'I do not believe that in the twentieth century there is such a thing as a "betrayed people",' Gorky wrote to Romain Rolland in 1922. 'The idea of a "betrayed people" is nothing but a legend. Even in Africa there are only peoples not yet organized and therefore powerless politically.'1 Gorky's view of the Russian Revolution denied that the people had been betrayed by it. Their revolutionary tragedy lay in the legacies of their own cultural backwardness rather than the evil of some 'alien' Bolsheviks. They were not the victims of the revolution but protagonists in its tragedy. This may be a painful lesson for the Russian people to learn at the end of the twentieth century. Seventy years of Communist oppression might well be thought to have earned them the right to see themselves as victims. But Russia's prospects as a democratic nation depend to a large extent on how far the Russians are able to confront their own recent history; and this must entail the recognition that, however much the people were oppressed by it, the Soviet system grew up in Russian soil. It was the weakness of Russia's democratic culture which enabled Bolshevism to take root. This was the legacy of Russian history, of centuries of serfdom and autocratic rule, that had kept the common people powerless and passive. 'And the people remained silent' was a Russian proverb — and it describes much of Russian history. To be sure, this was a people's tragedy but it was a tragedy which they helped to make. The Russian people were trapped by the tyranny of their own history.
'We are slaves because we are unable to free ourselves,' Herzen once wrote. If there was one lesson to be drawn from the Russian Revolution it was that the people had failed to emancipate themselves. They had failed to become their own political masters, to free themselves from emperors and become citizens. Kerensky's speech of 1917, in which he claimed that the Russian people were perhaps no more than 'rebellious slaves', was to haunt the revolution in succeeding years. For while the people could destroy the old system, they could not rebuild a new one of their own. None of the democratic organizations established before October 1917 survived more than a few years of Bolshevik rule, at least not in their democratic form. By 1921, if not earlier, the revolution had come full circle, and a new autocracy had been imposed on Russia which in many ways resembled the old one.
To explain this failure of democracy one must go back into Russian history. Centuries of serfdom and autocratic rule had prevented the ordinary people from acquiring the consciousness of citizens. One can draw a direct line from this serf culture to the despotism of the Bolsheviks. The abstract concept of the 'political nation', of a constitutional structure of civic rights, which had underpinned the French Revolution, remained largely alien to the Russian peasantry, confined in their isolated village worlds. The popular notion of power in Russia continued to be articulated in terms of coercive domination and quasi-religious authority derived from the traditions of serfdom and autocracy rather than in terms of a modern law-based state distributing rights and duties between citizens. The everyday power that the peasant knew — the power of the gentry captain and the police — was arbitrary and violent. To defend himself from this despotism he relied not on appeals to legal rights — indeed he replicated this despotic violence in his brutal treatment of his wife and children — but on the evasion of officialdom. Power for the peasant meant autonomy — it meant freedom from the state — which in itself was almost bound to give rise to a new coetcive state, not least because the effect of this anarchic striving was to make the village virtually ungovernable. Indeed there were times in 1917 when the peasants themselves called for a 'master's hand', a 'popular autocracy' of the Soviets, to bring order to the revolutionary village.2 The anarchism of the peasant was often wrapped in a cocoon of authoritarianism. Russian culture was one in which power was conceived not in terms of law but in terms of coercion and hegemony. It was a question of masters and men, of which side would prevail and dominate the other. Lenin once described it as 'who whom?' In this sense the revolution was the 'serfs' revenge', as Prince Lvov put it in the violent summer of 1917, and it led to the mass terror of the civil war.
The outcome could have been different. During the last decades of the old regime a public sphere was emerging which, given enough time and freedom to develop, might have transformed Russia into a modern constitutional society. The institutions of this civil society — public bodies, newspapers, political parties — were all growing at enormous speed. Western concepts of citizenship, of law and private property, were starting to take root. Not even the peasants were left untouched, as the story of Semenov's reform efforts in the village of Andreevskoe shows. To be sure, the new political culture was fragile and confined largely to the tiny urban liberal classes; and, as the events of 1905 showed, it was always likely to be swept away by the bloody violence of the 'serfs' revenge'. But there were enough signs of modern social evolution to suggest that Russia's power question might have been resolved in a peaceful way. Everything depended on the tsarist regime's willingness to introduce reforms. But there was the rub. Russia's last two Tsars were deeply hostile to the idea of a modern constitutional order. As Russia moved towards the twentieth century, they sought to return it to the seventeenth, ruling Russia from the court and trying to roll back the modernizing influence of the bureaucracy. The archaic privileges of the noble estate were increasingly defended by the court and its supporters against the logic of a modern social order based on the ownership of property, which Stolypin had tried to introduce. As a result a violent peasant revolution became almost inevitable. The civil liberties and parliamentary rights extracted from the Tsar in October 1905 were successively withdrawn by the autocracy once the revolutionary danger passed, with the result that a constitutional resolution of the power question became virtually impossible. Time and time again, the obstinate refusal of the tsarist regime to concede reforms turned what should have been a political problem into a revolutionary crisis: decent-minded liberals like Prince Lvov were forced into the revolutionary camp by the regimes idiotic policy of blocking the initiatives of patriotic public bodies such as the zemstvos; self-improving workers like Kanatchikov, deprived of the right to defend their class interests through legal parties and trade unions, were forced into the revolutionary underground; and those non-Russians who had wanted more rights for their national culture were driven by the tsarist policies of Russification to demand their nation's independence from Russia. The tsarist regime's downfall was not inevitable; but its own stupidity made it so.
The First World War was a gigantic test of the modern state, and as the only major European state which had failed to modernize before the war it was a test which tsarist Russia was almost bound to fail. The military establishment was too dominated by the court's own loyal aristocrats for more competent generals like Brusilov to assume command of the country's war effort; the military-industrial complex, to adopt a Cold War phrase, was too closely (and corruptly) linked with the bureaucracy to create a competitive war economy; while the tsarist regime was far too jealous of its powers to allow the sort of public war initiatives from which other powers derived so much strength. But the regime's overwhelming shortcoming was its utter failure to muster the patriotism of its peasant soldiers, who for the most part felt little obligation to fight for the Russia beyond their own native region, and even less to fight for the Tsar. This was the ultimate proof of the regime's failure to build a modern state: the ordinary peasant did not feel that he was subject to its laws. The tsarist regime paid the price for this with its own downfall — as, in their own way, did the democratic leaders of 1917. They also tied their fortunes to the war campaign in the naive belief that the 'patriotic masses' might at last be called upon to carry out their duty to the nation now that it was free. But their belief in the 'democratic nation' turned out to be equally illusory; and the summer offensive, just like all the previous fighting, underlined the fact that there were two Russias, the privileged Russia of the officers and the peasant Russia of the conscripts, which were set to fight each other in the civil war.
1917 was all about the shattering of misplaced ideals. Liberals like Lvov placed all their faith in the rule of law. They believed that all Russia's problems could be resolved peacefully by parliamentary means. This was to hope against all hope — even for an optimist like Lvov. Russia's brief experience of parliamentarism between 1906 and 1914 had done little to convince the common people that a national parliament could work for them. They were much more inclined to place their trust in their own local class organizations, such as the Soviets, as the SRs found out when the people failed to rally behind the defence of the Constituent Assembly after January 1918. The constitutional phase of the revolution had essentially been played out by 1914: the liberal Duma parties had failed to satisfy the demands of the workers and peasants for social reforms; their electoral base was in terminal decline; and the left-wing parties which based their appeal on a militant rejection of a Duma coalition with the bourgeoisie increased their support after 1912. As the reactionary but no less visionary minister Durnovo had warned the Tsar in 1914, conceding power to the Duma, which would be the cost of a defeat in the war, was almost bound to end up in a violent social revolution since the masses despised the liberal bourgeoisie and did not share their belief in political reforms. The social polarization of the war made this prophecy even more compelling. To the Okhrana it was obvious by the end of 1916 that the liberal Duma project was superfluous, and that the only two options left were repression or a social revolution. And yet, despite all the evidence, the liberal leaders of 1917 and the democratic socialists who forced them into power continued to believe that a Western constitutional settlement might be imposed upon Russia and, even more improbably, that it might be expected to hold firm and provide a viable structure for the resolution of the country's problems in the middle of a total war and social breakdown. How naive can politicians be?
Lenin might justifiably have called this the 'constitutional illusion of the liberals. It was to place an almost mystical faith — one held religiously by Prince Lvov — in Western ideals of democracy that were quite unsuited to revolutionary Russia. And liberal efforts to impose the disciplines of statehood upon the Russia of 1917, to make it fit the patterns of 1789, only accelerated the collapse of all authority, as the common people, in reaction, carried out their own local revolutions: the attempt to carry through a military offensive led to the disintegration of the army; the attempt to regulate property relations through national laws merely had the effect of speeding up peasant land seizures. This social revolution against a state that was increasingly seen to be 'bourgeois' was the main appeal of Soviet power, at least in its early stages before the Bolsheviks took over the local Soviets. It was the direct self-rule of the workers in their factories, of the soldiers in their regiments, and of the peasants in their villages; and it was the power which this in turn gave them to dominate their former masters and class enemies.
Only a democracy that contained elements of this social revolution had any prospect of holding on to power in the conditions of 1917. The Soviet leaders, because of their own dogmatic preconceptions about the need for a 'bourgeois revolution', missed a unique chance to set up such a system by assuming power through the Soviets; and perhaps a chance to avert a full-scale civil war by combining the power of the Soviets with that of the other public bodies, such as the zemstvos and the city dumas, under the Constituent Assembly. This sort of resolution would have been acceptable to Bolshevik moderates such as Kamenev, to left-wing Mensheviks such as Martov and to any number of left-wing SRs. Undoubtedly, this would have been a precarious resolution: neither Lenin nor Kerensky would have accepted it; and there was bound to be armed opposition to it from the Right. Some sort of civil war was unavoidable. But such a democratic settlement — one which satisfied the social demands of the masses — was perhaps the only option that had any chance of minimizing the scale of that civil war. It alone could have stopped the Bolsheviks.
Bolshevism was a very Russian thing. Its belief in militant action, its insistence, contrary to the tenets of Hegel and Marx, that a revolution could 'jump over' the contingencies of history, placed it firmly in the Russian messianic tradition. Its call for All Power to the Soviets, which in the first months of Bolshevik rule entailed the direct self-rule of the peasantry, the soldiers and the workers, legitimized the anarchic tendencies of the Russian masses, and institutionalized a new pugachevshchina, a merciless rebellion against the state and its civilization which Gorky, like Pushkin a hundred years before, looked upon with horror as an expression of Russian barbarism. The Bolshevik Terror came up from the depths. It started as part of the social revolution, a means for the lower classes to exact their own bloody revenge on their former masters and class enemies. As Denikin noted, there was an almost 'boundless hatred' of ideas and of people higher than the crowd, of anything which bore the slightest trace of abundance, and this feeling expressed an envy and a hatred that had been accumulated by the lower classes not only over the past three years of war but also over the previous centuries. The Bolsheviks encouraged (but did not create) this hatred of the rich through their slogan 'Loot the looters!' They used it to destroy the old social system, to mobilize the lower classes against the Whites and the imperialists, and to build up their terror-based dictatorship. It in turn provided them with a powerful source of emotional support among all those downtrodden and war-brutalized people who gained satisfaction from the knowledge that the wealthy classes of the old regime were being destroyed and made to suffer, as they themselves had suffered, regardless of whether it brought any improvement in their own lot.
As a form of absolutist rule the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian. It was a mirror-image of the tsarist state. Lenin (later Stalin) occupied the place of the Tsar-God; his commissars and Cheka henchmen played the same roles as the provincial governors, the oprichniki, and the Tsar's other plenipotentiaries; while his party's comrades had the same power and privileged position as the aristocracy under the old regime. But there was a crucial difference between the two systems: whereas the elite of the tsarist regime was socially alien to the common people (and in the non-Russian borderlands was ethnically alien as well), the Soviet élite was made up for the most part of ordinary Russians (and by the natives in the non-Russian lands) who spoke, dressed and acted much like everybody else. This gave the Soviet system a decisive advantage over the Whites in the civil war: it enabled it to hold on to the emotive symbols of 'the Revolution', the Red Flag above all else, and thus to present itself as the champion of the people's cause. The 'old regime' image of the Whites, which was largely merited by their old regime mentality, and their obstinate refusal to endorse the peasant revolution on the land or to recognize the break-up of the Tsarist Empire, strengthened the Bolsheviks' propaganda claim. The emphatic rejection of the Whites by the peasantry and the non-Russians determined the outcome of the civil war.
During the first five years of the Soviet regime over one million ordinary Russians joined the Bolshevik Party. Most of these were peasant sons, literate young men like Kanatchikov and Os'kin, who had left the village to work in industry or to join the army before 1917, and who in the process came to reject the 'dark' and 'backward' ways of the old peasant Russia. Some of them returned to their native villages and were recruited by the Bolsheviks as part of the emerging rural bureaucracy. For the most part, they were committed to a cultural revolution that would bring the village closer to the towns: peasant agriculture would be modernized; the trappings of modern civilization, such as schools, hospitals and electric light, would be brought to the countryside; and the Church's influence would be reduced. The albeit very gradual spread of Bolshevism in the countryside during the 1920s was based on this revolt by the younger peasants against the old — and still largely dominant — patriarchal village; and it was in many ways a continuation of the type of reforms which peasants like Semenov had been pioneering for the past thirty years. But the majority of these peasant sons, including Os'kin and Kanatchikov, were drawn into Bolshevism from outside the village — either through the army or through industry — and it was not so much the reform of the old peasant Russia as its abolition which attracted them to the party's cause. Their allegiance to Bolshevism was intimately linked with their own self-identity as 'proletarians', which in their eyes (and in the rhetoric of the party) meant first and foremost that they were not peasants. They saw Bolshevism as a force of progress, both for Russia and for themselves, as a means of wiping out the brutal village world from which they had come and of replacing it with the urban culture of school and industry through which they themselves had risen to become a part of the official elite. Virtually the whole of the party's self-identity and ideology was to become based on the militant rhetoric of industrial progress, of overcoming drunkenness and superstition, and of getting Russia to catch up with the West.
This drive to overcome backwardness was the kernel of Stalin's 'revolution from above', the forcible drive towards industrialization during the first of the Five Year Plans (1928—32). As Stalin himself put it in an impassioned speech of 1931, Russia had been beaten throughout its history because it was backward, it had been beaten by the Mongol khans, the Swedish feudal lords, the Polish-Lithuanian pans, the Anglo-French capitalists, the Japanese and German imperialists: 'We are fifty to one hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must cover this distance in ten years. Either we do this, or they will crush us.' This great leap forward had a powerful appeal for all those lower-class Bolsheviks who as young men had run away from the backwardness of the Russian peasant world and who saw the revolution as a national revolt against this inheritance of poverty. By the 1920s the party rank and file had become dominated by these semi-educated types. Most of them had joined the party in the civil war and, in one form or another, owed their allegiance to Stalin's apparatus. They had little understanding of Marxist theory, and the arguments of Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin, the three great intellectuals of the party, about the NEP's finer strategies left most of them cold. The NEP in general seemed a retreat to them after the great advances of the civil war — and in this sense the failure of the NEP was rooted in the party's own political culture. One of Stalin's shock-workers recalls how the party's youth was frustrated with the NEP:
The Komsomols of my generation — those who met the October Revolution at the age of ten or younger — harboured a grudge against our fate. When we became politically conscious and joined the Komsomol, when we went to work in the factories, we lamented that there was nothing left for us to do because the spirit of the revolution had gone, because the harsh but romantic years of the civil war would not return, and because the older generation had left to us a boring mundane life without struggle or excitement.3
Stalin's revolution against the NEP promised a return to the 'heroic period' of the civil war when the Bolsheviks had conquered every fortress and pressed ahead on the road towards socialism without fear or compromise. It promised a resumption of the class war against the 'kulaks' and the 'bourgeois specialists', before whom the NEP had been in retreat, combined with a militant (if mendacious) rhetoric of proletarian hegemony.
Stalin always portrayed his revolution as a continuation of the Leninist tradition, the belief that the party vanguard's subjective will and energy could overcome all adverse objective contingencies, as Lenin himself had argued during the October seizure of power. And in a way Stalin was correct. His drive towards industrialization, sweeping aside the market and the peasantry, was in essence no different from Lenin's own drive towards Soviet power which had swept aside democracy. One could argue that the command system was itself an inevitable outcome of the contradiction of October — a proletarian dictatorship in a peasant country — a contradiction with which Lenin himself came to grapple in his final tragic years. Soviet Russia's international isolation, which stemmed directly from October, and which as a result of Allied intervention in the civil war gave rise to xenophobic paranoia about Russia's 'capitalist encirclement', reinforced the argument of the Stalinists that the 'peasant-cart-horse pace' of industrialization favoured by Bukharin under the NEP would be much too slow for Russia to catch up with — and defend itself against — the West. The social isolation of the civil war regime, which stemmed equally from October, forced it to adopt the command system, which, although relaxed briefly in the 1920s, was almost bound to be taken up again in view of the party's problems with the peasantry and the growing reluctance of its rank and file to sacrifice the ideal of rapid industrialization to the market relationship with it. Finally, there was the problem of the party's culture which haunted Lenin in his final years. Having taken power in a backward country, its lower-class recruits were bound to lack the technical expertise to take over the running of the state and industry; and yet its rhetoric of equality which had attracted them to it in the first place was also bound to set them up in opposition to the 'bourgeois specialists' upon whom the party-state was forced to depend. The NEP in this sense was a precarious and perhaps impossible balance between the revolution's need to preserve the old culture and to learn from it — what Lenin called its 'school of capitalism' — and the proletarian initiative to destroy it which, more than anything else, lay at the heart of Stalin's cultural revolution.
* * * 'Russia has changed completely in the past few years,' wrote Prince Lvov to Bakhmetev in November 1923.
It has become a completely new Russia. The people and the power are, as usual, two different things. But Russia more than ever before belongs to the people ... To be certain, the government is hostile to the people and their national feelings, standing as it does for international goals, it deceives the people and turns them into slaves, but nonetheless it still receives the support of this oppressed and enslaved people. They would still defend the regime if it was attacked by an intervention or by an organization within Russia fighting under the old slogans or in the name of a restoration ... The people supports Soviet power. That does not mean they are happy with it. But at the same time as they feel their oppression they also see that their own type of people are entering into the apparatus, and this makes them feel that the regime is 'their own'.
The Prince's recognition of the Soviet regime was an extraordinary volte-face for a man who only five years earlier had confidently told the US President that the Russian people would rally to the Whites. His mind had been changed by the Whites' defeat — a defeat which, as he now recognized, had been brought about 'by the choice of the people' — and by the introduction of the NEP, which in his view had satisfied the main demands of his beloved peasants. 'The land question', Lvov wrote to Bakhmetev, 'has still not been resolved, it will still give rise to bloody conflicts, but in the mind of the ordinary peasant it has been decided once and for all — the land now belongs to him.'
For the exiled Prince, living now in Paris, the revolution had come full circle. In 1923 he received a letter from Popovka in Russia telling him that the peasants had divided up the land of the Lvov estate. The same peasants who forty years before had helped the young Prince and his brothers to restore its run-down farm economy had now taken possession of the estate themselves. It would surely not be over-generous to assume that Lvov was not unpleased by this news. All of his long life in public service had been dedicated to the peasantry. Even now, in his final years, he commuted every day from his small apartment in Boulogne-sur-Seine into Paris, where he worked for a Russian aid committee that collected money for the victims of the famine and helped place Russian refugees. It was a sort of Zemgor in Paris.
One Friday night in March 1925 Lvov returned from Paris feeling ill. He went to bed — and died of a heart attack in his sleep. The funeral was held at the Russian Orthodox church in rue Daru in Paris. The whole emigre community was in attendance, and the press was full of tributes to this 'sincere servant of the people'.4
In a more settled and peaceful country a man of Prince Lvov's background and talents might have expected to serve for many years as a minister for agriculture or, say, education. In England he would have served in the Liberal government of Gladstone or Lloyd George, and today there would no doubt be a statue to him in one of London's many parks and squares. But in the Russia of Lvov's own lifetime figures like him were destined not to last in the revolutionary storm; and today his statue does not stand in any Russian city.
Great Russian nationalism did for Brusilov what the NEP had done for Prince Lvov: it reconciled him, despite his hostility to Communism, with the Bolshevik regime. For Brusilov the collapse of the Russian Empire rather than the downfall of the monarchy had been the real tragedy of 1917; and now that the Empire had been reconstructed, with the loss of only Poland, the Baltic lands and Finland, he could rest assured that the Russian national spirit would also be restored. 'Bolshevism will one day pass away,' the General liked to prophesy, 'and all that will be left will be the Russian people and those who remained in Russia to direct the people on the correct path.' This was the basis of his National Bolshevism — that Russian patriots like him could redirect the revolution towards national ends if sufficient numbers of them joined the Red regime to turn it White from the inside.
After the campaigns against the Poles and Wrangel, the old General was put to work in the People's Commissariat of Agriculture, where he was responsible for increasing the stock of pedigree horses for the cavalry. It was a thankless task — most of the Red so-called 'military experts' seemed to think that one could mount the cavalry on peasant cart-horses — and he was relieved to be soon transferred to the Chief Inspectorate of Cavalry, where his expertise from the elite tsarist Guards was much better employed. During the latter half of 1921 Brusilov's health began to decline sharply: his wounded leg had developed gout; he was kept awake at night with chronic bronchitis; and his modest salary was not enough to keep his small flat warm. Over the next three years he constantly petitioned to be allowed to retire — he turned seventy in 1923 — but his Soviet masters would not grant him this. It was only in 1924, when Budenny was eager to purge the cavalry of all its 'White bones', that he was finally released.
To recuperate from his growing list of ailments Brusilov and his wife Nadezhda spent the following spring in the Czech town of Karlsbad, where there was a famous sanatorium. The war hero of 1916 was welcomed by the Czechs; President Masaryk, an old friend, laid on a special dinner for him in Prague Castle and (perhaps more importantly) gave him an allowance which enabled him to overcome the shock of how expensive things had become in post-war Europe. Brusilov found it 'extremely pleasant to be once again among civilized Europeans' after the long years of civil war in Russia which had done so much to sour personal relations. Indeed the only hostility he met was from the Russian emigre community, which would not forgive him for having joined the Reds. Perhaps it was this that finally convinced him to return to Russia, despite Masaryk's presidential promise that the Czechs would adopt him as their own. The emigres, as Brusilov saw it, were the real traitors for they had placed their own class interests above those of Russia, and, even if they were to accept him, he could not bring himself to live among them. Later that summer he and his wife returned to Moscow. As Nadezhda later explained, 'he wanted to be buried in Russian soil'.5
Brusilov died quietly in his sleep on 17 March 1926. The funeral was a grand affair, which was only fitting for a national war hero. Red Army delegations lined the Moscow streets, military bands played the funeral march, and church choirs sang as his coffin was carried on the shoulders of six soldiers to the Novodechie Monastery, where he was laid to rest in the cemetery. Hundreds of veterans from the First World War came to Moscow for the funeral from as far afield as Nizhnyi Novgorod and Tver, and the main church was too small to contain all the mourners. The three Red Army chiefs, Voroshilov, Egorov and Budenny, each read an address in praise of Brusilov, although they refused to bow before the priests or to take part in the prayers. It was a strange mixture of the old and the new — Soviet emblems mixed with icons and crosses — as perhaps befits this strangely mixed-up man. Nadezhda thought that the whole thing was symbolic: 'the new Russia was burying the old'.6
Dmitry Os'kin was a son of the new Russia. He joined Brusilov's army in the First World War as an ordinary private; and yet by the time of the General's death this peasant lad was a senior figure in the Soviet military establishment. After his command of the Second Labour Army during 1920 Os'kin was given command of the Soviet Republic's Reserve Army, an important post which placed him in charge of nearly half a million men. He was held up by the regime as a shining example of a Red Commander whom it had always promised to promote from the ranks of the peasants and workers joining the Red Army in the civil war. Here was a soldier who had carried in his knapsack the baton of a general, if not of a field-marshal, and it was on the basis of this self-image as a likely peasant lad that he wrote his trilogy of military memoirs in the 1920s. Os'kin's last years are obscure. During the later 1920s he became a military bureaucrat in Moscow. He died in 1934, possibly a victim of Stalin's terror, at the tender age of forty-two.
That was certainly Kanatchikov's fate. Like Os'kin, he was a son of the new Russia whose service to the party in the civil war brought him steady promotion through the ranks. It was only fitting that this peasant-son-cum-worker whose conversion to the cause had been so bound up with his own political education should concentrate his party career in that field. In 1921, at the age of forty-two, he was appointed to the rectorship of the Communist University in Petrograd, a prestigious post which he held for the next three years. In 1924 he became the head of the Central Committee's Press Bureau; and in the next year he took over its Department of Historical Research. Not bad for a man with only four years' schooling. Kanatchikov became one of the party's leading publicists in its campaign against the Trotskyites: his History of a Deviation (1924) became the standard anti-Trotsky diatribe; and throughout the 1920s he produced a long line of similar hack works. But this did not save him from Stalin's firing squads in his war against the Old Bolsheviks. In 1926 Kanatchikov sided with the 'left opposition' of Zinoviev and Kamenev, who criticized the policies of Stalin and Bukharin on the grounds (and this was significant for Kanatchikov) that they were too soft on the peasantry. For this 'deviation' Kanatchikov was punished with a posting in Prague as a TASS correspondent. Two years later he was allowed to return to Russia after he had written a grovelling letter to the Central Committee in which he confessed his 'political mistakes'. His ardent support for collectivization — the logical conclusion of his rejection of the old peasant Russia — earned him a temporary 'rehabilitation'. In 1929 he was made the editor of the newly founded Literary Newspaper, the weekly publication of the Soviet Writers' Union. During the next few years he wrote a string of party pamphlets in support of Stalin, for which he was rewarded with a larger flat, all the usual party perks and a steady increase in his salary. But in Stalin's Russia every party member was haunted by his past and when, from the end of 1935, Stalin moved to wipe out the 'Zinovievites', Kanatchikovs star fell once again. He was arrested in 1936 and sentenced to eight years' hard labour in the Gulag. Like so many Bolshevik victims of the Great Terror, he pleaded with Stalin to intervene and grant him mercy without realizing that it was Stalin himself who had ordered his arrest. Kanatchikov had served out half his sentence by the time he died in 1940.7
Exile for Gorky was a form of torture. While he could not bear to live in Soviet Russia, nor could he bear to live abroad. For several years he wavered in this schizophrenic state, homesick for Russia yet too sick of it to return home. From Berlin, Gorky wandered restlessly through the spa towns of Germany and Czechoslovakia before settling in the Italian resort of Sorrento. 'No, I cannot go to Russia,' he wrote to Rolland in 1924. 'I feel like a person without a homeland. In Russia I would be the enemy of everything and everyone, it would be like banging my head against a brick wall.'
It was not so much the nature of the Soviet regime as its hostile policy towards the arts and its friendly policies towards the peasantry which kept him in exile during the NEP years. Although he had always opposed the rise of the Bolshevik dictatorship, he had also found a means of justifying it as a necessary antidote to the instinctive anarchism of the peasantry. Gorky was nothing if not contradictory. His rationalization of the Soviet regime became even more marked after Lenin's death, which filled him with remorse. Gorky had both loved and hated Lenin, and their relationship could not now be resolved. 'Yes, my dear friend,' Gorky wrote to Rolland, 'Lenin's death has been a very heavy blow for me. I loved him. I loved him with wrath.' Nina Berberova, who knew Gorky well during his years in Berlin and Marienbad, later wrote that Lenin's death had made him 'very tearful' and that he did not stop crying throughout the next weeks as he wrote his eulogistic Memories of him. 'Gorky was overwhelmed with repentance,' Berberova recalled. He 'reassessed his attitude to the October Revolution and the early years of Bolshevism, to the role of Lenin, to his being right and Gorky being wrong... Quite sincerely he believed that Lenin's death had left him orphaned with the whole of Russia.' Gorky's Memories of Lenin were the first step towards his reconciliation with Lenin's successors in the Kremlin. In 1926, on Dzerzhinsky's death, he even wrote in praise of the Cheka leader ('a gifted man with a sensitive heart and a strong sense of justice'). And yet he was still not ready to return to Russia. No doubt he was frightened about what he might find there. For the Russia in his mind was always much rosier than the Russia of reality, and even Gorky, despite his ability to deceive himself, must have been aware of this. Certainly, his life-long attachment to the principles of individual liberty and human dignity was still strong enough to hold him back, especially as a creative artist whose own ability to continue to write had become increasingly dependent on the freedoms and the comforts he could enjoy only in the West. His work was flourishing in Europe, with The Artamonov Business, followed by the first two volumes of The Life of Klim Samgin, his two great didactic novels, written between 1925 and 1928. Meanwhile, in Russia the Soviet regime had drawn up an index of 'counter-revolutionary' books — which included Plato, Kant, Ruskin, Nietzsche and Tolstoy — to be withdrawn from all public libraries. Gorky was outraged by this censorship and began to write a letter to the government renouncing his Soviet citizenship. But then in anger he tore the letter up: however much he might despise the Soviet regime's 'spiritual vampirism', he could not bring himself to cut his links with it.8
In the end, as with Brusilov, it was good old-fashioned Russian nationalism that persuaded Gorky to return home. For one thing, he could not abide the Russian emigres — and they could not abide him. 'To us Russians,' wrote one Paris exile in 1922, 'Gorky is one of those who are morally and politically responsible for the great calamities that the Bolshevik regime has brought to our country. Years will pass, but he will never be forgotten.'9 The more anti-Soviet the emigres became, the more Gorky reacted by aligning himself with the Soviet regime. Moreover, the rise of Fascism in his adopted homeland of Italy made Gorky reject all his earlier ideals — ideals that had formed the basis of his opposition to the Bolsheviks — about Europe as a historic force of moral progress and civilization. The more disillusioned he became with Fascist Europe the more he was inclined to extol Soviet Russia as a morally superior system. No doubt this was wishful thinking but in the context of the times it is understandable.
Gorky went back to Russia in 1928. After five summer trips he settled there for good in 1932. His return was hailed by the Soviet regime as a great victory in its propaganda war against the West. The prodigal son was showered with honours: the Order of Lenin was conferred on him; he was given Riabushinsky's house in Moscow, a masterpiece of the style moderne which he filled with treasures at the states expense; a trilogy of films was made about his life; Tverskaia Street in Moscow became Gorky Street; and his native city of Nizhnyi Novgorod was renamed Gorkii. All these honours were designed to buy Gorky's political support. The Soviet regime to which he had returned was deeply split between Stalin's supporters and the Rightists, such as Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky, who opposed Stalin's extreme policies on collectivization and industrialization. To begin with, Gorky occupied a place between the two, and this made him a valuable target for both sides. On the one hand Gorky saw Stalin's policies as the only way for Russia to escape its backward peasant past. Yet on the other he did not like Stalin as a human being (whereas he was close friends with Bukharin and Rykov) and opposed his policies on literature. Between 1928 and 1932, as far as one can tell from the sketchy sources, Gorky lent his support to Stalin while attempting to restrain his extreme policies. It was the same role that he had played with Lenin between 1917 and 1921. Gorky secured the release of many people from the labour camps, and, it seems likely, persuaded Stalin to write his famous article 'Dizzy with Success' in March 1930, in which the leader condemned the excesses of his local officials for the first murderous campaign of collectivization.10
To his former comrades, to those socialists who had made a stand against the Bolsheviks or had made a complete break with Soviet Russia, Gorky's return to Moscow seemed like a betrayal. Viktor Serge, who saw Gorky in 1930, later recalled him as a tragic figure, a once outspoken critic of the Soviet regime who had somehow allowed himself to become silenced:
What was going on inside him? We knew that he still grumbled, that he was uneasy, that his harshness had an obverse of grief and protest. We told each other: 'One of these days he'll explode!' And indeed he did, a short while before his death, finally breaking with Stalin. But all his collaborators on the Novaia zhizn' of 1917 were disappearing into jail and he said nothing. Literature was dying and he said nothing ... I happened to catch a glimpse of him in the street. Leaning back alone, in the rear seat of a big Lincoln car, he seemed remote from the street, remote from the life of Moscow, reduced to an algebraic cipher of himself. He had not aged but rather thinned and dried, his head bony and cropped inside a Turkish skull-cap, his nose and cheekbones jutting, his eye-sockets hollow like a skeleton's.
But the truth was more complex — and in this was Gorky's final tragedy. Shortly after his return in 1932 he began to think that perhaps he was mistaken to remain in Russia. He found himself increasingly opposed to the Stalinist regime — but at the same time he could not escape it. He had become a Soviet institution, everywhere he went the public adored him, and although he felt himself a prisoner of this, he would or could not run away again. For one thing, his sales in Europe had declined, and he had become financially dependent on the Soviet regime. For another, Stalin would not let him go abroad.11
During these last years of his virtual imprisonment in Soviet Russia Gorky became a thorn in Stalin's side. He objected to the Stalinist cult of the personality and, after much prevarication, finally summoned the courage to refuse a commission to write a hagiographic portrait of Stalin, as he had once done for Lenin. Reading between the lines of Gorky's public writings one can detect a growing cynicism towards the Stalinist regime — his essays against Fascism, for example, could be read as a condemnation of all types of totalitarianism, whether in Europe or the USSR — while in what remains of his private writings one cannot miss his contempt for Stalin. After Gorky's death a large oil-skin notebook was found in his belongings in which he compared Stalin to a 'monstrous flea' which 'propaganda and the hypnosis of fear have enlarged to incredible proportions'. There is evidence to suggest that by 1934 Gorky had become involved in a plot against Stalin with the two Rightists, Rykov and Bukharin, along with Yagoda, the chief of the NKVD, and Kirov, the party boss of Leningrad, who was assassinated in 1934. This would account for the murder of Gorky's son Maxim, almost certainly on Stalin's orders, since Maxim had been acting as a messenger between his father and Kirov. It may also account for Kirov's murder — also most likely on the orders of Stalin — and perhaps for the murder of Gorky himself.12
The circumstances of Gorky's death remain a mystery. His health had been in decline for several years. Along with the old problem of his lungs there was a growing list of ailments, including heart disease and chronic influenza. By 1936 it had become a race to finish his great epic The Life of Klim Samgin before he died. 'End of the novel, end of the hero, end of the author,' Gorky said in June. Shortly after, on the 17th, he went into a fever, started spitting blood and died the next day. Those who were with him in his final days testify that Gorky died a natural death. But two years later, during the show trial of March 1938, two of Gorky's doctors were found guilty of his 'medical murder' (i.e. administering fatal doses of improper medicines) on Yagoda's orders as part of the 'plot against Soviet Power' of which Bukharin and Rykov were said to be the ringleaders. Now it may well be that Stalin merely used what in fact had been the writer's natural death as a pretext to destroy his enemies. But Gorky's involvement with the opposition makes it just as likely that Stalin murdered him. Certainly, his death came at a highly convenient time for Stalin — just two months before the show trial of Zinoviev and Kamenev which Gorky had intended to expose as a lie — and we all know what the butcher in the Kremlin did with people who got in his way. Many years later it was claimed that the doctors involved in Gorky's autopsy had found traces of poison in the corpse. Ekaterina, Gorky's widow, was quite certain that her former husband had been murdered when she was asked about this in 1963; and many Russians now agree with her.13 The truth will probably never be known.
Gorky was buried with full Soviet honours, with Stalin himself leading the funeral procession. There was a march past in Red Square and the writer's ashes were placed in a niche in the Kremlin wall behind the Lenin Mausoleum. Thus Gorky became a Stalinist institution.
* * * The Russian Revolution launched a vast experiment in social engineering — perhaps the grandest in the history of mankind. It was arguably an experiment which the human race was bound to make at some point in its evolution, the logical conclusion of humanity's historic striving for social justice and comradeship. Yet born as it was of the First World War, when Europe had been brought to the brink of self-destruction, it was also one that many people believed was essential at that time. By 1918 most European socialist parties subscribed to the view that capitalism and imperial competition had been the fundamental causes of the war and that to prevent another war like it they would somehow have to be swept away. It seemed to them, in short, that the old world was doomed, and that only socialism, in the words of the Internationale, could 'make the world anew'.
The experiment went horribly wrong, not so much because of the malice of its leaders, most of whom had started out with the highest ideals, but because their ideals were themselves impossible. Some people might say that it failed because Russia in 1917 had not been advanced enough for socialism, at least not on its own without the support of the more advanced industrial societies. Thus, in their view, it was Russia's backwardness and international isolation that led it down the path of Stalinism rather than the logic of the system itself. This is no doubt in part true. None of the Bolsheviks of 1917 had expected Soviet Russia to be on its own — and even less to survive if it was. Their seizure of power in October had been predicated upon the assumption that it would provide the spark for a socialist revolution throughout Europe, and perhaps throughout the colonial world. When this revolution failed to come about, they almost inevitably felt themselves bound to adopt a strategy that, if only in the interests of defence, put industrialization before all else. And yet since the Soviet model has so often led to the same disastrous ends — despite having been applied in different local forms and in such diverse places as China, south-east Asia, eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and Cuba — one can only conclude that its fundamental problem is more to do with principles than contingencies.
The state, however big, cannot make people equal or better human beings. All it can do is to treat its citizens equally, and strive to ensure that their free activities are directed towards the general good. After a century dominated by the twin totalitarianisms of Communism and Fascism, one can only hope that this lesson has been learned. As we enter the twenty-first century we must try to strengthen our democracy, both as a source of freedom and of social justice, lest the disadvantaged and the disillusioned reject it again. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that the emerging civil societies of the former Soviet bloc will seek to emulate the democratic model. This is no time for the sort of liberal-democratic triumphalism with which the collapse of the Soviet Union was met in many quarters in the West. Reformed (and not-so-reformed) Communists may be expected to do well electorally — and may even be voted back into power — as long as the mass of the ordinary people remain alienated from the political system and feel themselves excluded from the benefits of the emergent capitalism. Perhaps even more worrying, authoritarian nationalism has begun to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Communism, and in a way has reinvented it, not just in the sense that today's nationalists are, for the most part, reformed Communists, but also in the sense that their violent rhetoric, with its calls for discipline and order, its angry condemnation of the inequalities produced by the growth of capitalism, and its xenophobic rejection of the West, is itself adapted from the Bolshevik tradition.
The ghosts of 1917 have not been laid to rest.