Breaking Myths: The Ideas that Ruined Bolshevism

A powerful new book dissects the symbolic matrix of Gorbachev’s revolution.

lpHistorian Martin Malia defined the Soviet-type regimes as ideocratic partocracies.  Other authors, including celebrated Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, author of the classical book The Captive Mind, called them logocracies. Ideology was the only legitimizing principle for those corrupt, corruptive, and fundamentally mendacious regimes. The revolutions of 1989-1991 that swept away communist regimes in East-Central Europe and the USSR started, in fact, earlier. What Pope John Paul II called an annus mirabilis, a miraculous year, could not have taken place without the radical changes in the USSR that were initiated and promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev.

Leon Aron’s book, Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideas in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1977-1991 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012),  a genuine tour de force, is a fascinating chronicle of the main ideas that caused and inspired the revolutionary upheaval in the USSR. A respected student of Soviet and post-Soviet affairs, Aron is the author of a major Yeltsin biography and of numerous articles dealing with Russia’s political culture.  For him, what happened in the USSR between 1987 and 1991 amounted to the complete disbandment of all political myths that had served as justification for the Leninist Leviathan.

Aron is right to highlight what the liberal philosopher, sir Isaiah Berlin, called the power of ideas. In other words, material forces, always emphasized by Marxists, matter, but they are not the only and not even the most significant factor that leads to political revolutions. The Soviet Union had long been in terminal crisis, but this agony could have lasted for many other decades had the revolutionary ideas associated with Gorbachevism not come to fore and imposed a new political vision. Aron contrasts Gorbachev’s ideological revolution to Khrushchev’s half-hearted and inconclusive reforms. The most important distinctions were related to two areas: the imperial identity of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist legacies.  Whereas Khrushchev avoided a radical response to these two challenges, Gorbachev and his supporters moved boldly ahead and engaged in a fundamental overhaul of  the communist party's monopoly on power and ideas. Homo Sovieticus was exposed as ideologically bogus, the opposite of classical humanism.

Leon Aron’s main contribution is to luminously retrieve a whole universe of ideas, aspirations, values, emotions, and sentiments put forward by the main proponents of historical fairness, political openness and moral frankness. The book is a superb archeology of what can be called the symbolic matrix of Gorbachev’s revolution. In fact, the philosophy of glasnost, as liberation of mind, developed even before 1987 in the writings of banned authors such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vassili Grossman (the great novelist about whom Aron writes with intense empathy).  Its thrust was the absolute opposite of the long-held set of mendacities that formed the foundation of Soviet ideology.

Many of Gorbachev’s close associates were party intellectuals whose political itineraries moved from early infatuation with Stalin and Stalinism, to disappointments and disgust with the bureaucratic despotism, and finally to the deep desire to change the system. Yes, the Gorbachevites did not say it explicitly, pretended that their goals were intra-systemic, but the more they attacked Stalinism’s legacies, the more the revolutionary impetus gathered momentum.

Often called the architect of glasnost, Aleksandr Yakovlev is a main hero in Leon Aron’s captivating discussion of the myth-breaking endeavors of those years. A World War II veteran, recruited into the propaganda apparatus during Stalin’s times, Yakovlev was indeed what is called a child of the 20th Congress. This is a reference to the February 1956 party conclave when, during a closed session, Nikita Khrushchev dealt a mortal blow to Stalin’s myth. After that shock, Yakovlev could never accept uncritically the official line, though, for decades, he maintained his doubts for himself and very few confidants.

As an opponent of the increasingly xenophobic direction of Soviet ideology under Leonid Brezhnev, Yakovlev lost his job at the party headquarters (he was the head of the propaganda department) and was sent into diplomatic exile as ambassador to Canada. Gorbachev met him there, was impressed with his intellectual acumen and fresh ideas, and, once in power, brought him to Moscow. Yakovlev became the chief ideologue and, in this quality, was instrumental in allowing for an extraordinary relaxation in cultural life and the launching of radical de-Stalinization. He surrounded himself with other party intellectuals, including many who had worked in Prague at the international journal “World Marxist Review” (the Russian edition was titled “Problems of Peace and Socialism”) and who had been contaminated with neo-Marxist, revisionist ideas, especially regarding the dignity of the individual and universality of human rights.

The Moscow Spring was to a great extent a resumption of the Prague Spring, suppressed by Warsaw Pact tanks in August 1968. Arguably the most anti-Stalinist of all the members of Gorbachev’s entourage, Yakovlev championed the themes of de-Bolshevization, de-ideologization, and democratization. He became the nemesis of party conservatives who organized vicious media attacks on him. Later, after the demise of the USSR, he authored several devastating books about the fundamentally criminal nature of Leninism. He prefaced the Russian edition of the “Black Book of Communism” and chaired the Commission for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Terror.

Aron’s book is essentially about the democratic ideas that corroded the Soviet edifice during the Gorbachev revolution. Among those, most important were the rediscovery of human freedom as a non-negotiable, universal value. For more than seven decades, the Soviet utopian experiment was based on duplicity, subservience, conformity, fear, suspicion, and hypocrisy. This dismal moral situation led to rampant cynicism, demoralization, and despair. The book’s title comes from a great film by Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze, “Repentance.” The major question in that masterpiece was human salvation. Redemption is impossible without atonement. Democracy and memory are inseparable. In order to achieve reconciliation, the former tormentors must be subjected to justice. By justice I don't mean only legal procedures, but also the  moral indictment of former criminals.

If individuals lost any axiological reference point, they would not be able to find a road to the temple, to the church. They will be, as Polish poet Aleksander Wat, once put it, children in the fog. The men and women of the Russian Revolution, this world-historical event masterfully explored by Leon Aron, looked for a moral and political compass and they found it. All the post-1991 dismay, disenchantment, and dereliction notwithstanding, there was something sublime in that rediscovery of freedom, dignity, and honor. Leon Aron’s book succeeds marvelously in resurrecting what Hannah Arendt called the lost treasure of the revolutionary tradition.

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