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

Posted By Vladimir Tismaneanu On April 30, 2013 @ 12:23 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 8 Comments

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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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