Russian-soviet History: the March Backwards

The new book of Françoise Thom, La marche à rebours. Regards sur l’histoire soviétique et russe, Sorbonne université presses, 2021, is a sum in which the author reassesses Russian and Soviet history in light of the numerous discoveries that the opening of many archives and the emergence of many testimonies has made possible since 1991.

The march backwards: backwards from the usual development of the Western countries, and backwards from what the rest of the world believed would be the future development of Russia, then of the USSR, then again of Russia, at each of their great historical phases. “Thermidor after the Terror”, “Stalin returns to Russian patriotism”, “Détente means the abandonment of revolutionary expansionism” and marks “convergence with the West”, “Gorbachev is a social democrat”, “Yeltsin is a liberal”, “Putin is putting things in order, he is a realist”: all these hasty assessments stemmed from the desire to fit Russian-Soviet history into the usual patterns and categories of Western development. It was an interpretation by analogy of a heterogeneous system.

This highly particular Ideology-State can be better and better understood, as well as its international policy, in their very specific logic. But to do so one needs to wade in the unfamiliar. This effort is all the more difficult because Russia and then the USSR have always studied the West and have often been inspired by it, and they have influenced the evolution of the West: Russia is not located in another galaxy. But this reality only makes it more difficult to understand the Russian phenomenon: one must step through the looking glass. It is all the more difficult because the Russian production of ideological worldviews per capita is very high: slavophilia, occidentalism, Eurasism, Marxism-Leninism (a good example: it is Marxism, but sui generis!), all of this turns and resurfaces regularly.

Françoise Thom analyzes and at the same time organizes all this, it is an account of all the essential stages, and at the same time she offers a method of analysis. A demonstration served by a tight and vigorous style, even ferocious, which enlightens the reader (thus, if the Soviet demography of the 30’s begins to collapse because of the collectivization of the land and its consequences, the situation suddenly improves, because Stalin has shot the demographers. “Liquidate the man, there is no problem anymore,” he used to say).

But after 1991 the fall of Soviet communism did not lead to the expected and hoped-for results: Russia has not joined the liberal world, but is still pursuing a particular path. The author insists on the reactivation of historical tendencies and political and cultural reflexes that were thought to have been suppressed by the 1917 revolution, but which in fact have reappeared.

This evocation of the weight and viscosity of History, shows that, in one way or another, the USSR, but already before it Russia, had always posed problems to the West (starting with problems of understanding) and that it still does.

The book thus corrects a frequent, excessively ideological explanation of the Soviet phenomenon: other factors also played a role, and they have not, according to Françoise Thom, disappeared. It is therefore necessary to make a spectral analysis of the phenomenon, on several levels.

This allows us to identify continuities and structures. First of all, a method of taking power and control developed during the Civil War and tested for the first time outside the limits of Russia in the Caucasus, a method involving the Party, the security services and the Red Army and using all the means to split the adversaries and to misinform the outside world. This “professional” method, allowing the enlargement of the initial territory by progressive agglutination, was the matrix, the author brilliantly demonstrates, in a way homothetic, for Eastern Europe after 1945 and for other regions of the world during the Cold War. The first failure (Poland in 1920) demonstrated this a contrario: the Poles had not allowed themselves to be divided and manipulated. I would add that their French allies, during Millerand’s brief stint as President of the Council, who had been well informed by his advisors, who had known Russia in revolution and had understood the Bolshevik methods, had firmly supported them, including by sending a military mission.

The same spectral analysis for domestic politics — if one can speak of domestic politics in a system and even a tradition that separates domestic and foreign politics even less than states usually do, beyond the convenience of discourse. A permanent characteristic: everything has always come from the center, there are no checks and balances, no territorial nobility, no cities with their franchises, no independent bodies. The historical evolution in this respect has always been very different from that of Western Europe. Was this due to the absence of clear natural boundaries within the country, and to the trauma of the invasions? This was on the whole the thesis of Oswald Spengler in his Decline of the West to explain the Russian specificity; he did it more or less skillfully, but he put his finger on a problem that his contemporaries hardly saw. It is true that they did not fully understand the limits of the Russian intelligentsia before 1914, which in fact did not bring Russia closer to Europe but rather opened the way for the Bolshevik revolution (this is chapter 3, “About Vekhi (Milestones)”, in my opinion one of the most innovative chapters of the collection).

But Stalin pushed centralism to its furthest limits, in a mixture of ideological eschatology, brutal realism and maniacal thoroughness that was peculiar, and not only inhuman, but counterproductive from the point of view of his own interest. He attaches the greatest importance to intelligence, but only wants to receive raw documents, without analysis or commentary. However, Françoise Thom clearly shows the danger of this method, which prevents the documents from being put into perspective. This led him to many errors of appreciation, concerning Hitler and, one might add, at the beginning of the Cold War or in the Korean affair. Similarly, the dekulakization in Ukraine and the great purges, two self-perpetuating processes of destruction, were carried out in a monstrous way, in a paranoid delirium that no longer corresponded to any logic, even within the communist system.

Certainly, all this was covered up for many by the victory of 1945. It is finally what remains of Stalinism, the unifying and justifying myth. Hence the importance of the commemoration of 1941-1945 today and the issue of the control of the historiography of the “Great Patriotic War” by the Putin government. This is one of the factors that best illustrates the author’s thesis: despite appearances, there is continuity from 1917 to the present.

This continuity also exists for foreign policy, and first of all for an essential point of passage between Russian-Soviet domestic and foreign policy: the national question. From Lenin to Putin, the small nations were not recognized as such: they only existed under the leadership of the “brotherly” Russian people, and the small nationalities were merely folklore. (It should be noted that this is exactly the French conception since the 19th century, that of the “great nationalities”, which are intended to bring together the small related nations. Thus, for Paris, quite naturally, the Serbs will take the lead from the other Yugoslavs, the Czechs will show the way to the Slovaks – and likewise for the Russians in their imperial space. This is one of the fundamental reasons for the pro-Russian inclination of French politics, from the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1892 to François Mitterrand.)

It is very remarkable to see how Bolshevik diplomacy establishes from the beginning its categories and its methods. It will not change any more, whatever the phases of hardening or of “détente”. The continuity is total. After Stalin’s death, the leaders proclaimed their willingness to establish “business relations” with Western countries. But this is a Stalinist expression, which had accompanied the policy of the 1930s (entry into the League of Nations, non-aggression pacts, alliance with France in 1935, then, in the wake, the German-Soviet pact). The “business” relations with non-communist states were purely realistic, concerned limited aspects,and did not commit the future. And the “New Thought” and Gorbachev’s “Common European House” are not fundamentally anything else: as in 1939 or 1953, they correspond to a moment of weakness of the USSR. But they are always maneuvers: against Hitler in 1935, against the Franco-English in 1939, against the Americans in 1953 and 1985. They were never projects with a lasting vocation, based on deep convergences, like the Atlantic Pact or the European Union.

On the other hand, many international methods correspond exactly to internal procedures: propaganda or rather agitprop, systematic division of opponents, “salami” tactics to get the social-democratic rival to constantly purge itself of its “right” wing. The International Communist Movement. An Essay on Strategy and Tactics, such was the title of a seminal treatise by Vadim Zagladin, deputy director of the International Department of the Central Committee, in 1974. The word strategy is important: Stalin and his successors think not only ideologically, but also strategically. Françoise Thom underlines and confirms in the light of the archives the strategy of exploitation of the internal contradictions of capitalism: it is necessary to let the Western countries devour each other in a world war, declares Stalin since the 30’s, the USSR will intervene at its time and will extend communism on the ruins of the bourgeois Europe.

There ideology and strategy converge. But Stalin (as well as his successors) are also able to implement strategy in a more classical sense. In 1939, Paris and London proposed to Stalin to enter the war quickly, without promising him any advantage in exchange. Hitler offered him not to enter the war, in exchange for half of Eastern Europe. As the Vojd was convinced that the West was ready to come to an agreement with the Reich, as they had done in Munich, the choice was not difficult…

And besides, he was right to fear it, as we now know. Many leaders in London and Paris would have been delighted to see Hitler and Stalin settle their accounts, without entering into the conflict themselves. In Great Britain, the ambiguity was only lifted in May-June 1940, when George VI chose Churchill as Prime Minister, and not Halifax, and then when Churchill succeeded in taking control of a cabinet and parliament that were initially very hesitant and many of whose members were willing to conclude the peace. In France, as early as March 1940, the entourage of Paul Reynaud, who had succeeded Daladier, was not far from thinking that the USSR was more dangerous than the Reich, as was Baudouin, who was to become the head of the Foreign Affairs Department in the Vichy government, and many shared this point of view in the political and intellectual world. Anti-Bolshevism will be an essential motivation for the Collaboration.

This can also be seen in the aftermath of the attack on Finland in October 1939 and the Franco-British reactions against Moscow, an episode that the author describes with great precision and new indications, including the Allied plans for the bombing of Baku or the uprising of the Caucasian nationalities. In fact, many of the Allies thought that the Reich could be weakened indirectly in this way, but that the destruction of the USSR was a more urgent war goal. With the benefit of hindsight, these plans inspire the greatest scepticism, I would add, because the British air force only acquired the technical capabilities necessary for bombing raids of this kind in 1942, or even 1943. As for the nationalities, we see the comeback of has-beens from the 1918-1919, whose bitter failure, at a time more favorable for the nationalities of the fallen empires, does not encourage us to believe that they would have won in 1940…

In addition, the Allied projects could push Stalin even more into the arms of Hitler. And on the other hand, geographically and by its experience of 1914-1919, Berlin was much better placed than the Allies to possibly benefit from the liberation of the Soviet nationalities. In other words, one might ask whether the Allied plans for the winter of 1939-1940 would not have made their situation even worse.

Of course, it would have been much better, including for the USSR, if Stalin had not signed the German-Soviet Pact, despite its apparent ideological and strategic logic. Indeed, by signing this one, he allowed Hitler to seize continental Western Europe: the quick defeat of France was a very bad surprise, which threw Stalin into a rage, Françoise Thom gives us striking testimonies. Hitler had better analyzed, thanks to his anti-bourgeois ideological software, the deep weaknesses of France than Stalin, who did not push enough a Marxist analysis of the internal contradictions of the French society, whereas he had seen with perspicacity the possibilities of an anti-Soviet Franco-German collaboration that the situation concealed.

But a united continental Europe, directed from Berlin and anti-Bolshevik, was conceivable in the circumstances and the state of mind of the time, with the resigned assent of the defeated of 1940, conscious as Europeans were of the failure of the peace of 1919 and of the liberal economy in 1929. Hitler’s greatest mistake, dictated by his ideology of Lebensraum, was to attack the USSR in June 1941. He certainly feared that Stalin would attack him: but in this case the Reich would have had Europe on its side, so prevalent was anti-communism at the time.

Hitler thus legitimized the Soviet regime by confusing it with Russia: while his diplomats and soldiers advised him to bring down communism but to rely on the Russian nationalities and peasantry liberated from Bolshevism, he attacked the Russians and the Slavs as such. The Generalplan Ost planned to colonize the land up to the Urals, 30 million Poles and Russians were to be liquidated, the rest were to be used as slave labor. As Khrushchev repeated: “Hitler did not attack us only as Communists, but also as Slavs”.

The USSR won the war, 80% of the German soldiers killed were killed by the Red Army. No one would have contested its essential place in Europe after 1945, not even in Eastern Europe, if Moscow had not used the same methods as those of wartime communism to establish a total and paranoid domination, in a useless way, because if Bolshevism was not considered legitimate in the Russia of 1918, it was in the Europe of 1945. It is this phenomenon that the spectral analysis presented here allows us to better understand.

This perception of the USSR at war has not disappeared in the West today, quite the contrary. The more one insists on the uniqueness of Hitler’s crimes, the more one reinforces it. Historians can say what they want about Stalin’s USSR, they will not be followed by public opinion, and in my view Putin is wrong to want to control the memory of the Second World War by his courts, it would be enough to gently reactivate, by a few well-designed films, documentaries and commemorative ceremonies, a vaguely pro-Russian feeling that the memory of the Second World War still evokes everywhere today.

From there, the chapters devoted to the gradual collapse of the regime, both internally and internationally, are scalpel-sharp. I will summarize them by saying that while Marxism-Leninism is not a bad instrument for taking power, it is hardly suitable for exercising it. There was no real Soviet State, but a Party: when this one was disintegrated and divided, there was nothing left to hold the USSR together and it collapsed, suppressed by Yeltsin because it was the best way for him to get rid of Gorbachev (“Liquidate the problem, there is no more man”, he could have said). It is a very uneconomic way to solve a problem of succession at the top…

The same applies to relations with the popular democracies: Khrushchev in Hungary in 1956, Brezhnev in Czechoslovakia in 1968 or in Poland in 1980, are still trying to reason, to calculate, certainly within an inconvenient partocratic framework. Gorbachev behaved incredibly rashly in 1989, displaying a staggering optimism. This unsurpassable narrative, however, in my opinion, underestimates the role of the West, which did much, including the Federal Republic, to push for change in the East from the 1980s onwards.

Another unsurpassable narrative is that of the post-communist period. The driving forces of Putinism are brought to light! They are shown in a historical continuity, throughout which the author has led us by the hand from the beginning… One may find however (always my concern to think strategically) that, if of course one would have preferred another way for Russia, which would have served it better in the long term, Putin’s failure is all but assured. He has reintroduced Russia to the Middle East, from the Caucasus to the Ukraine, nothing will happen without Moscow’s agreement (the project of Ukraine’s entry into NATO and the EU, which was mentioned in 2008 and 2013, is no longer on the table). And if in 1989 the West had emerged from the crises of decolonization and the oil crisis, sure of its values, and Europe had found a new momentum since 1985, and constituted poles of attraction for the peoples of the East, it is clear that the current Western situation (I will limit myself to mentioning wokism, racialization, ecological madness, the persistent dysfunction of American democracy…) should not inspire great concern in Moscow…

But one of the main weaknesses of Putinism, as Françoise Thom rightly notes, is its ambiguous relationship with China. On the one hand, since 2011 and the Libyan crisis, Putin relies more and more on China to “resist American unilateralism”, on the other hand, Beijing is taking more and more the political and economic ascendancy in this relationship. This should be the first subject of reflection for Westerners in the current period… But of a reflection enlightened by history, and supported by the experience and analyses presented in this essential book.

Historian, Professor Emeritus at the Sorbonne, member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, and President of the Institute of Comparative Strategy. His research areas focus on international relations in the 20th century, particularly on World War I and East-West relations after 1945. His recent works include La Guerre froide de la France, 1941-1990 (The Cold War of France, 1941-1990) published by Tallandier in 2018, and La Grande Illusion. Quand la France perdait la paix, 1914-1920 (The Great Illusion: When France Lost the Peace, 1914-1920) published by Tallandier in 2015.

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