“Four letters, four lies”—this is how French communist-turned-democratic socialist thinker Boris Souvarine, the author of the seminal 1935 Stalin biography, described the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics regime that was proclaimed in Russia one hundred years ago on December 30, 1922. Even at its inception, the USSR was not a union of consenting state entities; it was not soviet to the extent that the Lenin- and Trotsky-led Bolsheviks had stifled the participatory democracy of the early councils; there was no popular sovereignty and no real autonomy for the “republics;” the bureaucratic order was the very negation of the proclaimed socialist egalitarian ideals.
From the outset, corruption was embedded in the Soviet experiment. It was corruption that led Lenin to decide to create the Rabkrin (the People’s Commissariat of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection), and to have it headed by the Georgian-born Iosif Dzhugshvili, known as Stalin. But the lies, cupidity, and duplicity continued to grow rampant until the regime turned into a Mafia state. Political scientist Ken Jowitt best captured the phenomenon when he quipped that the meaning of the regime’s four initials was actually the “Union of Sicilian Socialist Republics.”
How can one explain to younger generations what the Soviet experience was meant to be and what it really was? It came into being during World War I as a response to what Lenin and other radical Marxists decried as the barbarism of the capitalist world. It opposed private property and pledged to create a classless paradise. Instead of bitter social conflicts, the emerging order would ensure universal equality. Attaining such a noble goal might impose countless sacrifices but the destination loomed large like humanity's salvation. None of this was achieved. The Great Experiment ended up, as Zbigniew Brzezinski aptly put in 1988, as the Grand Failure. It was a social, economic, cultural, and civilizational failure, the legacies of which continue to haunt the post-Soviet and the post-Cold War era.
Leading up to the official establishment of the USSR in 1922, the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution had both overthrown the liberal constitutional regime and also had announced the advent of a world revolution. In January 1918, Lenin disbanded the Duma, the Russian parliament. Soon thereafter, the last vestige of pluralist democracy in Russia, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, were banned. The Bolsheviks thus established the first one-party system. Despite criticism from the German socialist luminary Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin was unshakeable: Red Terror was justified. The counter-revolutionaries had to be exterminated. And Moscow was the epicenter of the global search for a classless utopia. In fact, as dissident Soviet historians Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr M. Nekrich have summed it up, the entire revolutionary experiment was meant to bring utopia to power. The International became the first anthem of the new state—a defiant call for the burial of the old order and a vibrant appeal to supranational fraternity. This combination was the meaning of what historian Robert C. Tucker later identified as the postulate of internationalism. In March 1919, the Third International came into being. It fomented tempestuous expectations, millenarian fever, and contagious enthusiasm.
Karl Radek (1885-1939) was one of the revolutionary apostles who, inspired by the postulate of internationalism, tried and failed to Bolshevize Germany in the early 1920s. Nadezhda Mandelstam mentions Radek in her memoir, Hope Against Hope, as one of the principal creators of political jokes in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Mandelstam doubts that Radek was the only one, as the production of anonymous satire did not stop after Radek’s death. Born Lolek Sobelsohn, Radek was a fascinating character, as evidenced by the East German dissident writer Stefan Heym’s novel Radek (published at last in English translation by Monthly Review Press in 2022). A genuine internationalist, a member of what Hannah Arendt identified as the transnational European “peer group,” he accompanied Lenin on the fateful train that brought the founder of Bolshevism to the Finland Station in Petrograd in April 1917. Before his arrest in 1936, Radek worked as a columnist for the government daily Izvestia and was an arduous Stalin apologist. He resided with his wife Roza and their daughter Sonia in the House on the Embankment as it is popularly known, initially called the House of Government, where the majority of the Soviet elite lived.
For the entirety of its existence, the Soviet Union was an ideocracy, a logocracy, a mythocracy, a partocracy, and an autocracy. It was a construct, based on the supremacy of a monistic ideology pretending to be a science, and explaining the laws of Historical Progress. It was an empire of all-pervasive, unquestionable, apodictical, non-verifiable statements fabricated and reproduced by the propaganda machines; a constellation of narratives about the supposedly super-human power of the Soviet men, women, and children, and about their glorious exploits (such as Arctic expeditions; champion industrial workers; hydropower stations; crushing both foreign and internal enemies; invincibility; infallibility).
One example should suffice: Pavel Korchagin was exactly this Soviet superhero. Created (via dictation) in 1934 by the bed-ridden and blind writer Nikolai Ostrovsky in his semi-fictitious, quasi-autobiographical novel, How the Steel Was Tempered, the character was immediately popular, and the novel became an instant best-seller. The book was an exaltation of revolutionary will, a romantic vision of boundless courage, and an enthralling portrait of the New Man. Like his hero Korchagin, Ostrovsky was able to confront the worst challenges without succumbing to despair: The source of his formidable strength was his mystical love for the Soviet homeland, for the Bolshevik Party, and for the leader, Stalin himself.
Chief propagandist and Stalin’s favorite journalist Mikhail Koltsov gave the novel a rave review in Pravda in March 1935. And while Ostrovsky passed away at thirty-two years of age in 1936, his novel became a cult book, inspiring three film versions throughout the years—and produced for political ends. For instance, the first film version, directed by Mark Donskoy and released in 1940, was meant to inspire and energize the Soviet military in the war against foreign invaders. Meanwhile, rave review writer Koltsov was arrested in December 1938, charged with treason, and executed in 1942 in the Lubyanka prison.
For decades in Russia, communist ideology substituted itself for the whole of religious faith, religious symbols, and religious values: Generations came to political age assimilating a radical promise of universal redemption and emancipation through adherence to Communism. Morality, under these new terms, was defined in terms of loyalty to a sense of ultimate historical transcendence; there had to be a total commitment to bring about not only a new type of society but also a new type of person. Marxist pretense thus challenged the ethos of Christianity. Arcane as they may have sounded even then to external observers, the internecine party squabbles within the Soviet elite touched on the most sensitive points of what Czeslaw Milosz called the New Faith—an ideology “based on the principle that good and evil are definable solely in terms of service or harm to the interests of the Revolution.” It was a revolutionary Machiavellianism combined with Jacobin fanaticism.
Lenin and his comrades worshipped history and saw their intervention into the political space as the fulfilment of an ironclad deterministic necessity. Leninism, and Stalinism after it, codified a commitment to an apocalyptic scenario, one fueled by the ambition to initiate an anthropological revolution. Marxism can thus be regarded as a form of utopian radicalism. Marxism is utopian, because it is fundamentally future-oriented and disregards the perennial features of the human condition; it is radical, inasmuch as it aims to transform the body politic and to establish a form of social organization totally different from all previous such structures. Marxism, although conceived by its founding fathers as an anti-statist philosophy, actually culminated in the Soviet apotheosis of the party and state machine. Under both Lenin and Stalin, ideology thus represented a major source of power for communist elites: In fact, the legitimacy of the Bolshevik elite derived primarily from its relationship to the Marxist doctrine.
Stalin saw himself as, and indeed he was, a professional revolutionary. The historian Tucker has emphasized transformism theory as the foundation of Stalin’s Weltanschauung. In this respect, Stalin was a true dialectician. He believed that nature, including human nature, can be transformed, and that history can thus also be retroactively transformed. He even miraculously transformed his own birthday— instead of it being the real date of the event, December 18, 1878, Iosif Vissarionovich decided that he had comc into the world on December 21, 1879. “There is no fortress we Bolsheviks can’t storm,” he proclaimed.
Revolutionary will, according to Stalin’s Marxist beliefs, can produce miracles. Time and space can be dominated. This was ultimately nothing other than political religion posturing as science, and a type of mystical materialism. Lenin was God and Stalin was his prophet. Both men were ideologically-driven, sociopathic leaders.
In the Soviet experiment, the Party and the Leader were inseparable. This system began with Lenin and ended with Mikhail Gorbachev. The Leader’s authority derived from his role as custodian of the party ideology. Historically, the Leader could err, but the Party was, in a millenarian perspective, always right. At the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in October 1961, Nikita Khrushchev presented the new Program—the Third Program of the CPSU— and solemnly pledged that his contemporary generation of the Soviet people would live in full-fledged Communism. The announced cornucopia, however, failed to materialize. The old myths had exhausted their galvanizing power; the people were fed up with the hollow officialese. This was the climate within which Gorbachev tried to rejuvenate the now-sclerotic system. Gorbachev was much younger than his Politburo colleagues; he was better educated; and he was reform-minded. He offered the country a self-styled New Deal which initially seemed to work: Perestroika and glasnost were the new hegemonic buzzwords between 1985 and 1991. Gorbachev and his supporters moved increasingly away from the decrepit Bolshevik dogmas. Some of the party elite, like former chief ideologue Aleksandr Yakovlev, completely broke with Leninism and embraced a liberal, westernizing worldview. But the self-limited transformation from above met the challenges of the growing civic and national movements already forming at the grassroots level. Local elites, including party bureaucrats who suddenly discovered the language of independence, widely rejected the USSR.
Inspired to a great extent by the 1968 Prague Spring, Gorbachev’s proposed agenda was too narrow for the seismic shifts already occurring in the collective psychology, not to mention for the intelligentsia’s discomfiture. At such a point, it seemed that there was no future possible for the ultra-centralized, despotic Leviathan, the party-movement invented by Lenin in 1903. The party bureaucrats were completely confused, the KGB, for decades the “sword and shield” of Soviet tyranny, lost its self-confidence. This appeared quite vividly in December 1989 at the funeral of prominent human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. At that funeral were two of the rising stars of the new Russian politics: reformist Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak, and Gorbachev’s nemesis, Boris Yeltsin, a former apparatchik crusading against the party bureaucracy. At that moment, Vladimir Putin was still a KGB lieutenant-colonel located in Dresden, East Germany.
In August 1991, the anti-Gorbachev putsch failed lamentably, but there was no room for him and his ideas in the emerging power structure. The political changes accelerated, reaching a revolutionary paroxysm. In December 1991, the Union created seventy-four years earlier under Lenin officially ceased to exist.
With Sobchak’s protection, Putin climbed the political ladder in his native Leningrad. He then joined the king-makers in Yeltsin’s entourage. A few years later, he was the new ruler of Russia. The USSR had vanished from political maps, but it continued to exist in Putin’s mind and heart. As I write this obituary for the USSR, he and his cronies, driven by a quasi-mystical belief in Russia’s providential mission, are losing the imperialist war against Ukraine. Their defeat will be the final nail in the coffin of an autocratic, mendacious, terminally sick empire. The Russian Federation is the USSR’s inglorious heir, a kleptocratic militaristic colossus desperately trying to rejuvenate a decaying, terminally sick multi-ethnic empire. The crucial unintended outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine will most likely be imperial breakdown.
Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent book, Communism and Culture: An Introduction, co-authored with Swiss art historian Radu Stern came out from Palgrave Macmillan in 2022.
Image: Decaying Soviet-era wall in Zolotaya Dolina, Russia. (Unsplash: Tengyart)
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