Eric Hobsbawm
Part II
Fortunately, in constitutional and preferably democratic states under the rule of law and with a free press, there are some countervailing forces. in systems of absolute power there are none, even though eventually conventions of power-limitation may develop, if only for the sake of survival and because the use of total power may be self-defeating. Paranoia is its logical end-product. After Stalin's death a tacit understanding among his successors decided to put an end to the era of blood, although (until the Gorbachev era) it was left to dissidents within and scholars or publicists abroad to estimate the full human cost of the Stalin decades. Henceforth Soviet politicians died in their beds, and sometimes at an advanced age.

As the Gulags emptied in the late 1950s, the U.S.S.R. remained a society which treated its citizens badly by Western standards, but it ceased to be a society which imprisoned and killed its citizens on a uniquely massive scale. Indeed, by the 1980s it had a distinctly smaller proportion of its inhabitants in jail than the U.S.A. (268 prisoners per 100,000 population against 426 per 100,000, in the U.S.A.). Moreover, in the 1960s and 1970s the U.S.S.R. actually became a society in which the ordinary citizen probably ran a smaller risk of being deliberately killed by crime, civil conflict or the state than a substantial number of other countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Nevertheless, it remained, a police state, an authoritarian society and, by any realistic standards, an unfree one. Only officially authorized or permitted information was available to the citizen-any other kind remained at least technically punishable by law until Gorbachev's policy of glasnost ("openness") and freedom of travel and settlement depended on official permission, an increasingly nominal restriction within the U.S.S.R., but a very real o ne where frontiers had to be crossed even into another friendly "socialist" country. In all these respects the U.S.S.R. remained distinctly interior to Tsarist Russia. Moreover, even though for most everyday purposes the rule of law oper- ated, the powers of administrative, i.e. arbitrary, imprisonment or internal exile remained.

It will probably never be possible to calculate the human cost of Russia's iron decades adequately, since even such official statistics of execution and Gulag populations as exist or might become available cannot cover all the losses, and estimates vary enormously depending on the assumption made by the estimators, "By a sinister paradox" it has been said, "we are better informed as to losses to Soviet livestock in this period than about the number of the regime's opponents who were exterminated." The suppression of the 1937 census alone introduces almost insuperable obstacles. Still, whatever assumptions are made the number of direct and indirect victims must be measured in eight rather than seven digits. In these circumstances it does not much matter whether we opt for a "conservative" estimate nearer to ten than to twenty millions or a larger figure: none can be anything but shameful and beyond palliation, let alone justification. I add, without comment, that the total population of the U.S.S.R. in 1937 was said to have been 164 millions, or 16.7 millions less than the demographic forecasts of the Second Five-Year Plan (1933-38).

Brutal and dictatorial though it was, the Soviet system was not "totalitarian," a term which became popular among critics of communism after the Second World War, having been invented in the 1920s by Italian fascism to describe its objects. Hitherto it had been used almost exclusively to criticize both it and German National Socialism. It stood for an all-embracing centralized system which not only imposed total physical control over its population but, by means of its monopoly of propaganda and education, actually succeeded in getting its people to internalize its values. George Orwell's 1984 (published in 1949) gave this Western image of the totalitarian society its most powerful form: a society of brainwashed masses under the watchful eye of "Big Brother," from which only the occasional lonely individual dissented.

This is certainly what Stalin would have wanted to achieve, though it would have outraged Lenin and other Old Bolsheviks, not to mention Marx. Insofar as it aimed at the virtual deification of the leader (what was later shyly euphemized as "the cult of personality"), or at least at establishing him as a compendium of virtues it had some success, which Orwell satirized. Paradoxically, this owed little to Stalin's absolute power. The communist militants outside the "socialist" countries who wept genuine tears as they learned of his death in 1953 --- and many did --- were voluntary converts to the movement they believed him to have symbolized and inspired. Unlike most foreigners, all Russians knew well enough how much suffering had been, and still was, their lot. Yet in some sense by virtue merely of being a strong and legitimate ruler of the Russian lands and a modernizer of these lands, he represented something of themselves: most recently as their leader in a war which was, for Great Russians at least, a genuinely national struggle.Yet, in every other respect, the system was not "totalitarian," a fact which throws considerable doubt on the usefulness of the term. It did not exercise effective "thought control," let alone ensure "thought conversion," but in fact depoliticized the citizenry to an astonishing degree. The official doctrines of Marxism-Leninism left the bulk of the population virtually untouched, since it had no apparent relevance to them, unless they were interested in a career in which such esoteric knowledge was expected. After forty years of education in a country dedicated to Marxism, passersby on Marx Square in Budapest were asked who Karl Marx was. They were told:

    He was a Soviet philosopher; Engels was his friend. Well, what else can I say? He died at an old age. (Another voice): Of course, a politician. And he was, you know, he was what's his name's --- Lenin's, Lenin, Lenin's works --- well he translated them into Hungarian

For the majority of Soviet citizens most public statements about politics and ideology coming from on high were probably not consciously absorbed at all, unless they bore directly on their everyday problems- which they rarely did. Only the intellectuals were forced to take them seriously in a society built on and around an ideology that claimed to be rational and "scientific." Yet, paradoxically, the very fact that such systems needed intellectuals, and gave those who did not publicly dissent from it substantial privileges and advantages, created a social space outside the'state's control. Only terror as ruthless as Stalin's could completely silence the unofficial intellect. In the U.S.S.R. it re-emerged as soon as the ice of fear began to thaw...In the 1960s and 1970s dissent, both in the uncertainly tolerated form of communist reformers and in the form of total intellectual, political and cultural dissidence, dominated the Soviet scene, though officially the country remained "monolithic" --- a favourite Bolshevik term. This was to become evident in the 1980s.

--- From The Age of Extremes
A History of the World, 1914 - 1991

(©1999, Vintage)

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