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Henry Judd

Kravchenko – Product of the Stalinist Era

(October 1946)

From New International, Vol.XII No.8, October 1946, pp.248-249. [1*]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Kravchenko’s book [1], subtitled The Personal and Political Life of a Soviet Official, has become shrouded by political sensationalism, but this does not negate its intrinsic and objective values as a description of Stalinist Russia, and its monstrous dictatorship. The book must be approached cautiously, but not in such a skeptical spirit as to toss away its definite merits.

It is useless and unnecessary to become embroiled in the dispute regarding the personality of Kravchenko, or to attempt any subjective appraisal of his character. That is, at best, of secondary importance and a subject on which one man’s opinion is as good, or valueless, as another’s. Suffice it to indicate that the American Stalinist machine, in its panicky attempt to discredit the author, has dwelled exclusively upon his personality, without attempting to seriously refute the damning picture of their “socialist homeland” drawn by Kravchenko.

The author himself, although casting an obviously idealized and self-ennobling image of himself throughout the book, nevertheless does not conceal the basic facts regarding himself and his former status in Stalin’s Russia. In fact, this is essential for the descriptive purposes of the book. Kravchenko came from a family of vaguely humanitarian, non-party revolutionists. His father, who instilled a certain socialist romanticism in the son, seems to have been a semi-intellectual Russian whose historic grasp was exhausted by the 1905 Revolution. Maturing in the early years of the October Revolution, but apparently without any flair for Marxist politics and study, the young Kravchenko was swept up into the ranks of the young Comsomols and Party members whose ardor and enthusiasm were expressed particularly during the First Five Year Plan. The sincerity and faith of the young Kravchenko are unquestionable, as is his political ignorance and lack of background.

Kravchenko’s Background

As a political thinker or theoretician Kravchenko, of course, has nothing to offer us. His present acceptance of the dogmas of American liberalism and the theories of Russian capitalist restorationists is but the reverse coin of his youthfully simple acceptance of the Stalinist “we-are-building-socialism” line. To exchange the sinister Stalin-GPU bureau.cracy for the liberal-capitalist ideologists is, perhaps, a moral progression, but hardly a political one. But we know of no book that offers so much to the reader in terms of a detailed description of how the damned and bloody machine of Stalin operates, from its highest to its lowest summits.

Kravchenko was in the Party; he participated in the forced collectivization; the violent strains of industrialization; the sweeping purges of Stalin’s unilateral civil war to exterminate his opponents; the mobilization of the nation for the German war, etc. Kravchenko participated in the epoch of the Revolution’s ebbtide and final counter-revolutionary overthrow. He was in on all levels – as a young Comsomol sent to tame the resistant peasantry; as an industrial engineer; as a Party man, etc. He knows Stalin’s Russia as few do who have lived through it, or escaped from it.

The value of his tale does not lie in the more general and “theoretical” aspects of these sweeping events that the author attempts to picture for us. Rarely do his generalizations rise above the level of sloganeering, simplification and downright petty gossip filled with implied naive moralizing. Kravchenko’s real merit is in his simple, effective and down-to-earth descriptions of what these events meant in terms of the Russian masses. He takes us to the village during the forced collectivization; he escorts us through NKVD prison-labor camps; he talks to factory proletarians in the shops he is managing; he brings us to a unit meeting of the ruling Party during the purges; he makes us participate in his “interviews” with the NKVD, to see and feel its cruel, crude-handed methods; he advances us to the rank and office of a high government official in the Kremlin; we become a member of the bureaucracy overseas, etc.

In other words, we see and learn, in minute detail, how the whole gigantic machine operates. Thus, the book offers a valuable supplement to the great theoretic works of Comrade Trotsky and others on the Soviet Revolution and the process of its degeneration. The descriptive details that Trotsky and other political theoreticians necessarily could not provide to bolster up their work is provided – and over provided – by Kravchenko.

The book has another merit, perhaps of greater importance than its eloquent descriptions. That is the story of the Russian people and their attitude toward the regime. The familiar and nauseating story, so widespread among American liberals and Russian fellow-travelers, would have us believe that dictatorial, “strong” regimes are a natural, acceptable and essential system in Russia, peculiar to the historic nature of the people and justified by all of Russian history. “The Russians had the Czar for centuries; now they have a strong and successful government that has built up the nation.” Kravchenko’s book, in its description of the popular attitude toward Stalin (The Bossman) and the new barii (Masters), is a stinging refutation of this sinister totalitarian apologism. It is this aspect of the book that the American Stalinists have found most irksome. They have not answered it with a single argument, of course. The simple question of why the beloved regime and its exalted ruler require a NKVD secret police force numbering a million or more, this simple question is conveniently lost amid the lengthy attacks on the author’s personality.

For, as Kravchenko shows us time after time, the truth is that the Russian masses – the workers and peasants of the country – groan and strain endlessly under the alplike weight of history’s tyranny of tyrannies. To think otherwise is an insult to the sufferings of these people, and a flat denial of a history rich in dramatic struggles for democratic advancement and freedom. In episode after episode in his book, Kravchenko reveals to us the true feelings of the Russian worker, the Russian peasant and even the minor functionaries and bureaucrats within the regime’s institutions. Kravchenko does not color the remarks or reactions, most of which are today couched in terms of apathy, despair and helplessness. This lends them an authentic ring, because nobody knows better than the Russian people the task involved in overthrowing the bureaucratic collectivist tyranny. Yet it is clear that the regime is widely hated and despised, that the “system” causes aversion and disgust, that vague, ill-defined conceptions of genuine socialist democracy prevails among the workers and intellectuals, that the Russian revolutionary tradition is far from extinguished.

Although the end of Stalinism is not in sight, it is just as sure that a favorable turning of historic circumstances will find a responsive movement among the masses of Russia. These people are neither the docile slaves of a neo-Czarism, as our American liberals would have us believe; nor are they the dehumanized, barbarized cogs of a neo-Totalitarian order, as our professional anti-Stalinists and Politics authors would like us to accept; Behind the precision-functioning, Kafkaian machine are the restless Russian people. And this revelation is, I believe, the most valuable side of the Kravchenko book.

A word on Kravchenko, the author. Despite the fictionalized self-portrait of himself (alleged to have been drawn with the assistance of Eugene Lyons), Kravchenko is a true product of the new ruling, bureaucratic class of Stalinist Russia. His ideology is that of a benevolent bureaucrat repelled by the vile excesses of the regime. Knowing nothing of politics, Marxism or the international labor movement, his ideas are neither clear nor well expressed. But why should we expect him to be either a socialist or a bourgeois liberal? His portrait of Russia is, in this sense, a self-portrait. Kravchenko remains an ardent Russian nationalist, with no ties whatever to internationalism. When he discusses America, he does not even mention its labor movement. What impressed him in America is (a) the high material living standards; and (b) the freedom enjoyed by factory managers and engineers in the actual operation of their factories and plants. Kravchenko hates Stalin because The Boss’ Police-State does not operate in similar fashion – that is, permit the practice of Kravchenko’s humanitarian paternalism toward his workers. Kravchenko is a bureaucrat, a benevolent one to be sure, but workers’ democratic control of production is as foreign to him as it is to Stalin.

How Did It Happen?

Finally, a word on the review of this book by Ralph Graham, published in the August 1946, Fourth International. This reviewer, blithely ignoring the staring question that he must contemplate and reply to after reading the book – namely, how can one speak of Russia’s working class as a ruling class and Russia as a workers’ state – demands to know how theoretical “innovators” can “explain the unique phenomenon of a ‘ruling class’ which cowers in fear and terror before the political instrument of its own rule.”

Evidently, for Graham, the outstanding characteristic of a ruling class is its harmony, homogeneousness and stability. He has never heard of strata, layers, sections, splits, divisions, etc., within a ruling class; nor of intense and sometimes violent rivalry between its different divisions! Perhaps he has never heard of, for example, the Spanish Civil War where the division within the same ruling class proved so deep and impossible of resolution that a bloody civil war raged for two and a half years; or of the purges conducted by the German Gestapo within the ruling ranks of German capitalism. Kravchenko represents one section of the new ruling bureaucracy – the liberal “civilized” wing of engineers and managers whose main enemy is the GPU, the modern NKVD. It is the section most resentful of Stalin and his top political clique, symbol of the perpetually interfering State. Allowing for the historic and material differences, one can draw a legitimate analogy between Kravchenko and his friends, opposing the Stalinist state bureaucracy, and the important section of the American ruling class that opposed the Roosevelt “New Deal” bureaucracy and its intervention. Naturally, the conditions of Russia (isolation, poverty, low level of productivity and culture, etc.) have tempered the nature of the new ruling class and alone account for its extreme centralization, suspicion, brutality and general stupidity.

If Graham rejects our theory of the new Russian ruling class, from which has stemmed the dissident ruler-bureaucrat Kravchenko, then how can he explain the fact that Kravchenko proposes neither the restoration of capitalism in Russia, nor a social revolution of the proletariat to restore the original Workers’ State? Will Graham reply that Kravchenko is merely a disappointed member of the bureaucratic caste, as the Stalinists claim? In a word, how does he explain Kravchenko and his break with the regime?



1. I Chose Freedom, by Victor Kravchenko, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. 1946; 496 pages.


Note by ETOL

1*. Henry Judd was a pseudonym of Sidney Plastrik.

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