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Book Review: Soviet Civilization

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Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History
by Andrei Sinyavsky (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990); 291 pages; $24.95.

At the height of the great purges in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, Stalin personally sent instructions to the Soviet secret police which stated that in obtaining confessions from the accused, “the NKVD was given permission by the Central Committee [of the Communist Party] to use physical influence … as a completely correct and expedient method” of interrogation. When Stalin was told that this method was bringing forth the desired results, he told the NKVD interrogators, “Give them the works until they come crawling to you on their bellies with confessions in their teeth.” Then, in another purge, this one after World War II, Stalin simplified the instructions even more: “Beat, beat and, once again, beat.”

I recently travelled to Moscow and had the opportunity to speak with one of the researchers who was attempting to trace the names and fates of every victim during the Stalinist period. She told me that based on the evidence collected so far, the conservative estimate is that at least sixty million people were killed in various ways during the years that Lenin and Stalin ruled the Soviet Union.

But the tortures and murders of these “enemies of the State” were not an aberration — perversion — of the socialist ideal under either Lenin or Stalin. They were a logical component of the Marxist-Leninist view of society and the “class struggle” in society.

The ideas and consequences of the Marxist-Leninist vision which was imposed on the people of the Soviet Union are set forth in great detail in Andrei Sinyavsky’s book Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History. As Sinyavsky explains, the idea of revolution overwhelmed the Russian intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Revolution had a religious quality for them: the old order had to be destroyed, and anew world had to be created. Fantasies of a paradise on earth, in which a new and higher freedom would reign, led them to believe that everything civilization had created over thousands of years had to be overthrown. Sinyavsky observes, “The revolution watch-word was ‘everything new.”‘ And “[t]he orchestrators of this drama — leaders and hangmen alike — acquired the traits of high priests…. From here it is only a stone’s throw to the deification of the revolutionary dictator who has seized supreme power and applies violence. The very idea of violence and power can imbue communism and the revolution with a sacred, even mystical aura.”

The mass murderer as hero was epitomized by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Cheka, the first Soviet police. Dzerzhinsky loved flowers and nature, and also adored children. Yet, he sent tens of thousands to their death. During the Russian Civil War, following the Bolshevik Revolution, he issued instructions to the Cheka tribunals which said that the guilt or innocence of an individual should not be based on the merits of evidence presented against him; rather, the ultimate determinant should be the particular social class to which he belonged. Was he or was he not an “enemy of the revolution” as determined by his economic and social background?

The evil of the Soviet system, Sinyavsky emphasizes, is that it was not cruelty for cruelty’s sake. Rather it was cruelty for a purpose — to make a new Soviet man and a new Soviet society. This required the destruction of everything that had gone before; and it also entailed the forced creation of a new civilization, as conjured up in the minds of those who had appointed themselves the creators of this brave new world. For people like Dzerzhinsky, therefore, violence was an act of love. So much did they love the vision of a blissful communist future to come that they were willing to sacrifice all of the traditional conceptions of humanity and morality to bring the utopia to fruition.

And what type of new civilization did this sacrifice create? Intellectuals were required to surrender their creative and critical faculties; and they were also required to make their writing and artistic contributions serve the interests of the Party. This necessitated the abrogation of all independent thought. The traditional notions of family, community and self were undermined in the name of a new Soviet man. This left the individual naked and isolated, with nothing to protect him from the power of the state. The only laws and moral rules were those laid down by the Party to serve the ends of Communism. Since no one could survive within these laws and rules, the only means to guarantee any degree of survival were deception, thievery and corruption. In the Soviet system, says Sinyavsky, “everyone is guilty of something and waiting to be caught.”

Language, too, had to serve the ends of the state. And for this end, the meanings of words were distorted — turned upside down — and prevented from facilitating normal human discourse. The language of literature and cultural refinement, for example, was overthrown and replaced by the lowest common denominator of cruelty and baseness.

But as Sinyavsky emphasizes, true civilization has not perished in the Soviet Union. It has been maintained in the dissident movement — symbolized by men like Andrei Sakharov. And in this movement, “to save the honor of one’s people, or simply of man, [has become] a moral duty.” In the fading era of Glasnost, the members of the dissident movement remain the defenders of the freedom of all those who are still held captive in the Soviet Union.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).