Stalin’s Successors & Censorship

“In this, our age of infamy,
Man’s choice is but to be
A tyrant, traitor, prisoner,
No other choice has he.” –

Under the capitalist system we are not free from material want, and neither are we free from intellectual oppression and the blue pencil of censorship. “All over the world censorship is being employed as an instrument of government”, writes the editor of Index, a Journal published by the Writers and Scholars International.

Index performs a useful role in exposing those who seek to burn and ban books or to purge and prohibit art. Its first issue indicates the universality of this mediaeval practice, as universal as the social system which leans on it so heavily. There are laws to prohibit publications “that threaten the national interest” (Antigua) and in Brazil “the discussion of ideas” may land you in jail. French journalists are given a police chaperon when covering demonstrations and Portuguese journalists have to be state-registered, like prostitutes. So much for parts of the “free world”. What of the rest of this planet? It is worth examining practices in the so-called “socialist countries”.

Russian censorship has been blatant and crushing in its effects, both cultural and political. It has enabled the so-called Communist Party and its collaborators to portray Russia as a Workers’ Paradise throughout the Thirties and the post war years and even, it must be said, right up to now. Long ago, Orwell attacked the Left on this point. The sin of the Left, he said, is that it

wants to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian. This is still true: even now, the Left concentrates its attacks on Greece and Spain, Portugal and South Africa. Yet there is no form of atrocity practised by these governments which is not practised by the Russian State. Imprisonment of opponents, torture, deportation, forced labour, exile, racism ― all these are common practices in Russia.

It is almost incredible that people still accept Soviet lies at their face value even now, even after Khrushchev and “de-Stalinisation”. Evidently many left-wingers practise doublethink. They knew of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalinism made at the 20th and 22nd Congresses of the CPSU (1959 and 1961) but gradually, as “neo-Stalinism” took over in Russia, as Khrushchev fell and was replaced by Brezhnev and Kosygin, they gladly accepted the comforting new dogma that those regrettable mistakes and massacres were all a weird consequence of the “cult of personality”, a relic of a bygone age.

Unfortunately for the Kremlin’s fan-club, there are many Russians who are not content with such facile explanations. They want to know who were the jailers, the prosecutors, the judges; like Yevtushenko they demand to know where these “heirs of Stalin” are now, and they want guaranteed protection from State terror. They publish underground journals such as the Chronicle of Current Affairs and circulate samizdat (do-it-yourself) copies of unpublished novels, poems, plays and essays. They have also formed a Committee for Human Rights in the Soviet Union and have built an active alliance of writers, historians, musicians, film-makers, artists and scientists. Together they effectively expose and publicise the regime’s policy of terror and despotism

Illusion of Freedom

It is doubtful if such a movement could have developed without the thaw. This term relates to the period of “de-Stalinisation” which started in 1956 and, in terms of cultural freedom, began to die in 1962.

But why did Stalin’s heirs find it necessary to “de-Stalinize” in the first place? Certainly not from feelings of benevolence or remorse! And equally certainly, not very willingly either ― they knew they ran considerable risks in this policy.

When Stalin died in 1953 the economy was stagnating and the people were sullenly apathetic. Something was desperately needed to jog them into co-operation and increased efficiency. This applied especially to workers like engineers, managers, planners and bureaucrats, since their apathy or its reverse must have a considerable effect on the economy. Stalin’s old method had been the stick ― fear of the camps and the KGB ― but this had evidently lost its former effectiveness. So the new bosses decided to try the carrot. They promised material incentives ― better living and working conditions ― and at the same time they offered political reform ― more personal freedom and security. Reassurance was needed that this was for keeps (Stalin had a bad record in such matters) and, as Abraham Rothberg comments wryly in his The Hours of Stalin: Dissidence in the Soviet Union 1953-1970, “One startling and effective way of reassuring the people was to inform them of some of the truth about Stalin’s tyranny” (p. 5). Very reassuring indeed!

What About the Others?

The first startling revelations were made only to the Party and a few key people outside the Party. But in 1961 Khrushchev washed the dirty linen publicly, to use his own expression. The shock produced by the 22nd Congress showed how little the general public in Russia had been told in the eight years since Stalin’s death. Significantly the crimes that Khrushchev was exposing were “repressions against Party, government, economic, military and Komsomol personnel” (our emphasis) ― not against Ivan Denisovich, proletarian, and the millions like him who perished without record in Stalin’s extermination machine. As Yesenin-Yolpin said of Sinyavsky and Daniel: “They are lucky for their case has been taken up by the whole civilised world. There were so many others about whom the civilised world knew nothing ― knew as little as people know of a rabbit eaten by the wolves in a forest” (quoted in Rothberg, p. 158).

The reforms were first conceived as an internal Party and top management concern, in the hope that these people would succeed in galvanising the economy. The connection with economic policy is underlined by the Twentieth Congress’s approval of the Sixth Five Year Plan and the announcement of the campaign to catch up America in the production of meat, milk and butter, which “would mean at least trebling Soviet output”.

Freezing Again

The thaw in cultural life resulted from the regime’s mobilisation of writers to illustrate the theme of “de-Stalinisation.” Many key works appeared, notably Dudintsev’s novel Not by Bread Alone, Ehrenburg’s novel The Thaw and his memoirs, Yevtushenko’s poems Babi Yar and Heirs of Stalin, Bondarev’s novel Silence, and, in November 1962, Solzhenitsyn’s prison-camp story, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This became a barometer registering official attitudes to “de-Stalinisation” and is now almost unobtainable in Russia. However at that time, backed as it was by Khrushchev personally, it received accolades from most official publications.

Soon however the regime began to crack down. At the Manezh art gallery, Khrushchev announced bluntly: “Gentlemen, we are declaring war on you!” Since then the Kremlin has tried persistently to close the slightly opened door. There have been trials of writers like Sinyavsky and Daniel, of historians like Amalrik and scientists like Medvedev. The penalties have been draconian, including hard labour in Arctic concentration camps, psychiatric prison and perpetual exile. And, just to make things quite clear to all concerned, in 1966 Brezhnev and Kosygin added to the Criminal Code two new articles to make spreading “slanderous inventions about the Soviet State and social system, and disturbance of public order punishable offences” ― a portmanteau law which conflicts with Article 125 of the Soviet Constitution which theoretically guarantees “freedom of assembly, including the holding of mass meetings” and “freedom of street processions and demonstrations”.

Question and Answer

Next year will be the twentieth since Stalin’s death and these questions are still debated in Russia.. Were the instruments of repression ― the secret police, the camps, the bureaucracy ― were they caused by the “cult of the individual” and, if so, why are they still operating nearly a generation after that cult officially ceased?

The regime’s answers are contradictory and muddled. For instance, in 1956 the Central Committee’s resolution On Overcoming the Cult of the lndividual and Its Consequences (Soviet News Booklet No. 50) speaks again and again of the “grave consequences of the cult of the individual”, “the cult of the person of Stalin, with all its attendant consequences” and “the negative consequences of the cult of the individual”. But it also significantly disputes this superficial view:

“To think that one personality, even such a great one as Stalin, could change our social and political system is to lapse into profound contradiction with the facts, with Marxism, with truth, is to lapse into idealism.”

Precisely! Stalin alone was not the cause of the terror, any more than he was the ultimate cause of the leadership cult. The cult and the terror were both resultant from the “social and political system” ― the state capitalism used to industrialise backward Russia. So that the Russian State of the twentieth century continues to repress the intelligentsia who have continued their traditional role ― one of lament and protest, the mouthpiece of political and social debate under the new despotism just as they were under the old.


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