Every now and again a book appears which, despite its pervasive deficiencies, is destined to become a minor classic simply because it epitomizes the delusions of an epoch. Such, for example, were the bogus Sir John Mandeville’s Travels, a compendium of medieval credulity about men who walked on their heads or had eyes in their stomachs. Such, also, were the works of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who proved to their own satisfaction––and to that of a generation of drooling fellow travelers––that Churchill and Roosevelt were dictators while Stalin was not, and that the U.S.S.R was “the most inclusive and equalized democracy in the world.” Soviet Power continues this lunatic tradition by doing for the decade of detente what the Webbs did for the age of Djugashvili; never did the birds of Aristophanes build a cloud-cuckoo-city half so wondrous as the U.S.S.R. as described by Guardian correspondent Jonathan Steele. For example, we find the Soviet leaders, undisputed masters of one-sixth of the earth’s surface, whose guns, tanks, planes, and ships reflect the greatest military build-up in human history, presented by Steele as a group of humble political scholars whose “primary priority” is nothing more sinister than to gain Western “respect.” Steele senses that the goal he attributes to the Bolsheviks may seem to Westerners to I be “an odd desire,” but that’s simply because we fail to understand the heartwarming nobility of the Soviet leaders. Nor do we sufficiently grasp the U.S.S.R’s “sense of being encircled”; after all, the Bolsheviks have to worry about such potentially overwhelming military opponents as Japan (Steele seems to have forgotten Nikita Khrushchev’s remark, made a quarter-century ago, to the effect that the notion of “capitalist encirclement” was obsolescent because it was no longer clear “who encircles whom”). Moscow’s “mood,” Steele alleges, reflects “a deep Russian yearning for respect, understanding, and peace.”
It is fortunate that the Bolsheviks are so modest in their ambitions and so statesmanlike in their behavior, for otherwise, according to Steele, they might overreact to the provocations of the pathological thugs who repeatedly come to power in the United States and who torpedoed detente because they “found the psychological and political burden of giving up nuclear superiority and accepting parity hard to bear.” Because of American ignorance and malice, moreover, the long-suffering Bolsheviks have had to face unprovoked “economic warfare” and “fifty years of boycotts, pressure, isolation and con tempt.” In response, the most the U.S.S.R. can be taxed with is its attempt to “save” the Afghan “revolution” when the Marxist government of that country was overly hasty and “excessively sweeping” in instituting “reforms.”
From the foregoing it can be seen that as a compiler and promoter of false hoods Steele has few equals this side of Bulgaria, and there is little point in trying even to summarize them all; his description of the nuclear arms race is typical. According to Steele: (1) the United States start d the nuclear arms race; (2) the U.S.S.R. “still feels, as it has always done, that it is behind the Americans”; (3) the Bolsheviks do not believe in nuclear blackmail (“There is no case of Moscow using nuclear pressure on a nonnuclear state”). Each of these assertions is incorrect.
First, far from starting the nuclear arms race, the United States in fact attempted, through the Baruch Plan for United Nations control of nuclear energy, to restrain atomic rivalries, only to have its overtures contemptuously dismissed by Stalin. And it is difficult to conceive how Steele can assert that the Bolsheviks have always considered themselves “behind the Americans,” since his contention was squarely rebutted at least 20 years ago in Marshall V. D. Sokolovsky’s authoritative book, Military Strategy (a work that Steele cites only when it suits his rhetorical purposes). Here is the learned marshal] modestly acknowledging Soviet inferiority in nuclear weaponry (2d Russian ed., Moscow, 1963):
Considering the fact that hydrogen weaponry was developed in the Soviet Union earlier than in the U.S.A. and, most important, that the United States does not have available the ultrapowerful thermonuclear charges of tens of millions of tons which are in the possession of the U.S.S.R., we consider our superiority in nuclear weaponry over the Western bloc to be indisputable.
The Bolsheviks have stopped trumpeting their superiority, of course, simply because they have found that it inspires American efforts to catch up.
Steele’s third proposition, that the Soviet Union has never threatened a nonnuclear power with nuclear weapons, is directly contradicted not just by 30 years of Soviet bluster (who can forget Khrushchev’s ostentatious testing of monster nuclear warheads many times more destructive than anything in the American arsenal?), but also by the U.S.S.R.’s recent attempt to intimidate Belgium, Holland, West Germany, and Italy. Anyone looking for Soviet nuclear blackmail against nonnuclear countries, in fact, need go no further than Kommunist (December 1983).
The Soviet leadership calls upon the leaders of… the Western European countries to once again weigh all the consequences which threaten their own peoples and all mankind as a result of the realization of plans to deploy new American rockets in Europe. (Emphasis added.)
Since it is obvious that the Soviet leadership is not tailing attention to the “consequences” of an American missile dropping from its launching pad onto a Dutchman’s foot, Steele’s assertions become hard to explain as merely the result of honest ignorance.
Steele’s brief excursions into Soviet domestic affairs are even more embarrassing; his foreign policy analysis coincides only with that of Pravda. Steele gushes, for example, about the ability of the Soviet peasant “to migrate easily into an urban job,” despite the fact that the U.S.S.R.’s internal passport system and its requirement for urban residency permits make a mockery of “individual social mobility” (Steele’s term). And his further allegation that “the educational system is egalitarian enough to allow young people to advance financially and socially to a level that was not open to their parents” is a bitter joke; in fact, the Soviet educational system is becoming not so much egalitarian as hereditary. If Steele had bothered to glance at the cover of Krokodil (July 1983), for example, he would have seen a cartoon depicting a six-member panel interviewing an applicant to an institution of higher education; the chairman, leaning forward, directs a question to the sloppily dressed candidate who is lounging in his seat with his hands in his pockets:
“Young man, why exactly did you choose our institution?”
To which the candidate replies:
“Dad, don’t ask silly questions.”
The father’s question is almost Socratic compared to Steele’s book, while both are topped by the nameless drudge at Simon & Schuster who describes Soviet Power as “brilliant” on the dustcover. Steele will be brilliant when, as Khrushchev used to say, shrimps learn to whistle.
The Soviet Union Today, by contrast, contains a valuable collection of articles on various aspects of the Soviet Union, from geography to culture, by 26 experts in their respective fields. Although the authors do not always agree with each other, the net effect of the book is to provide a superb foundation for further study of the U.S.S.R.
It is worth noting that one of the reasons for the book’s value is its relatively heavy reliance on emigre authors. Normally, emigres are ignored by Western Sovietologists as a result of professional jealousy (the emigres possess firsthand experience which Western “experts” simply do not have), political pique (the emigres are virtually unanimous in opposing the fashionable myth of Soviet “moderation,” and are therefore summarily dismissed as “biased” or “embittered”), and fear (American institutions featuring emigres too prominently may find themselves deprived by the Soviets of the opportunity to engage in “cultural exchanges” and other academic boondoggles). The result is a squandering of priceless intellectual resources that is little short of criminal; if the Western democracies had taken the same attitude toward refugees from Hitler, their scientific progress would have lagged fatally behind that of their enemies. To the credit of its publisher and its editor, The Soviet Union Today avoids this pitfall which results in a compendium of useful information.
American scientists, for instance, find Soviet technical journals hard to read (“It is clear … that an interesting result has been obtained-but not how or why; all the intermediate equations have been left out”). What is the explanation? Although “analysts” like Steele would no doubt babble repeatedly about compulsions for secrecy embedded in the Slavic soul, the true explanation is set forth in The Soviet Union Today by an emigre scientist:
This happens owing to an acute shortage of paper in the Soviet Union, and leading scientific publications impose strict limits on the length of their articles. The Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, for example, requires that submitted papers be no longer than 15 typed pages. It specifies that the account of the experiment must be very concise and that descriptions of intermediate calculations or other details may be omitted. Hence the difficulty in reading such articles.
The true explanation, incidentally, is far more significant for understanding the Soviet system than mystical appeals to Russian psychology. The U.S.S.R. has more extensive forests than any other country in the world; it is the socialist system that denies adequate paper to its leading scientific journals. In the words of an old Soviet joke:
What would happen if the U.S.S.R. seized the Sahara desert?
For ten years, nothing; then there woul4 be a shortage of sand.
The two books, in short, exemplify the best and the worst in Western popular analysis of the Soviet Union.