Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 1


Making Sense of War

Amir Weiner
Making Sense of War: The Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution
Princeton University Press, Princeton 2001, pp. 416

THAT the Second World War had a devastating effect upon the Soviet Union is indisputable. Professor Weiner goes further, and claims that the war became the defining factor in the Soviet polity, validating ‘the original revolutionary prophecy while at the same time almost entirely overshadowing it’ (p. 7). His findings are mainly based upon a close examination of events in the Central Ukrainian region around Vinnytsia (or Vinnitsa, to use the Russian rendition) during the years of the war, when it was occupied by the Axis powers, and the immediate postwar period, although factors involving broader areas of Ukraine and the Soviet Union as a whole are also taken into consideration.

Ukraine was a key area in the titanic clash between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. A vitally important agricultural and industrial area of the Soviet Union, its rich territory was coveted by the Nazis. Occupied by the Nazis and their allies for four years, it was the scene of huge military battles, underground skirmishes, civilian massacres large and small and terrible material damage. This book investigates the impact of the war in respect of the structure and outlook of the Ukrainian Communist Party, the national question in Ukraine, especially the activities of the Ukrainian nationalists and the relationship of Ukraine to the Soviet Union, and the fate of the country’s Jewish population.

The national question came to the fore in wartime Ukraine. The Ukrainian nationalists advanced from Western Ukraine in the wake of the Wehrmacht in 1941, promoting their fascistic call for an ethnically-pure independent Ukraine, and were very active in Vinnytsia in the power vacuum between the German withdrawal in 1944 and the reconsolidation of the Soviet regime. Their impact was limited, as the population of Central and Eastern Ukraine was not particularly receptive to their anti-Russian propaganda. The traditional anti-Russian sentiments common in Western Ukraine were far less prevalent, and the legitimacy of the Soviet regime was largely accepted by the inhabitants. The younger Ukrainians from these areas had only known the Soviet system, and had grown up since the traumatic days of collectivisation and the famine of the early 1930s. The Nazi regime, under whose aegis the nationalists had arrived in Vinnytsia, was even worse than Soviet propaganda had described it. Most importantly, it was the Soviet regime that had united the territory of Ukraine, and it was the Red Army that had defeated the Nazis and brought their destructive rule to an end. And so, as a result of the war, Ukraine as a whole was a part of the comity of the Soviet family of nations, and a leading actor at that, ‘almost on a par with the Russian people’ (p. 336). Although the country was to suffer more hardships in the immediate postwar years, the experience of the war served to strengthen and preserve the legitimacy of the Soviet regime in Ukraine.

The war also resulted in the reconstitution of the party élite in Vinnytsia. The old party élite was seen as a bunch of stodgy bureaucrats, whilst the new heroes were Red Army veterans who ‘cut through the red tape with a display of iron will and voluntarist enthusiasm’ (p. 49). Officials who were evacuated to the rear were viewed with suspicion. Indeed, one’s activities during the war became a crucially important criterion when applying for party membership – and when facing a party purge, and extensive purges started to take place even before the war had ended, despite a desperate shortage of cadres. However, war service alone was no guarantee of advancement. Many former partisans who had fought behind the German lines rose rapidly in the party, only to find themselves under suspicion (the powers that be were very suspicious of people who remained in occupied territory, irrespective of their conduct), and all the prominent partisans had left Vinnytsia within a few years.

One big problem for me with this book is that Weiner’s analytical approach is situated firmly within the Cold War paradigm that considers the main dynamic of the Soviet system to have been ideological, and that there were no fundamental changes in theory, practice and behavioural norms from Lenin’s earliest days as a Bolshevik, through Stalin’s era and onwards under his successors. Hence Stalin’s predilection for purges is rooted directly upon Lenin’s desire to maintain the revolutionary purity of the Bolsheviks, as if a manicure can be equated with an amputation. From the origins of Bolshevism, through the purges of the 1930s, to the ‘Doctors’ Plot’ of the early 1950s, what we have depicted in this book resembles nothing less than a Communist Mrs Mopp wielding a political broom with demonic energy, ‘purifying’ firstly the party’s ranks, and then society as a whole.

Weiner’s explanation for the rise of anti-Semitism in the Communist Party and other Soviet institutions from the late 1930s – he gives many examples of its cancerous growth in Ukraine through and after the war – is glib: once class differentiations were eradicated, the criterion for purification then shifted to ethnicity. No mention is made of the rise of Russian nationalism as a result of Stalin’s theory of ‘Socialism in One Country’, which was a fundamental break from Marxism, and that this would almost inevitably key into anti-Semitism, which was historically intertwined with Russian nationalism, and which was still prevalent amongst the population and thus open to official manipulation. That the Soviet regime was willing to descend to this level is a clear indication that it was well on the way to forsaking – or indeed had forsaken – its Communist credentials.

Few would deny that by the 1930s the Soviet leadership had constituted itself as a conscious ruling élite, and yet, as one can see from this book, the idea still pervades that it was still interested in Communism, as if an élite would promote a philosophy that would force it to give up its privileged social position. Weiner objects to the theory of Thermidor, stating that its proponents were wrong in saying that the Soviet regime was ‘in favor of consolidation and stability at the expense of radical experiments’ (p. 15). No, Stalin and his successors were carrying on with the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary programme. But Thermidor does not preclude social changes, it means the transformation of a revolutionary regime into a new ruling élite, something which must have profoundly different social interests from the body from which it emerged. Indeed, the emergence of the Soviet élite as a nationalist, anti-Communist force was accompanied by the tremendous transformation of the country under the First Five Year Plan. The non-capitalist nature of the Soviet Union meant that its ruling élite was obliged to use the language of the revolution from which it had emerged. Stalin and his successors had certain goals for which they fought energetically, they did want to modernise and transform their country; in other words, it was a state-building exercise. But they had a material interest in stifling any movement towards Communism, and to confuse what was basically a mutated Russian nationalism with Communism is a grave error. Weiner, of course, is by no means the only one to make this mistake, but it is surprising that 70 years after Stalin’s consolidation of power, and 10 years after the ignominious resignation of the Soviet élite, he insists upon this now.

The political monopoly exercised by the Soviet élite had nothing to do with its having a messianic world revolutionary programme. The Soviet regime had dumped all that by the end of the 1920s. Stalin and his successors ruled with a strong authoritarian hand because of the peculiarities of the Soviet socio-economic formation that had emerged out of the First Five Year Plan. Eschewing both the market and democratic planning, the élite lacked any means of running the economy except by administrative means. Its consequential iron grip over society meant that it could not permit the existence of rival political currents; indeed, it could not even permit more than a tightly circumscribed circulation of ideas and opinions. But by so doing, it ensured that its knowledge of society remained defective. Beneath its confident and thrusting image, the Soviet élite was insecure to the point of paranoia, not because it was facing economic collapse or political revolt through much of its existence, but because it never felt fully in control of the society it ruled, either under Stalin’s terror or under his successors’ less coercive norms.

Let us look at this in relation to three episodes in Weiner’s book. In the first case, in the regime’s disgraceful treatment of Jews, there was an ideological factor at play, namely the prejudices of Stalin and other Soviet leaders, but it is ironic that this ideologically-driven policy could never be publicly proclaimed, as it went against the regime’s official ideology. But there was also the question of practicality, as the manipulation of popular prejudices through promoting anti-Semitism could help improve the popularity of Soviet rule. Furthermore, the innate paranoia of the Soviet élite would produce suspicion on its part of any Soviet citizens who had relatives abroad, as many Soviet Jews did, and it is no surprise that official anti-Semitism increased as the Cold War intensified. Secondly, it was not class criteria that caused the Soviet regime to take such a hard line against Ukrainian nationalism. Rather, unlike the Hungarian fascists mentioned by Weiner who were recruited to the Hungarian Communist Party in the late 1940s (a similar process happened in Romania and East Germany), there could be no space within the Soviet polity for a movement that refused to accept the legitimacy of the governing centre over ‘its’ territory. Any concessions to the Ukrainian nationalists would have resulted in a potentially uncontrollable situation in Western Ukraine. If minor differences were unacceptable, then Ukrainian nationalism was way beyond the pale. Thirdly, as Weiner himself points out, the purging of the wartime partisans was predicated upon the lack of trust in them on the part of the regular army leadership, who considered that they were undisciplined and wayward. In other words, they could not be relied upon by the centre to do as they were told. It was much the same with the Leningrad wartime leadership. It was purged in the late 1940s because it had successfully battled in isolation through tremendously difficult days, and thus was not trusted by the Moscow centre. The governing principle of the Soviet élite was the defence of its social ascendancy and political power, not any fealty to a revolutionary ideology.

To return to Weiner’s main thesis, for all the mass of information he has assembled, he is actually quite vague about the long-term impact of the war upon the Soviet Union. He mentions the widespread commemorations of the war that have continued into the post-Soviet period, which indicates that the legacy of the war had much more to do with state-building and national assertion than with Communism. He also talks of a ‘front-line assertiveness’ that ran through Soviet society, even into the Gulag (p. 367). How did this key into the process of de-Stalinisation that took off within a decade of the end of the war, and which made a profound change to the form, if not the content, of the Soviet polity? How did this militarised generation come to dismantle much of Stalin’s terror apparatus, and empty much of the Gulag? Unfortunately, Weiner says very little about this. Finally, one crucial question is that of the danger of basing one’s conclusions for an entire country upon a detailed study of a limited area. How typical was Vinnytsia of Central and Eastern Ukraine as a whole? The questions of the legitimacy of the Soviet regime and popular attitudes towards Russia and Russians would differ greatly in Eastern and Central Ukraine on the one hand and Western Ukraine and the Baltic States on the other. What questions were raised by the war in respect of Byelorussia or in non-Russian areas not occupied by the Third Reich, or indeed in Russia itself? Fascinating as Weiner’s book is, a whole range of studies of this type would have to be done before an overall view of the impact of the war on the Soviet Union could be obtained.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 6.10.2011