices (in March 1951) the living standard has yet to reach the prewar level by approximately 20%. Fear is not universal, I don’t believe that, if you mean by “fear” psychological reluctance to any kind of resistance against the regime. I don’t know whether the people are being returned from the concentration camps now. Before the war they were. The majority of those arrested in the purge of 1937 got 10-year sentences; so, if they were still alive, they should have come back in 1947. Some of them really have come back. The Ukrainian humorist O. Vyshnia served ten years at Kolyma and is now writing again. General Rokossovsky, now in Poland, served around 5 years in a concentration camp (having been arrested in the case of Marshall Tukhachevsky). But all those people are broken forever and that’s where the above-mentioned “fear” has its roots.
(3) What are the various attitudes toward Stalinism today in the Soviet Union? In the different levels of the bureaucracy? Among the workers, skilled and unskilled’ Among the farm workers and peasants? Students? Intellectuals (scientists, writers, artists, musicians, etc.)?
BABENKO: In my opinion all of them without exception look at Stalinism through the prism of fear. Even the youngsters recruited from among the homeless and semi-criminal elements and the skilled people in the privileged schools like navy officers, etc., are not reliable. A certain standard attitude is created – not to deny. Shostakovich, the composer, was accused of formalism which he “repented” at once. Of course everybody understood this as a proper formality but in their minds or in a limited circle they know this is merely a demand imposed by the Stalinist regime or a strictly individual disgrace, etc. Deep and theoretically conscious resistance hardly exists because such resistance could be formed only in an atmosphere of opinion which does not exist in the USSR. This is the reason why resistance has a purely practical or better to say an elemental character, mostly in the lower ranks of society. There is some news from refugees that inside the Soviet occupation army in Eastern Germany criticism of the regime has newly appeared without as yet reaching the authorities and no repressions are reported. The same seems to be the case in the USSR.
WILNY: The majority of the population of the USSR hates Stalinism and wishes to get rid of it. But the bureaucracy defends itself by all means. It is its own child and its own source of existence. The workers do not support it any more. In order to disarm the working class, the bureaucracy constantly tries to split it by giving material privileges to individual workers (Stakhanovists) and by sowing hatred among them. But this method of the bureaucracy is known and understood, so it does not help very much. The working class had been constantly weakened by the influx into its ranks of the backward peasantry (particularly “kulaks” who were thrown out of their villages). But now that this peasantry does not exist any more this method of the bureaucracy is also deprived of its strength. It is my firm belief that the working class is constantly recovering its strength again. The intellectuals are also discontented with the regime but at the same time are linked to it by the standard of living the regime gives them. Anyhow, in my opinion, they do not represent any serious force of resistance. Normally one can find among them those who are on the side of the working class as well as those who would defend the bureaucracy. Another part are simple Philistines who are afraid of everything. The students now are in the majority children of the bureaucrats.
(4) What forms does the opposition to Stalinism take?
BABENKO: See above.
WILNY: All possible forms. Before the war there was a hidden oral propaganda against the regime and sometimes unorganized sabotage of the regime’s measures. Now in addition there are several armed insurrections in the Caucasus, the Baltic republics and the Ukraine, where guerrilla detachments still exist. There are also several organized underground groups which spread written propaganda gainst the regime.
(5) Is the general desire in the Soviet Union to go forward on the road to socialism, or to turn back? How strong is the tendency toward restoration of capitalism (a) economically (b) politically?
BABENKO: See the article by P. Poltava in reply to Voice of America, in Ukrainian. (The article of Poltava has been quoted by Wilny in the May-June 1951 issue of Fourth International.)
WILNY: Words and terms like “socialism,” “communism,” “democracy,” “Marxism,” “bolshevism,” “soviet,” etc., are commonly hated. But Stalinism itself is considered to be capitalism, the bureaucracy is commonly called “magnates,” “Soviet bourgeoisie,” etc. Therefore one should not judge the ideas of the Soviet people simply by the names and terms they use. The absolute majority however stands for socialism because the people do not want any return to capitalism, to private property in the means of production, to the restoration in power of the abolished classes, etc. They hate capitalism no less than Stalinism. The common “mood” is to retain the present status in economy but to transfer it to the control of workers, that is, to seize power from the bureaucracy, to establish a new democracy with several political parties if needed but only with such parties which would correspond in their programs with the real social structure of the existing society. In other words, it should be a regime of a classless democracy because the society now under the shell of the Stalinist bureaucracy is a classless one.
(6) The Soviet workers, guided by the Left Opposition, nearly succeeded in halting Stalin’s usurpation of power (1924-28). To your knowledge are the memories of this great struggle, intimately associated with Leon Trotsky, still alive?
BABENKO: The older generation knows about the importance of Trotsky in the USSR and from it the youth. But the official point of view – modified by the opposition to Stalin – is still in operation. There is in general the basis for correct understanding of history but it is littered by the official propaganda.
WILNY: While in the Soviet Union I did not know the truth about the Trotskyist Left Opposition. For us, I mean the youth, they were enemies and Japanese spies, traitors and counter-revolutionaries. I don’t think that such an attitude has since been changed in the USSR. The elder generation probably knew something about them but not the young one.
(7) Under Stalin’s orders, Soviet history has been completely rewritten to erase all record of Trotsky’s genuine role in founding the Soviet Union. How well has this gigantic falsification succeeded?
BABENKO: Falsification of history, as mentioned above, has succeeded to a certain extent. The point is that the psychical understanding of human beings depends not only on knowledge but also on habits. The average individual in the USSR is accustomed to regard Trotsky as an “enemy of the people” although knowing that the facts don’t prove it. This habit is a component of the mentality of the Soviet people and to change this habit is as difficult as to change the mentality itself.
WILNY: In my opinion, it was an absolute success.
(8) Is the truth about the real roles of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin in 1917-20 still common knowledge?
WILNY: No, it is not known.
(9) A decade and more ago, the main charge levelled against purge victims was inevitably “Trotskyism.” In the post-war series of purges the charge has been some form of “bourgeois cosmopolitanism” as well as the usual charge of spying for the countries on Moscow’s “hate” list. What do the people think of this shift?
BABENKO: About the change from “Trotskyism” to “cosmopolitanism” etc., the people think the same as Shostakovich thinks about his “formalism” – this is what is required by the authorities. People don’t deliberate too much whether to keep away or not when a car runs on the sidewalk. They have to keep away in order not to be killed although they are aware at the same time that the car isn’t on the right road. They have become accustomed for such a long time to such a “method of action” that they don’t reason too much about it.
WILNY: The “cosmopolites” have been the Russian non-nationalists and non-chauvinists. They have been internationalists But I think the people now pay little attention to what Stalinists say about all the “spies,” etc.
(10) Arc the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin still seriously studied in the USSR?
BABENKO: The works of Marx, Engels and Lenin are not studied seriously but rather “officially,” but it is not forbidden to study them seriously. Though there is no real possibility to do that because it is not enough to read something. It has to be thought over and discussed. However, discussion is impossible and to think over such problems is too dangerous. It is dangerous even to let out a secret in sleep. Certainly some people read and think along such lines but there are few of them.
WILNY: I don’t know what you mean by “seriously.” In the USSR everybody knows what Marxism is, but though many people hate this name they are nevertheless Marxist in their way of thinking, attitudes toward life, and world outlook. In this sense this factor is really a serious one and very dangerous to all those from abroad who want to teach the Soviet people a “democratic way of life.”
(11) How does the younger generation which knows Marxism only from the classics, resolve the glaring contradiction between the Marxist program and Soviet reality under Stalin? For example, what is their reaction to the state becoming more dictatorial instead of “withering away”?
BABENKO: On this question Karl Radek gave an answer some years ago: “If a power exists, the formula of a justification for it is always available.” I’ll add: if a power only prevails, the people will believe in the formulas given. The very existence of power is hypnotizing and compels people to believe in its formulas.
WILNY: In the case of the Soviet youth the said contradiction is the main factor determining its way of thinking. Marxism is “in the blood” of the Soviet youth. The youth accepts the program propagandized by Stalin, because there is nothing else to be accepted, but rejects Stalin and Stalinism as liars and falsifiers of reality. For instance, Stalin says: “We have no classes and no exploitation of labor in the USSR.” The youth says: “All right, long live Stalin’s teachings: down with Stalin, with the bureaucracy, and existing exploitation!” etc.
(12) What is the feeling of the national minorities toward Russian chauvinism and oppression?
BABENKO: The general feeling of the national minorities toward Russian chauvinism is one of the accumulation of dull resistance. For example: in the Ukraine the people view with some interest the Russian chauvinist film Peter the Great but know at the same time the words of Taras Schevchenko: “this is that ‘Great’ who crucified our Ukraine.” Of course there are people who hate their national oppression most bitterly.
WILNY: The non-Russian republics of the USSR should be separated from Russia once and forever and become independent nations – that is the main reaction to Stalin’s Russian nationalism. Confidence in Russian “brotherhood” does not exist any more after the policy of genocide and colonial exploitation that has taken place. In my opinion, in the future it will be by no means possible to keep this conglomerate of nations together in one state.
(13) What was the reaction toward the Stalin-Hitler pact?
BABENKO: Some people hated it; some welcomed it, expecting that Hitler will crush Stalin. The latter were in the majority. It was especially welcomed in the Siberian concentration camps. There the people sympathized with Hitler whose program they didn’t know but from the fact that he was Stalin’s enemy they expected him to be good. Nobody supported the official point of view and within the Communist Party it was considered as “tactics.”
WILNY: I would say the majority of people did not know what Hitlerism was like in reality. They simply did not believe Stalinist propaganda. But the partition of Poland, the annexation of Bessarabia, Bukovina, the Baltic states, the tragic war with Finland, were considered as mere exercises of Stalinist imperialism and as the signs of the coming world war.
(14) How do thinking workers assess the Stalinist policies of the Thirties which helped pave the way for the German imperialist assault?
BABENKO: See 13.
WILNY: I don’t know about that.
(15) Did the big military defeats at the beginning of World War II arouse bitterness toward the Kremlin?
BABENKO: The people rejoiced at the defeats, especially in the Ukraine; less so in Russia.
WILNY: Bitterness toward the Kremlin existed long before the war. The defeats at the beginning of the war did not arouse bitterness but joy. I repeat that people did not know the Germans. Many hailed the defeats of the Red Army. It was the biggest misunderstanding in history. Only after a couple of months of war, when the situation cleared and the people realized what kind of “liberator” was advancing, did they take up arms to defend themselves. Under German occupation the prevailing “mood” acquired the form of a “third force” idea – against both Hitler and Stalin. This slogan was the ideology of many guerrilla detachments and bands in the Ukraine and the Caucasus.
(16) During the war, Stalin emphasized Russian nationalism at the expense of. socialism. What did the Russian workers brought up on socialist ideology think of this?
BABENKO: The Russian workers brought up on socialist ideology were mostly repressed. The propaganda tried to unite Russian chauvinism with socialism. For instance the Russian language was held up as the language of the October revolution, or lately of the “socialist nation” and that is why it should dominate all over the world.
WILNY: If you mean the Russian worker as a particular nationality I don’t believe he hailed that change. Only the bureaucracy, army officers and generals, and people like them hailed and supported that change. In general this change has been considered as proof that Stalin is not a socialist and internationalist and that the people does pot support his “socialism,”
(17) In what way do the obvious preparations of American imperialism to conquer the USSR affect the attitude of the Soviet people toward the Stalin regime? Does the threat of another assault help or hinder the struggle to get rid of Stalinism and revive the democracy known under Lenin? How popular are the “Voice of America” broadcasts to the USSR? Does news get into the Soviet Union from more trustworthy sources?
BABENKO: American war preparations partly strengthen not only Russian but to a lesser extent Soviet patriotism too and thus fortify the positions of Stalinism. The people listen with interest to the Voice of America for “different” news but, as a new ideology, they don’t accept it.
WILNY: I am sure that the people have drawn conclusions from the German “liberation.” They do not believe any more in “Westerners.” Therefore I am sure that the preparations for a foreign intervention strengthens the Stalinist regime. On the other hand one should consider the possibility that the people may try again to adopt the ideas of the “third force” as happened in World War II. They would vigorously defend themselves (but not Stalinism) against the interventionists, trying at the same time to rise in revolution against Stalinism. The analogy with World War I is quite possible as the “mood” for such a way out from the desperate position of lying between the hammer and the anvil is a very strong one. Some people really risk listening to the broadcasts of the VOA but they do not accept the VOA’s ideas. That’s quite natural, I guess. It is the same as though one would broadcast to the USA the ideas of restoring the British crown and colonial period. The other sources of information are the broadcasts of Tito’s Yugoslavia. That’s something more acceptable and there is really sense in risking to listen to them. The people get the most trustworthy information from the underground publications (which exist in the USSR) and from reading Pravda “between the lines.” (This last is a special Soviet art of reading in accord with the dialectical method of seeing the contradictions.)
(18) What was the popular reaction to expansion of Soviet power to Eastern Europe?
BABENKO: They consider it positive because of the liquidation of the capitalists, landowners, and kulaks but negative because of the spreading of the bureaucracy.
WILNY: It is considered as Russian imperialism. But the liquidation of private capitalism and the bourgeoisie is hailed. The peoples of the USSR have thus got more allies; real allies among the peoples of satellite countries which will never betray. The spreading of Stalin’s empire means the inevitable weakening of its strength.
(19) What were the repercussions inside the USSR of the break with Yugoslavia?
BABENKO: The most powerful blow to Stalinism is Yugoslavia because the people think that there is different way to socialism apart from Stalinism.
WILNY: It showed Russian imperialism is not strong any more. It showed also once more that Stalinism has nothing in common with Socialism. Besides, Yugoslavia’s revolt strengthened the political and moral positions of those non-Russian nationalists which wish to separate themselves from Russia. However, the foreign policy of new Yugoslavia could not be considered as the ideal one. Also some attitudes of the CP of Yugoslavia in its inner policies are still vague.
(20) To your knowledge were there any “Titoist” currents in the Soviet Union?
BABENKO: No. It is impossible because there is a new stage of revolution, e.g. the struggle is not for the establishment of proletarian dictatorship but for a classless democracy.
WILNY: Yes, there are, especially in the CPs of national republics. In the recent purge of officials in the Baltic republics, they were directly accused of “Titoism.”
(21) What impact has the revolution in China had upon the Soviet people?
BABENKO: I believe it kills the tendency toward restoration of capitalism but it doesn’t reduce the hatred toward Stalinism.
WILNY: It strengthens the morale of the masses. Nobody except the bureaucracy believes that Russia will be able to rule China. The great revolution in the whole of Asia means that the era of imperialism comes to its end. The oppressed colonial peoples of Asia are being considered as potential allies of the oppressed peoples in the USSR.
(22) What is your estimate of the chances of overthrowing Stalin in the near future?
BABENKO: I don’t believe it is possible in the near future.
WILNY: The near future is a vague term. The new revolution in the USSR is possible and even inevitable. It depends, however, on the consolidation of the masses of working people, on the organization of a strong revolutionary underground organization (party). The revolutionary situation will be created by the general crisis of the regime. The objective causes of such a crisis can’t be predicted directly. Economic as well as political factors can play their role. The crisis exists now too, but it is not yet a general one. It affects different parts of the social-economic machinery and the bureaucracy is still able to fight its localized appearances. This question is a subject for a thorough analysis of the whole Stalinist system. I promise to write such an article for you sometime.
(23) What in your opinion is the best course for workers in other lands to follow in helping to achieve this desirable end?
BABENKO: The victory of their revolution or even of reformist “socialism” of the Laborist type.
WILNY: To unite themselves, to free themselves from the myth of Stalinist socialism, to create a united revolutionary organization, an International, to crush capitalism in their own countries by their own forces, to support the revolution in colonial countries, to establish a really socialist encirclement of the USSR.
(24) How does the outside world look to the refugees from the USSR?
BABENKO: Differently from mine. In general they look with sympathy toward anti-socialist elements.
WILNY: To questions 24-29 you may find the answer, in my article in the FI, May-June ‘51 issue.
(25) In the USSR they could not find the answers to many questions that must have disturbed them. What are the first things they want to find out?
BABENKO: It depends on the kind of refugees they are. Many of them try to find out how to “unite” the positive non-capitalist features of the USSR with the positives of capitalist democracy.
(26) Are they favorably impressed by capitalism? What proportion look forward to finding a comfortable niche and secure life somewhere in one of the capitalist countries? Do a significant number have a revolutionary perspective?
BABENKO: Some of them like capitalist “liberty,” some are looking for a secure life, some intend struggling for liberty in the USSR either in the ultra-reactionary Vlassov, or in the socialist way.
(27) Tell us something about the intellectual life of the Soviet emigrés. What is their reaction to the various current theories about the USSR and Stalinism? What do they think of Titoism? Of Trotskyism?
BABENKO: The intellectual life of the emigrés is very rich in many different fields except that of sociology. Reactionaries are predominant. They believe that any form of socialism leads to Stalinism. After Tito’s split and the political victories of English Laborism they have calmed down a little. The word “socialism” is disgusting to them. Trotskyism even more so, as one of the branches of communism. They sympathize with Titoism more or less. In general they are marked by a political primitivism and incline toward Marxist analysis provided it is presented without the brand of “Marxism” and without such standard Soviet expressions as “class struggle,” “bourgeoisie,” “Wall Street,” etc. Then they are accepted as discoveries.
(28) Among the refugees who count themselves as genuine followers of Marx and Lenin what is the reaction upon discovering that “Trotskyism” is really revolutionary socialism?
BABENKO: I haven’t met any such refugees.
(29) Are these refugees giving serious consideration to their relation to the international socialist movement which has kept alive the genuine Marxist heritage? What can workers in other lands do to help the Soviet refugees get oriented and to aid them in working for the overthrow of Stalinism and the revival of Soviet democracy?
BABENKO: In respect to the Ukrainian emigration support and understanding of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement is needed. In general the majority of the emigration especially the Great Russian, is oriented toward types like MacArthur and not to the workers of other lands.
Last updated on: 24 March 2009