The Virtue of Lucidity: Yuri Glazov and the Fate of Communism

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author most recently of "The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century" (University of California Press, 2012).


russia'sTo order Yuri Glazov’s The Russian Mind Since Stalin’s Death, click here.

In 1985, the USSR seemed immortal. Most of the observers of Soviet affairs were aware of the insuperable systemic tensions (in Hegelian-Marxist parlance, “contradictions”), but very few anticipated the regime’s imminent end. In fact, such insights existed especially among the small and beleaguered dissident enclaves in the Soviet Union itself and in East-Central Europe. Most Western academics, however, were too busy to scrutinize the arcane workings of the Politburo and regarded the dissident activities as marred by romantic daydreaming. Dissidents could be admired, but not taken too seriously. There were exceptions, to be sure, among them Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Conquest, Leo Labedz, Martin Malia, Peter Reddaway, Richard Pipes, Robert C. Tucker and Adam Ulam.

A specialist in Oriental cultures and a professor at Moscow State University, Yuri Glazov (1929-1998) was a noble humanist and a committed democrat. He joined  this quasi-subterranean dissident counter-culture. Because of his heretical views, he was denied the right to teach. Eventually, he left the Soviet Union together with his family and settled in Canada where he taught Russian studies for many years at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. His main interests were linked to the role of the Russian intelligentsia in articulating oppositional discourses and strategies, the dynamics of Stalinism and post-Stalinism, and the soul-searching tribulations among those who refused to live within the Big Lie.

Yuri Glazov was among the first scholars to insist on the importance of scrutinizing the psychology of Soviet leaders as a way to fathom how the decision-making process in the Kremlin operates.  Many Western scholars, especially in the 1970s, during the detente era, treated Soviet institutions as similar to those in the West and tried to disregard the pre-eminence of ideology. Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Yuri Glazov saw ideology as the main underpinning of the  communist dictatorship. Ideology sanctified the absolute falsification of reality, constructed a ritualized super-reality and a pseudo-scientific, in fact mystical vision of history.

He published a truly outstanding book, The Russian Mind since Stalin’s Death,  in 1985, with D. Reidel Company, a respected academic press.  I read it recently and was struck by his extraordinary prescience and intellectual acumen. Before Glasnost became the ubiquitous buzzword, Glazov identified the search for truth as a subversive method to oppose the system and recover civic dignity. For him the most important psychological feature of Sovietism was the universal sentiment of fear:

There is one feeling that people living in non-totalitarian countries are unable adequately to understand: a feeling of fear in a country without law and without justice. This feeling of fear could be read in the eyes and faces; it could be heard in voices and speeches. The feeling of fear destroys the process of communication between people. They say what they do not mean. They hear in other people’s words what is not meant. Who creates this atmosphere of fear? Who requires it? Can it be kept under control? To what extent does this feeling of fear alter the whole nature of a person?

These are disturbingly vital (or, under Soviet conditions, mortal) questions to which Glazov offered remarkably persuasive answers. Fear and mendacity were intertwined in the genesis of what the system aimed at, the New Man, Homo Sovieticus. Communism was not only a political and social revolution, but even more important, it championed an anthropological mutation.

The passage quoted above is from the chapter dealing with the significance of Stalin’s death for the Soviet political culture. Sixty years have passed since that watershed moment and Stalin’s ghost continues to haunt the Russian mind. Yuri Glazov’s illuminating discussion should be read by all those who want to understand the relationship between Stalinism, post-Stalinism, post-Sovietism, and Putinism.  We should keep in mind that he wrote the studies included in that volume years before Mikhail Gorbachev’s coming to power, when the almost universal consensus was that the Soviet bureaucratic colossus could last for many more decades. Yuri Glazov realized that intellectuals were bound to play a crucial role in the forthcoming changes. In fact, Gorbachevism can be seen as the ideology and practice of the neo-Marxist party intelligentsia.

One of the most provocative chapters deals with Yuri Andropov, the former KGB boss who succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as general secretary in November 1982. Andropov was in fact Gorbachev’s mentor and it remains to a great extent a mystery how could he ignore the heretical potential in his protégé. For the KGB loyalists, Andropov was the genuine, even the optimal, Soviet leader. No surprise therefore that Vladimir Putin worships him and has encouraged the emergence in recent years of an Andropov mini-cult.

Yuri Glazov’s enduring analyses converged with those of a major Stalin scholar, Princeton professor Robert C. Tucker, the author of “The Soviet Political Mind,” a classic of Soviet studies. Both thinkers understood that, once the ideological zeal was extinct, the system was doomed. The degradation of faith was a decisive catalyst for the demise of the whole system. From the original Marxist-Leninist utopia nothing remained but cynicism, confusion, and disgust with broken promises. For Glazov, the indication of the revolutionary breakdown was the fact that even party bureaucrats were treating the official mythologies as empty, soporific phrases. Nothing captures better the nature of that system than a joke quoted by Yuri Glazov– Radio Yerevan asks : “What is Marxism-Leninism, a science or an art? The answer: “It is probably an art. If it were a science it would have been tried out first on animals.”

Editor’s note: Don’t miss Vladimir Tismaneanu’s interview at Frontpage about his new book, The Devil in History, here.

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  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLNn2YflwNs Roger

    Why is it that every two bit hack thinks they can get communism right?

    Note to Obama: You and Valerie Jarrodd aren't smart enough to buck the trend.

    • Mary Sue

      it is the inherent arrogance of the Elitist Leftist mind.

    • Michael Durham

      Why is it that every communist thinks that communism "just needs one more chance to get it right", and that "Stalin wasn't a 'TRUE COMMUNIST"?

      Answer to the first question: One more chance for communism? PERISH THE THOUGHT – literally. The world gives these genocidal, idiot communist douchebags one more chance, and that's the end of the human race…which really seems to be what these Leftist "progressive", genocidal @ssholes really want. They should do us all a favor; they should lead the way! Set an exampe – they should start blowing their own sh*t-filled head off. 'K?

      Answer to the second question (along the same lines as #1): If Stalin was any more true a communist, there wouldn't have been a single human being left alive in the USSR. They'd all have been murdered outright, or perished in the Gulag. THEN all the idiot pin-headed Leftist fellow-travelers would cheer "perfect communism in the Soviet Union!" Except nobody would be alive there to hear it.

      Better free than Red. Or dead.

  • http://www.adinakutnicki.com AdinaK

    Totalitarian thought police are the purview of the left and Islamists, one of the ties that bind. But the primary one is their anti-American hatred.
    With this in mind, is it any wonder that a clear head must be kept, thus alerting to when mind control is exerted, especially when least expected – http://adinakutnicki.com/2012/07/01/leftist-dogma

    In this regard, outing the leadership's omerta (re Islam plus terror) is top priority – http://adinakutnicki.com/2013/04/23/the-incalcula

    Can't be any more lucid than described within.

    Adina Kutnicki, Israel http://adinakutnicki.com/about/

  • Robin

    Vladimir-

    Am reading your book right now and am going to track down your cites from the Journal of Cold War Studies today. I know what educators globally seemed to be aware of from about 1986 on so the Marxist mind is of particular interest to me at the moment.

    Do you remember the philosophy of Evald Ilyenkov and "theoretically guided education" and the work Davydov did with the DiaMat update of Ascending from the Abstract to the Concrete? The actual K-12 Common Core in the US but also ed reform globally are full of the use of this theory. http://www.invisibleserfscollar.com/desiring-a-ra… is the most recent story laying out how it is coming to classrooms all over the West. Not by name in the classroom but by name by the profs pushing it and training teachers to use it.

    Your quote about a post-Thermidor socialism after 1991 sure does fit with what the UN agencies and the OECD in particular are pushing.

    Now I will add Glazov to my reading list. The Three Faces of Marxism is already enroute. Thanks for your insights.

    Muzzling the mind is back except this time education is being used to try to remove the dichotomy between the private and citizen. Silly state legislatures are even falling into the trap and passing Whole Child legislation. Arkansas just did. How naive.

  • Olga, a historian

    Political culture of the leaders, how they think and make decisions is important to understand their politics. However, in case of heretical Gorbachev who pop up from marasmatic Politburo such approach turned to be not heuristic: It's "a mystery how could Andropov ignore the heretical potential in his protégé." I think that study of MASS political culture is more promising in our attempts to grasp the meaning of events or at least in case of revolutions.

  • Jim

    Stalin worship is spreading threw the country side of Russia.
    The Stalin worshipers are also anti Semitic.

    Today a council on Moscow advised Putin to spread the resources around the country.

  • Ondine

    The need of truth and sincerity (maybe also as an antidote to that ubiquitous fear which us, in Romania, also experienced especially during the last years of Ceausescu's regime) in social life was promoted also by Vaclav Havel but the distance between communism in former Czechoslovakia and USSR is like the one between a nasty hospital and the Gulag. So, what those unfortunate people experienced in Russia completely justifies the bitter truth which ends the article – although tries to bring about a smile.