ZOiS Spotlight 6/2018

Unloved Soviet reformers and the Russian longing for stability

by Jochen Krüger 21/02/2018
Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev: Today, strong leaders like Putin and Brezhnev are more popular in Russia than those eager for reform. Vincent Mundy

It was 25 February 1956, the last day of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Delegates had already sat through 11 days of audit reports and the customary speeches by party leaders. What was so unusual about this 20th Congress from the outset, though, was that it was the first to be held after Stalin’s death. And then without further explanation, another session, with a final speech by First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, was called. At the closed session, attended by 1,436 party members and several hundred international guests from other communist parties, the First Secretary denounced Stalin’s crimes – his purges, his colossal errors as wartime commander of the armed forces and his despotism. Unusually, the text of the speech was not subsequently published in Pravda, nor did it appear in the Congress minutes, which simply reprinted the title (“On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”).[1]

Just five days after the Congress, however, Khrushchev decreed that all party members down to the smallest party cell should read and discuss the text of the speech, thus ensuring that it would not remain “secret” for long. More than 10 million party members acquainted themselves with its content, ruminated on its significance and shared it with the rest of society. This had consequences unforeseen by the collective leadership in the Kremlin. The cult of personality surrounding Stalin was discussed at length across the country, and as the reports to the Politburo show, the public astutely recognised that it was the system itself which had made Stalinism possible in the first place. Protests in the Soviet Union itself remained localised but in summer 1956, unrest erupted in the Polish city of Poznań and quickly spread to the rest of the country before being violently suppressed by the Polish army. And in autumn 1956, Hungarian resistance began in Budapest and soon flared up nationwide; it took an invasion of Soviet troops to quell the uprising.

Memories of unloved reformers

None of this was intended. Khrushchev saw that everbrey sector of the state needed an overhaul; during his time in office, he made countless attempts to initiate reform, coming up with new ideas for agriculture, industry and the party itself. But very few of these initiatives proved sustainable, and, partly as a consequence, Khrushchev himself was ousted from office in 1964. A quarter century later, Mikhail Gorbachev suffered a similar fate. He too recognised that the Soviet Union could not maintain the status quo – the state of the economy was too desolate, the party apparatus too cumbersome and international pressure about to become too intense for that. By the time his restructuring programme ended, the state that he was attempting to reform had vanished. And yet the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the last thing on Gorbachev’s mind: just like Khrushchev, he was a firm believer in socialism and its fundamental superiority as a system. Both men were convinced that all that was needed was the right kind of reform, with new and courageous policies to get the country on track, driven along by fresh young talent unshackled by the dead weight of the nomenklatura. Ultimately, both of them failed.

This may be one of the main reasons why there are few fond memories of these two leaders in Russia today. According to the popular perception, they made a high-stakes gamble with the fate of the greatest nation on Earth. Memories of the “Thaw” – for which Khrushchev was to some extent responsible – are overshadowed by nostalgia for the stability, reliable supply of goods and relative prosperity achieved under his successor Leonid Brezhnev. Khrushchev himself is embedded in the collective memory as the idiot peasant who drove the world to the brink of nuclear war. And now the painful recollection of his casual gift of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic simply makes matters worse. And as for Gorbachev, he triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union, which at least half the Russian population believes could have been avoided (December 2017).

Stability and social welfare

After the Soviet Union’s implosion at the political level, there followed hard years of economic decline and, in some republics, civil war. Social welfare disintegrated, and there was also the agonising loss of the country’s status as a world power. Of the end of history – a dominant theme in the Western discourse at the time – there was no sign. It was this unique blend of decline, loss of collective identity and social insecurity that expedited the rise of Vladimir Putin. Like Brezhnev, he was able to rely on a network of patronage and clientelism: purportedly the enemy of the hated oligarchy, he created new oligarchs of his own. Even so, Putin tops the table of Russia’s most popular leaders in recent history, unchallenged and ahead of Brezhnev, Stalin and Lenin, while Khrushchev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin languish at the bottom (February 2017). Far from signifying that Russians have a preference for the stereotypical “strongman” type of leader, this has to do with the fact that Putin (like Brezhnev) stands for stability and order – values which the majority clearly favour over classical Western notions of democracy and liberalism. Whether these values are genuinely applied in daily life doesn’t matter too much; what is important is the absence of any politically motivated radical erosion of the social contract. Most Russians have had their fill of adventurist reforms and ground-breaking programmes. The crimes committed under Stalin, too, which Khrushchev made some attempt to bring to light (although without mentioning his own involvement, naturally), are now regarded by more than 70 per cent of the population as a necessary evil and by 26 per cent as justified (June 2016). The victory in the Great Patriotic War and Stalin’s role in that triumph – the subject of massive popular misconceptions – continue to eclipse the shadows of the past.

[1] XX s''ezd kommunisticheskoy partii Sovetskogo Soyuza, 14-25 fevralya 1956 goda. Stenograficheskiy otchet. Tom II, Moskva 1956, p. 498.

Jochen Krüger is working on his PhD at Humboldt University in Berlin (Chair for the History of Eastern Europe) and is currently a research volunteer at Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial.