I agree with Professor W. Bruce Lincoln (“The Burden of Russian History,” March 1994) that Russia’s economic and political system is prone to break society into two parts: “them,” those responsible for making decisions and managing the country, and “us,” the simple people deadly indifferent to everything that doesn’t touch them immediately—i.e., high politics. I also agree that the current system can be traced to its roots in serfdom and the “feeding system.” But this is just the tip of the iceberg. This “feeding system” has a much deeper structure than many historians realize.

First, we can think of this system as a hierarchical structure with a czar on the top and the people on the bottom, with many “governing in the czar’s name.” But the trick of keeping hierarchical systems working is not simply in increasing the number of levels. Those at the top must force the people at the bottom to govern themselves. Of course, I do not mean in the Western sense of self-government and democracy. The key words in our case are krugovaya poruka—a kind of common responsibility when people are linked together by the obligation to produce a certain amount of something (money, labor, units of goods, recruits, etc.). If one or a few fail, everybody will be punished.

So let’s assume you belong to a group in which all people are tied together by these links, such as a Soviet military division (which is a fairly good model of a totalitarian system). In this case, you know that if for any reason (moral, political, economic, religious, or health-related) you refuse to do what you are told, everyone will immediately suffer. Moreover, everybody knows that you know this, and you know that everybody knows that you know . . . and so on. The game is to follow the general line. You wouldn’t say, “I don’t want to do this or that because it is against my principles.” First, you wouldn’t want to say this because you probably don’t want to be beaten up by the group. Second, whatever your principles are, one of them may be something like “not to cause other people trouble and suffering,” and you know that your refusal will cause “innocent” people to suffer. That is how it works.

Also important is the role of informal leaders. These people are the mediators between “us” and “them.” They are not legitimate bosses approved and sent from the top of the system. They are of the same flesh and bones as “us.” They speak our language. They don’t use official nonsense like “according to the latest decisions of the Party, we must. . . .” They understand our needs and the tricks we use to fool our bosses. It is these mediators who actually make the whole system work. Some of them may become formal leaders in time (if they succeed), meaning “they” can be divided into “us-like” and “alien-like.” I remember from my own experience in the Soviet Army that all of the officers were divided by “us” into two groups. The first group included those who were closer to the soldiers, spoke their language, and had a sort of informal power to force everybody to conform (although they could use formal power as well). Officers of this kind had the same way of thinking as the soldiers—somewhat primitive but fairly natural. Officers who fell into the second group relied more on the approved regulations and were more likely to use communist and Soviet demagogy like “in these days of perestroika you must take more care of your belongings and whatever you store in your bedside table. . . . “

Soldiers preferred and were more likely to obey officers of the first group than of the second, but both types of officers (nonideologists and ideologists alike) were truly servants of the totalitarian system, neither could stomach the slightest idea of democracy (the former were even stronger enemies of democracy than the latter), and both were very serious and proud about what they were doing. In my case, it was building a railway on the steppes of northern Kazakhstan (of course without pay) like the serfs did in the 19th century. How little has changed since those times.

The moral is that both “we” and “they” were necessary elements of the totalitarian system. Totalitarian ideology was spread over all Soviet people, and we can speak about “bearers of totalitarian ideology” the same way we speak about “bearers of native language.” So, “we” were truly absorbed in and participated in governing ourselves, rather than opposing “them.” Of course, life was not the paradise described by communist propaganda. But maybe the above helps explain why people newly liberated from totalitarian systems are not likely to accept democratic principles like “the right to have multiple choices” and so on.

Also, we shouldn’t think of pilfering as the main reason for scarcity in the former U.S.S.R. As many researchers show (especially Hungarian economist Janos Kornai), deficit is an intrinsic aspect of socialism, one that necessarily leads to the exhaustion of all its resources. But the Soviet people didn’t realize this fact. They were told that individual persons were responsible for deficits and shortcomings in our economy. Nevertheless, some people played with the idea that a more general reason for scarcity might exist. Those who did this seriously and in written form, called dissidents, were of special interest to the KGB, who tried to separate them from other honest citizens. Those who questioned scarcity in humorous ways were considered fairly innocent, and they actually were.

The function of humor was mainly to let off steam (like carnivals did in the Middle Ages). It would be misleading to think that people “cynically” laughed at the whole socialist system’s inability to build a sound economy, taking this system as something created by “them” and therefore looking at the system “from the outside.” No, people were laughing at themselves, both “us” and “them,” both government and the people. People would have looked suspiciously at anyone who laughed at their country from the “outside” like a foreigner, like an alien who didn’t want to live with them and share their problems. Moreover, people would have felt a kind of religious fear and disgrace if somebody told them seriously why and how socialism necessarily leads to scarcity. And people would probably have beaten up anyone who attempted to say something like “Stalin’s regime was just the same as Hitler’s—both were totalitarian ones.”

Yes, people told anecdotes about Brezhnev’s ignorance of a word in his own speech at the Party Forum, but when they read in a newspaper about figure skaters who didn’t want to return home from a contest abroad, everyone felt disgraced and astonished. When chessmaster Viktor Korchnoi chose to stay abroad after his championship contest with Anatoly Karpov, he was treated as a betrayer in the Soviet press. Karpov got the Order of Lenin for his two successive victories over the “enemy,” and this government attitude in some way reflected what simple people thought was good and fair. Children wondered what a nightmare it would be if they were born in another country. It was so natural to live in the best country in the world! “We” in the mouth of a Soviet meant something more than just a pronoun. It meant a kind of mutual involvement in something that was sometimes silly, sometimes great, sometimes strange, but always something you could not and did not want to eliminate.

        —Ilya Lipkovich
Almaty, Kazakhstan

There was a Soviet-era joke about three men who all worked at the same factory and were arrested by the KGB on the same day. The first man had arrived early for work: he was arrested for espionage. The second was arrested for sabotage: he was late that day. The third man was on time for his job, but he too was arrested; the charge was anti-Soviet propaganda: he was wearing a Swiss watch. Though Professor Lincoln points out that the pre-revolutionary czarist regime had embarked on a course of reform, and that the Soviet regime installed a massive party apparatus and discouraged or persecuted the best and brightest Soviet citizens, I detect the seed of what one may call the Pipes (Harvard’s Professor Richard Pipes) argument in Professor Lincoln’s article: that is, that the Bolshevik regime was merely the czarist regime writ large. The point of the joke is that something far more sinister was at work during the Soviet era than Russian paranoia on steroids. The communist regime is a part of Russian history, but it was not a product of Russian culture.

In contrast to the Pipes argument, one may consider the Solzhenitsyn line: the Soviet regime represented a sharp break with the Russian past, not a continuation of it in party-dictatorship form. Soviet repression was so monstrous by comparison with that of the czars that the evidence suggests a regime that was not only different in the quality and quantity of its crimes, but different in kind. The horrors of the Soviet era are only now beginning to be fully revealed. Mass graves are constantly being uncovered, and the scale of the communist experiment far surpassed Hitler’s efforts to revamp Europe. More than 20 million. This is the low end of estimates that range upward to more than 60 million. In his 1990 book Lethal Politics, R.J. Rummel of the United States Institute of Peace surveys the Soviet record of mass murder and gives a figure of 61,911,000 victims of “Utopia in power.” He quotes Lenin on the Bolshevik policy of terror. “When we are reproached with cruelty,” says the father of the Soviet Union, “we wonder how people can forget the most elementary Marxism.” The Soviet regime, like every other spawn of the god of progress, was a materialist one, the product of a secular ideology whose author was a lonely German Jew working in the belly of Victorian London. Of course, czarist-era attitudes and practices persisted in one form or another during the Soviet era, since no people can completely shed the skin of their old selves, but when anyone discusses the shambles that is postcommunist Russia, particularly the moral vacuum that the communists left behind, surely we must take into consideration the warping of the human soul that took place under a regime which murdered its own people with such zeal and which declared God dead and Man’s Ideology ascendant. No wonder the Russians appear so helpless, so incompetent, and so incapable of taking charge of their own lives. The Soviet regime’s terrorism and brain-numbing propaganda not only persecuted the best and the brightest, but through a sort of natural (for totalitarian regimes) selection, they came close to producing the New Soviet Man automaton Lenin and Stalin dreamed of. This is one “burden” that Mr. Lincoln did not emphasize in his article. If we accept the Pipes argument without reservation, then how is one to explain the Cultural Revolution in China, the “Bamboo Gulag” of Vietnam, or the killing fields of Cambodia?

Professor Lincoln appears to accept uncritically the notion that a system based on the “lawful use of power” necessarily means liberal democracy and that Russian, as opposed to Soviet, history only brings “burdens,” that is, roadblocks to freedom. Russian critics of “progress” and Western materialism, taking into account the rich heritage of Western thought and hoping to avoid the tyranny that has so afflicted their nation, have hit upon something that is almost forgotten in Europe and America: the rule of law means nothing without

the acceptance of God. Without God, positive law—ever changing, always relative —carries the day. They recognize that without God all things are possible and see not only the Soviet Union but the contemporary West as telling examples of what “all things” can be. The czarist system, for all its arbitrary power, was limited to some extent by the moral strictures of Christianity: the gulag was simply not possible then. These Russian critics hope that their people will turn to the Church, to the best of old Russia, to the culture that spawned not only proizyol but Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, to find the raw materials for building a new Russia. To fail to do so means once again to impose an alien system from above, for where else could the Westernized Russia come from? Moreover, even if one accepts the argument that Russian culture produced Soviet tyranny, it is wrongheaded to assume that is all it produced or is capable of producing. Our own civilization, after all, has produced St. Thomas, Shakespeare, and Mother Teresa, as well as Hitler, Dr. Kevorkian, and Hillary Clinton. One can surely find much to say in favor of a (Russian) culture that produces an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as its social conscience. The closest thing that we have is Phil or Oprah. Our ancestors knew that the good life is not necessarily one that is materially comfortable. Russia, assuming there is enough of the best of her heritage left to build on and enough people who care about doing the building, may never be a democracy or a consumers’ paradise, but she could still be a society that her people could be proud of.

        —Wayne Allensworth
Purcellville, VA