Red Plenty - by Francis Spufford


The problem was that Marx had predicted the wrong revolution. He had said that socialism would come, not in backward agricultural Russia, but in the most developed and advanced industrial countries: in England, or Germany, or the United States. Capitalism (he’d argued) created misery, but it also created progress, and the revolution that was going to liberate mankind from misery would only happen once capitalism had contributed all the progress that it could, and all the misery too. At that point, there would be so much money invested by capitalists desperate to keep their profits up, that the infrastructure for producing things would have attained a state of near-perfection. At the same time, the search for higher profits would have driven the wages of the working class down to the point of near-destitution. It would be a world of wonderful machines and ragged humans. When the contradiction became unbearable, the workers would act. They would abolish a social system that was absurdly more savage and unsophisticated than the production lines in the factories. And paradise would very quickly lie within their grasp, because Marx expected that the victorious socialists of the future would be able to pick up the whole completed apparatus of capitalism – all its beautiful machinery – and carry it forward into the new society, still humming, still prodigally producing, only doing so now for the benefit of everybody, not for a tiny class of owners. There might be a need for a brief period of decisive government during the transition to the new world of plenty, but the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ Marx imagined was modelled on the ‘dictatorships’ of ancient Rome, wen the republic would now and again draft some respected citizen to give orders in an emergency. The dictatorship of Cincinnatus lasted one day; then, having extracted the Roman army from the mess it was in, he went back to his plough. The dictatorship of the proletariat would presumably last a little longer, perhaps a few years. And of course there would also be an opportunity to improve on the sleek technology inherited from capitalism, now that society as a whole was pulling the levers of the engines of plenty. But it wouldn’t take long. There’d be no need to build up productive capacity for the new world. Capitalism had already done that. Very soon, it would no longer be necessary even to share out the rewards of work in proportion to how much work people did. All the ‘springs of co-operative wealth’ would flow abundantly, and anyone could have anything, or be anything. No wonder that Marx’s pictures of the society to come were so rare and so vague: it was going to be an idyll, a rather soft-focus gentlemanly idyll, in which the inherited production lines whirring away in the background allowed the humans in the foreground to play, ‘to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind …’

None of this was of the slightest use to the Marxists trying to run the economy of Russia after 1917. The Soviet Union inherited very few whirring production lines. Marxists elsewhere, in the countries where the revolution was supposed to have happened, had settled down over the years since Marx’s death as ‘Social Democrats’, running parliamentary political parties which used the votes of industrial workers to get exactly the kind of social improvements that Marx had said were impossible under capitalism. Social Democrats still dreamed of the socialist future; but here and now they were in the business of securing old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, free medical clinics, and kindergartens equipped with miniature pinewood chairs. Except in Russia, obscure despotic Russia, which had the oddest Social Democrats in the world. With almost no industrial workers to represent, the Bolshevik (‘majority’) faction of the Russian Social Democratic Party was a tiny, freakish cult, under the thumb of a charismatic minor aristocrat, V.I.Lenin, who had developed a doctrine of the party’s, and by extension his own, infallibility. The Bolsheviks had no chance of influencing events, and certainly no chance at getting anywhere near political power, until the First World War turned Russian society upside down. In the chaos and economic collapse following the overthrow of the Tsar by disorganised liberals, they were able to use the discipline of the cult’s membership to mount a coup d’état – and then to finesse themselves into the leadership of all those in Russia who were resisting the armed return of the old regime. Suddenly, a small collection of fanatics and opportunists found themselves running the country that least resembled Marx’s description of a place ready for socialist revolution. Not only had capitalist development not reached its climax of perfection and desperation in Russia; it had barely even begun. Russia had fewer railroads, fewer roads and less electricity than any other European power. Its towns were stunted little venues for the gentry to buy riding boots. Most people were illiterate. Within living memory, the large majority of the population had been slaves. Despite this absence of all Marx’s preconditions, the Bolsheviks tried anyway to get to paradise by the quick route, abolishing money and seizing food for the cities directly at gunpoint. The only results were to erase the little bit of industrial development that had taken place in Russia just before the First World War, and to create the first of many bouts of mass starvation. It became inescapably clear that, in Russia, socialism was going to have to do what Marx had never expected, and to carry out the task of development he’d seen as belonging strictly to capitalism. Socialism would have to mimic capitalism’s ability to run an industrial revolution, to marshal investment, to build modern life. Socialism would have to compete with capitalism at doing the same things as capitalism. But how?

There was in fact an international debate in the 1920s, partly prompted by the Bolsheviks’ strange situation, over whether a state- run economy could really find substitutes for all of capitalism’s working parts. No, said the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, it could not: in particular, it couldn’t replace markets, and the market prices that made it possible to tell whether it was advantageous to produce any particular thing. Yes, it could, replied a gradually expanding group of socialist economists. A market was only a mathematical device for allocating goods to the highest bidder, and so a socialist state could easily equip itself with a replica marketplace, reduced entirely to maths. For a long time, the ‘market socialists’ were judged to have won the argument. The Bolsheviks, however, paid very little attention. Marx had not thought markets were very important – as far as he was concerned market prices just reflected the labour that had gone into products, plus some meaningless statistical fuzz – and the Bolsheviks were mining Marx’s analysis of capitalism for hints to follow. They were not assembling an elegant mathematical version of capitalism as described by its twentieth-century theorists. They were building a brutish, pragmatic simulacrum of what Marx and Engels had seen in the boom towns of the mid-nineteenth century, in Manchester when its sky was dark at noon with coal smoke. And they didn’t easily do debate, either. In their hands, Marx’s temporary Roman-style dictatorship had become permanent rule by the Party itself, never to be challenged, never to be questioned. There had been supposed to be a space preserved inside the Party for experiment and policy-making, but the police methods used on the rest of Russian society crept inexorably inward. The space for safe talk shrank with the list of candidates to succeed Lenin as the embodiment of infallibility, till, with Stalin’s victory over the last of his rivals, it closed altogether, and the apparatus of votes, committee reports and ‘discussion journals’ became purely ceremonious, a kind of fetish of a departed civilisation. The only necessary ideas about economics – and the only acceptable ones – were those embodied in the particular programme of crash industrialisation on which Stalin rose to total power.

They were not very complicated, these ideas. Until 1928, the year of Stalin’s ‘Great Break’, the Soviet Union was a mixed economy. Industry was in the hands of the state but tailors’ shops and private cafes were still open, and farms still belonged to the peasant families who’d received them when the Bolsheviks broke up the great estates. Investment for industry, therefore, had to come the slow way, by taxing the farmers; meanwhile the farmers’ incomes made them dangerously independent, and food prices bounced disconcertingly up and down. Collectivisation saw to all these problems at once. It killed several million more people in the short term, and permanently dislocated the Soviet food supply; but forcing the whole country population into collective farms let the central government set the purchase prices paid for crops, and so let it take as large a surplus for investment as it liked. In effect, all but a fraction of the proceeds of farming became suddenly available for industry. In the same way, nationalising all shops and eating places allowed the state to take direct control of the proportion of the USSR’s income that was spent on consumption: and to lower it drastically, in favour of investment again. The diverted funds went to start the production lines going, to feed industries picked out for superfast growth in the new Five-Year Plans. Which industries? The heavy ones, of course; the ones supplying goods like steel and coal and concrete and machine tools, which in turn could be used to bootstrap other industries into existence. Marx had helpfully pointed out that capitalist economies grow fastest when they are producing to expand the production base itself. Stalin took the hint. Managers of plants turning out ‘producer goods’ were given dizzily increasing targets for output. If they met them, by whatever means they could contrive, they would be rewarded – and the targets would increase the next year by another leap and a bound. If they failed to meet them, they’d be punished, often by death. When things went wrong, in Stalin’s industrial revolution, someone was always to blame.

Between them, these policies created a society that was utterly hierarchical. Metaphysically speaking, Russian workers owned the entire economy, with the Party acting as their proxy. But in practice, from 8.30 a.m. on Monday morning to 6 p.m. on Saturday night, when the work week ended, they were expected simply to obey. At the very bottom of the heap came the prisoner-labourers of the Gulag. Stalin appears to have believed that, since according to Marx all value was created by labour, slave labour was a tremendous bargain. You got all that value, all that Arctic nickel mined and timber cut and rail track laid, for no wages, just a little millet soup. Then came the collective farmers, in theory free, effectively returned to the serfdom of their grandfathers, since they weren’t issued with the internal passports which they’d have needed ever to leave the kolkhoz. A decisive step above them, in turn, came the swelling army of factory workers, almost all recent escapees or refugees from the land. It was not an easy existence, crowded into squalor in cities built for populations half the size, systematically deprived of consumer goods, exposed to splashing molten metal and unguarded machines that ripped off arms and legs. The spare income workers couldn’t spend was raked off through compulsory ‘bond purchases’ and fed back into even more investment. Discipline at work was enforced through the criminal code. Arrive late three times in a row, and you were a ‘saboteur’. Sentence: ten years. But from the factory workers on up, this was also a society in a state of very high mobility, with fairytale-rapid rises for those who could fill the Soviet state’s insatiable hunger for skills. The economy needed whole categories of trained people to spring into existence in the twinkling of an eye: teachers, nurses, doctors, chemists, metallurgists, pharmacists, electricians, telephonists, journalists, architects, designers, book-keepers, aviawhichcar drivers, truck drivers, locomotive drivers, and engineers, engineers, engineers of every description. Every new factory needed its cadre of managers, every level of the new bureaucracies handling retail and food distribution needed its office staff, every part of the apparatus of control and surveillance needed its white-collar specialists. If you could fill a quota, if you could talk the talk convincingly as laid down in Stalin’s Short Course, while negotiating the subtler personal politics of the hierarchy, then a middle-class life beckoned in short order.

Or something grander still, especially once Stalin started purging away all the original Bolsheviks, and opened up every job but his own to the ambitious. You could go to work as a foreman in a textile plant in 1935, and be the commissar for the whole textile industry four years later: that was the fairytale rise of Alexei Nikolaevich Kosygin, for example, who will come into this story later. You could be an ex-coal miner with a gift of the gab and the knack of making Stalin feel unthreatened, and go in two years from semi- literate rural apparatchik to deputy mayor of Moscow. That was the upward ride of Nikita Khrushchev. You could be the mayor of a city at twenty-five, a minister of the state at thirty; and then, if you were unlucky or maladroit, a corpse at thirty-two, or maybe a prisoner in the nickel mines, having slid from the top of the Soviet ladder right back down its longest snake. But mishaps apart, life was pretty good up at the top, with a salary twenty times, thirty times the wages on the shopfloor, as steep a relative reward as the spoils of any capitalist executive. There’d be a car and a cook and a housekeeper, and a fur coat for Mrs Red Plenty to wear when the frost bit. There’d be a dacha in the country, from whose verandah the favoured citizen could survey the new world growing down below.

And it did grow. It was designed to. Market economies, so far as they were ‘designed’ at all, by their institutions and their laws, were designed to match buyers and sellers. They grew, but only because the sellers might decide, from the eagerness of the buyers, to make a little more of what they were selling, or because the buyers might decide to use what they’d bought to sell something else. Growth wasn’t intrinsic. It wasn’t in the essence of a market economy that it should always do a little more this year than it had last year. The planned economy, on the other hand, was created to accomplish exactly that. It was explicitly and deliberately a ratchet, designed to effect a one- way passage from scarcity to plenty by stepping up output each year, every year, year after year. Nothing else mattered: not profit, not the rate of industrial accidents, not the effect of the factories on the land or the air. The planned economy measured its success in terms of the amount of physical things it produced. Money was treated as secondary, merely a tool for accounting. Indeed, there was a philosophical issue involved here, a point on which it was important for Soviet planners to feel that they were keeping faith with Marx, even if in almost every other respect their post-revolutionary world parted company with his. Theirs was a system that generated use- values rather than exchange-values, tangible human benefits rather than the marketplace delusion of value turned independent and imperious. For a society to produce less than it could, because people could not ‘afford’ the extra production, was ridiculous. By counting actual bags of cement rather than the phantof cash, the Soviet economy was voting for reality, for the material world as it truly was in itself, rather than for the ideological hallucination. It was holding to the plain truth that more stuff was better than less. Instead of calculating Gross Domestic Product, the sum of all the incomes earned in a country, the USSR calculated Net Material Product, the country’s total output of stuff – expressed, for convenience, in roubles. This made it difficult to compare Soviet growth with growth elsewhere. After the Second World War, when the numbers coming out of the Soviet Union started to become more and more worryingly radiant, it became a major preoccupation of the newly-formed CIA to try to translate the official Soviet figures from NMP to GDP, discounting for propaganda, guessing at suitable weighting for the value of products in the Soviet environment, subtracting items ‘double-counted’ in the NMP, like the steel that appeared there once as its naked new-forged self, twice when panel-beaten into an automobile. The CIA figures were always lower than the glowing stats from Moscow. Yet they were still worrying enough to cause heart-searching among Western governments, and anxious editorialising in Western newspapers, especially once the launch of Sputnik in October 1957 provided a neat symbol for backward Russia’s sudden technological lift-off. For a while, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, people in the West felt the same mesmerised disquiet over Soviet growth that they were going to feel for Japanese growth in the 1970s and 1980s, and for Chinese and Indian growth from the 1990s on. Nor were they just being deceived. Beneath several layers of varnish, the phenomenon was real. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the opening of its archives, historians from both Russia and the West have recalculated the Soviet growth record one more time: and even using the most pessimistic of these newest estimates, all lower again than both the Kremlin’s numbers and the CIA’s, the Soviet Union still shows up as growing faster, in the 1950s, than any other country in the world except Japan. Officially, the Soviet economy grew 10.1% a year; according to the CIA, it grew 7% a year; now the estimates range upwards from 5% a year. That was still enough to squeak past West Germany, the other growth star of the period, and to cruise past the US average of around 3.3% a year for the decade.

On the strength of this performance – which they probably valued at their own, higher figure – Stalin’s successors set about civilising their savage growth machine. The prisoners (or most of them) were released from the labour camps. The collective farmers were allowed to earn incomes visible without a microscope, and eventually given old-age pensions. Workers’ wages were raised, and the salaries of the elite were capped, creating a much more egalitarian spread of income. To compensate managers, the stick of terror driving them was discarded too: reporting a bad year’s growth now meant only a lousy bonus. The work day shrank to eight hours, the work week to five days. The millions of families squeezed into juddering tsarist tenements, and damp ex-ballrooms subdivided by walls of cardboard, were finally housed in brand-new suburbs. It was clear that another wave of investment was going to be needed, bigger if anything than the one before, to build the next generation of industries. There’d need to be factories soon turning out plastics, and artificial fibres, and equipment for the just-emerging technologies of information: but i all seemed to be affordable, now. The Soviet Union could give its populace some jam today, and reinvest for tomorrow, and pay the weapons bill of a superpower, all at once. The Bolshevik simulation of capitalism had vindicated itself. The Party could even afford to experiment with a little gingerly discussion; a little closely- monitored blowing of the dust off the abandoned mechanisms for talking about aims and objectives, priorities and possibilities, the road already travelled and the way ahead. And this was fortunate, because as it happened the board of USSR Incorporated was in need of some expert advice. The growth figures were marvellous, amazing, outstanding – but there was something faintly disturbing about them, even in their rosiest versions. For a start, at a point when the plans called for growth to rise faster still, it was in fact slowing from one plan period to the next, not much, but unmistakeably. And then there was a devil in the detail of the amazing growth, if you looked closely. For each extra unit of output it gained, the Soviet Union was far more dependent than other countries on throwing in extra inputs: extra labour, extra raw materials, extra investment. The USSR got 65% of its output growth from extra inputs, compared to the USA’s 33% and the frugal 8% achieved by France. This kind of ‘extensive’ growth (as opposed to the ‘intensive’ growth of rising productivity) came with built-in limits, and the Soviet economy was already nearing them. There weren’t that many more extra Soviet citizens to employ; timber and minerals couldn’t be slung into the maw of industry very much faster than they already were; and investment was a problem in itself, even for a government that could choose what money meant. Whisper it quietly, but the capital productivity of the USSR was a disgrace. The Soviet Union already got less return for its investments, in terms of extra output, than any of its capitalist rivals. Between 1950 and 1960, for instance, it had sunk 9.4% of extra capital a year into the economy, to earn only 5.8% a year more actual production. In effect, they were spraying Soviet industry with the money they had so painfully extracted from the populace, and wasting more than a third of it in the process.

Yet somehow this economy had to grow, and go on growing, without a pause. It wasn’t just a question of overtaking the Americans. There were still people in the Soviet Union, at the beginning of the 1960s, who believed in Marx’s original idyll: and one of them was the First Secretary of the Party, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Somehow, the economy had to carry the citizens of the Bolshevik corporation all the way up the steepening slope of growth to the point where the growing blended into indistinguishable plenty, where the work of capitalism and its surrogate were done at last, where history resumed its rightful course; where the hunting started, and the fishing, and the criticising after dinner, and the technology of abundance would purr in the background like a contented cat. But how?


In 1930 the Bolsheviks abolished universities. Only the two famous ones at Moscow and Leningrad survived, drastically truncated. But this was not an attack on education as such, as in Maoist China later, or still more so in Khmer Rouge Cambodia, where the authorities would aim at burning away intellectual life altogether and leaving a level plain of pure ignorance as the foundation for a new society. Nor was it an attempt to do without an intelligentsia. The universities were closed in order to open them again, massively expanded and redesigned as factories for the production of a new kind of intellectual. The Bolsheviks had been having trouble with the old kind of intellectual ever since the revolution. The tiny professoriat they inherited – a fraction of an educated class which was itself a small fraction of Russia’s literate minority – was shaped by an ethical tradition more than a century old. Pre-revolutionary Russian intellectuals felt a sense of public obligation not shared by their equivalents abroad. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, it had been obvious to anyone educated that the tsarist regime was an embarrassing, oppressive anachronism. To be one of the lucky few who could read about the world outside therefore gave you a responsibility to try and do something about Russia; usually not in a directly political way, unless you were one of those with a very pronounced bump of idealism, but by building up an alternative Russia in culture, in novels and poetry and art where stupidity was not enthroned. Above all, to be an intellectual was to feel that you were, at least potentially, one of those who spoke truth to power. By teaching and learning at all, reading and writing at all, you were implicitly acting as a witness, as a prophet of a larger life.

These attitudes meant that while intellectuals largely welcomed the Revolution as the end of tsarism, very few of them signed up for Lenin’s brand of Marxism, even when – or especially when – it had state power behind it. Indeed, a number of scholars who had been happy to teach Marxism before the Revolution, as a way of sticking a finger in the eye of power, promptly started offering courses in religious philosophy after it, to achieve the same effect. Most of the Party’s own intellectuals were needed, in the early years, to keep the improvised apparatus of the Soviet Union going, so for a decade the universities were essentially left in the hands of the academics. The scholars were purged and sometimes deported; they had university rectors and department heads imposed on them; experiments with the admissions system gave them, some years, mostly war veterans or factory workers to teach; but they continued to offer an education in criticism and argument. College buildings were among the last places in the Soviet Union where itwas still possible to find printed leaflets issued by the Central Committee, not of the Bolsheviks, but of the dying Mensheviks, forlornly calling for social democracy without dictatorship.

By the end of the 1920s, however, the Party was in a position to enforce ideological conformity. The first Five-Year Plan had just begun, and ‘bourgeois specialists’ were being hunted out of industry and government. With Narkompros, the ‘Commissariat of Enlightenment’, in the hands of Stalin’s allies, the bourgeois specialists of education were next. ‘It is time for Bolsheviks themselves to become specialists,’ said Stalin in a speech. And ‘the working class must create its own productive-technical intelligentsia’. He had in mind something very different from its predecessor: a service class, speedily and narrowly trained in the disciplines required to operate heavy industry, with membership held out as a reward for the loyal and the ambitious. First, the universities were abolished. Then, they were replaced by a multitude of ‘VUZy’ and ‘VTUZy’, ‘schools of higher learning’ and ‘schools of higher technical learning’, usually all chaotically time- sharing the same old buildings to maximise throughput. From the Agricultural College of Voronezh, for example, the Poultry Insitute of Voronezh inherited ‘eight small benches, a corridor, and one lecture room (shared with the Mechanisation Institute)’. Students were drafted in in bulk from the Party itself, from its tame labour unions, from newly established shopfloors and the newly starving countryside. These vydvizhentsy, ‘promotees’, were indeed working- class, but mostly not in the European or American sense that they belonged to an existing, urbanised, long-disadvantaged mass of the industrial poor; they were representatives of a class that the Party’s own policy of crash industrialisation was calling into being. Their numbers swelled the system enormously. Where there had been around thirty thousand old-style graduates a year before the change, there were getting on for a hundred thousand a year by the second half of the 1930s. In the Party alone, more than 110,000 people had studied for a degree, including Nikita Khrushchev, Alexei Kosygin and Leonid Brezhnev.

By that time, things had settled down in higher education, from some points of view. Though spending was skimped – like spending on all present-tense human needs – enough money was put in to end the jostling scenes at the back of every lecture theatre, where twenty or thirty students had struggled to share a single textbook. Entry was, once again, by examination, and not just by political recommendation. The universities’ traditional names and styles crept back, in line with Stalin’s own preference for respectability and hierarchy. Stalin had been willing to work with educational radicals, as part of his meticulous campaign to destroy all the independent factions within the Party by feeding them to each other, one at a time, but once he was in a position to impose his tastes, he wanted to see tidy tsarist-style uniforms on high-school boys again. He wanted learning to look august and venerable. The Party’s rival to the old autonomous Academy of Sciences was abandoned, and effort directed instead into making sure that the Academy became a pliable, reliable instrument of prestige. But the change in the subject-matter of eduction was permanent. The old universities had taught the European liberal arts curriculum. All of that vanished, and technology took over. Almost half of all students now studied engineering, following a fiercely utilitarian curriculum designed to feed the economy with specific skills. When they graduated, they were supposed to know everything they required to go out solo and kick-start a power station, or a metals refinery, or a rail line. Next came the pure sciences, with physics and maths leading the way, chemistry a surprising poor relation, and biology in deep ideological trouble; then medicine, disproportionately studied by women, and ‘agricultural science’, intended to provide expertise to collective farms. Humanities departments were closed down altogether – though a few historians then had to be put back in business, in order to prepare school texts stuffed with figures and dates, and praise for previous centralising rulers. Literature became ‘philology’, a technical subject mainly devoted to teaching the many languages required to rule the Soviet Union. Philosophy died, anthropology died, sociology died, law and economics withered: the Party regarded ‘social science’ as its own private technology, to be taught to cadres within the Party itself, and dispensed to college students in the form of compulsory courses in Marxism–Leninism.

Culture ceased to be the responsibility of professors. New films, plays, books and poems emerged from the Film-Makers’ Union and the Writers’ Union; the old stuff, reduced to a conservative selection of classics, it became the duty of every ambitious citizen to know. The Party wished the Soviet public to be kulturny, a term which stretched from brushing your teeth regularly to reading Pushkin and Tolstoy. There was an irony here. A hard-working promotee, with a nice clean background as a worker or a ‘poor peasant’, would get on in the world by carefully reading stories about aristocrats and princes and bourgeois functionaries – exactly the kind of people who would have been defined as ‘socially alien’, as ‘enemies’, if they were alive in the present. But it mattered far more that War and Peace or Eugene Onegin represented objects of guaranteed quality which ordinary people were now entitled to possess. None of that avant- garde hooting and face-pulling, thank you very much; just the best, the great works of the Russian past, in gold-stamped bindings you’d be proud to have on the shelf of your new apartment. And it wasn’t as if continuity with the past was completely lacking. There was indeed a strand in the old intellectual tradition – half of its coiled DNA – which could be adapted as a credo for these rising Stalinist graduates. The Russian intelligentsia had always been committed to modernising Russia: and what were these chimneys but modernity on the march? It had always thought of culture as something operating top-down, an enlightenment spread to the many by the educated few: and what was the Bolshevik mission but an elite’s twentieth-century effort to raise lumpish Russia high? It had always been prone to believing in panaceas, in ideas that could solve every problem all at once: and what was Bolshevism but the ultimate key to open all locks, the last and best and greatest system of human knowledge? Believing these things, the new technological intellectuals were willing to be told, were willing to believe, that the task of speaking truth to power was now redundant, because truth was in power. By definition, friends of truth, friends of thought and reason and humanity and beautyre williriends of the Party; friends of Stalin. To be opposed to the Party would be to become an enemy of truth, and to break the intellectual’s reponsibility to truth.

With a reliable substitute in place for the old intelligentsia, Stalin could afford to sweep away most of its surviving members in the purges of the late 1930s, along with most of his own political generation within the Party, and most of the people, formed by the pre-revolutionary world, who had risen to lead industry, the army, the state bureaucracies. He was left with the promotees: grateful, incurious, ignorant of the world outside the Soviet Union, and willing to accept the Stalinist order as the order of reality itself. A great silence reigned about the parts of intellectual life that had disappeared. Soon, young people were unaware that things had ever been otherwise. In the new curriculum, different subjects experienced different fates. The closer a science was to practicality, the more it was co-opted into serving the practical needs of power. The closer it was to the dangerous ground of social science, on the other hand, the more distorted by ideology it tended to become. And the more abstract it was, the more intellectually uncorrupted it was likely to remain. The result was a landscape of intellectual lives laid out very differently from its counterparts abroad. Where the United States (for example) was a society ruled by lawyers, with a deep well of campus idealism among literature professors and sociologists, the Soviet Union was a society ruled by engineers, with a well of idealism among mathematicians and physicists. Law, economics, history were sterile, insignificant fiefdoms, ruled by ‘little Stalins’, pint-sized intellectual stand-ins for the great mind in the Kremlin. After Stalin’s death, these subjects had to be revived by incomers from engineering and the pure sciences – who brought with them the engineers’ faith in the solvability of problems, and the scientists’ uncompromising delight in pure pattern. Biology continued to be a disaster area. The little Stalin it had been handed to, Trofim Lysenko, was an anti-Darwinist charlatan who managed to adapt himself in the 1950s to playing on Khrushchev’s insecurities. By the 1960s, the Soviet Union had gone from being one of the most illiterate places on the planet to being, by some measures, one of the best educated. It turned out more graduates per head of population than any of the European countries; only the American college system, with its tradition of mass participation, did better. Entry was by competitive examination, set locally so that institutions could pick and choose exactly the intake they wanted. Courses lasted for four or five years, and students were expected to work steadily for thirty- five to forty-five hours a week, digesting the whole relevant body of knowledge in their subject. Nothing was dumbed-down except the Marxism – for having eliminated the tradition of independent Marxist thought in the 1930s, there was nowhere in the sciences to reignite it from. The drop-out rate was high, understandably; but every year almost half a million young men and women completed the ordeal, and stood in the corridors of their university searching through the thousands upon thousands of job offers posted there.

Universities were only for teaching, though. Research usually happened elsewhere, in special institutes operated by the Academy of Sciences or the various industrial ministries, with scholars flitting back and forth betwee professorships and their labs. At the crown of the system were the ‘science towns’ built to house research work that had been designated as a strategic priority, from nuclear physics and aeronautics through to computer science and mathematical economics. The people who lived here were among the most privileged of Soviet citizens – and they were held up as well, in popular culture, as forerunners of the coming world of abundance. Not only did they live, right now, as all Soviet citizens were shortly going to live, with commodious flats and lavish food supplies and green spaces all around. They also worked, right now, in the way that everyone was supposed to, when abundance came – for the voluntary love of it, treating the working week as their playground rather than their burden. For the most part, scientists accepted the idolising, just as they mostly accepted the legitimacy of the arrangements of power in their society. Physicists themselves enjoyed Mikhail Romm’s 1962 hit film, Nine Days in One Year, about a driven, wisecracking nuclear researcher who irradiates himself so that humanity can have energy. A little later, they smiled at the gentle satire of the Strugatsky brothers’ 1965 novel Monday Begins on Saturday, in which a secret department investigates, appropriately enough, the magical objects in Russian fairytales. The scientists were confident; and in a curious way, they were also innocent. By now, they usually didn’t know what it was that they didn’t know, about the non-Soviet experience of mankind. International contacts were opening back up, but from a very low level; ‘special collections’ of foreign material were available in libraries to senior scholars, but a separate permit was required on each visit, and you needed to know exactly what you were looking for. So they evolved their ideas with almost no reference to analogies, to parallel cases, to the accumulated mass of situations in history in which someone might have tried something similar. Above all, they had very little access to pessimism. Stories of good intentions turning out badly were in short supply where they lived – published, written-down stories, at any rate. But there were frustrations. All of a sudden, for example, in 1958, Khrushchev had announced that far too many of those getting into universities were themselves the children of intellectuals and white- collar workers – and passed a law that harked back to the wild old times of the First Five-Year Plan. School-leavers now had to do two years of work experience before they were let in. This was unpopular with students, unpopular with parents, and unpopular with academics, whose first-year physics students now had their fading knowledge from school overlaid by two years of semi-skilled drudgery in a warehouse or a factory. It also rankled with the intelligentsia that, having forsworn the more brutal methods of ensuring conformity, Khrushchev was now trying to achieve it by exhortation. Which meant that, from 1961 on, groups of intellectuals were gathered together to be shouted at; sometimes by Khrushchev’s aide L.F.Ilichev, head of the Central Committee’s Ideological Commission, and surprisingly often, in crude and ungrammatical Russian, by the man himself. (Contemporary joke: Khrushchev asks a friend to look over the text of one of his speeches. ‘I can’t deny, Nikita Sergeyevich, that I did find some errors. “Up yours” should be two separate words, and “shit-ass” is hyphenated.’) There were more specific grievances if you were a serious biologist, obliged to disguise your real research behind screens of dissimulation; or if you were Jewish. In the 1930s, Soviet Jews had been perhaps the most spectacularly mobile and high-achieving group in the population, but the wave of official anti-Semitism from the late 1940s on had brought restrictions and quotas. Seen in absolute terms, more Jews than ever before were employed in the sciences in 1960 – 33,500 out of 350,000 Soviet ‘scientific workers’, or 9.5% of the total, when Jews made up only 1% of the Soviet population – but certain specialisms and certain elite institutions were closed to Jewish candidates altogether, and, on the whole, the route to the very top was blocked. You had to be unignorably brilliant, now, as a Jew, to be promoted as far as your ordinarily diligent and distinguished ethnically Russian colleagues – which left behind it the peculiar sting of a prize confiscated after it had once been given, of an acceptance turning conditional when you’d believed it was permanent.

Gradually, something unexpected was begining to happen. These frustrations, small and large, had started to draw the scientists’ attention to a difference between the kind of educated they were, and the kind the vydvizhentsy engineers running the Party were. The scientific method itself taught lessons, and so, in fact, did reading all that compulsory Tolstoy. When they reflected on the idiocy of anti-Semitism in the country that defeated Nazi Germany, when they heard of Khrushchev’s red-faced rage over the Academy rejecting one of Lysenko’s stooges, they started to suspect that truth and power might not be so united; that what was enthroned in Russia, after all, might be stupidity.


Baggy two-piece suits are not the obvious costume for philosopher kings: but that, in theory, was whatng ipparatchiks who ruled the Soviet Union in the 1960s were supposed to be. Lenin’s state made the same bet that Plato had twenty-five centuries earlier, when he proposed that enlightened intelligence given absolute powers would serve the public good better than the grubby politicking of republics. On paper the USSR was a republic, a grand multi- ethnic federation of republics indeed, and its constitutions (there were several) guaranteed its citizens all manner of civil rights. But in truth the Soviet system was utterly unsympathetic to the idea of rights, if you meant by them any suggestion that the two hundred million men, women and children who inhabited the Soviet Union should be autonomously fixing on two hundred million separate directions in which to pursue happiness. This was a society with just one programme for happiness, which had been declared to be scientific and therefore – the people were told – was as factual as gravity. It had originated in a profound discovery, the programme: an unveiling of the entire logic of human history. Then it had been clarified, codified, simplified and finally brought down to a headful of maxims, all without losing its completeness or its authority. To carry it out, those in whom the knowledge was installed were authorised to act on it directly, unrestrained by laws or by any moral code of the old style. So, alongside the nominal structures of state and society in the USSR, the Party existed, its hierarchy shadowing all other hierarchies, its organisation chart mapping the true nervous system for the country. Every factory, every army unit, every university faculty, every town council, had its corresponding Party committee, staffed with people who might not, on paper, outrank the soldiers or professors or managers or functionaries they worked among; but who possessed, in fact, an unlimited authority to guide, nudge, cajole, threaten, intervene, overrule. Up at the top the arrangement became explicit. The Presidium which ruled the Soviet Union was not the cabinet of the Soviet state. It was the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Party; it was the court of the First Secretary, chief and principal among all the philosophical kings of the USSR. Sometimes the First Secretary was also prime minister of the Soviet Union, sometimes he wasn’t. It didn’t matter much. The notional premiership was a second-order position, a nice bauble to hang round the neck of real power.

The ordinary apparatchiks were not, of course, allowed to do freelance philosophy on their own account. Ideological direction was set at the top, and passed down, by conference resolutions and newspaper editorials, as a ‘Party line’ which only needed to be applied. But on the kingship side of things, even junior apparatchiks had considerable discretion – or perhaps it would be better to say, they were obliged to improvise. They had to make endless, quick, unappealable decisions about the fate of the human beings in front of them. The theory in their heads was universal in its reach, and their expertise was supposed to be universal too. They were the agents of humanity’s future, which they were to manufacture by being, in the present, experts in human nature. In this sense, even the grimmest of them was, professionally, a people person. They acted as progress-chasers, fixers, censors, seducers, talent-scouts, comedians, therapists, judges, executioners, inspirational speakers, coaches, and even from time to time as politicians of the representative variety, carrying a concern of their constituents to t consideraentre for attention. It was a quality deliberately designed into their power that it should be unlimited, that it should have the weight of the whole project behind it, in whatever unforeseeable situation the little monarchs found themselves. There had been a period, under Stalin, when the security police seemed to be supplanting them, but Khrushchev had restored the supremacy of the apparat. Here was another reason for the baggy suits. Earlier, at the turbulent beginning of Lenin’s state, the Party’s operatives had signified their power by using the direct iconography of force. They wore leather jackets and cavalry coats, they carried visible revolvers. Stalin’s Party, later, dressed with a vaguely military austerity. Stalin himself had favoured plain tunics, unlimited by badges of rank; at the very end of his life, when he was being hailed as the strategic genius of the Great Patriotic War, he enjoyed wearing the fantasy uniforms of an ice-cream generalissimo. Now, by contrast, the symbolism was emphatically civil, managerial. The Party suit of the 1960s declared that the wearer was not a soldier, not a policeman. He was the person who could give the soldier and the policeman orders. The philosopher kings were back on top.

But the Soviet experiment had run into exactly the difficulty that Plato’s admirers encountered, back in the fifth century BC, when they attempted to mould philosophical monarchies for Syracuse and Macedonia. The recipe called for rule by heavily-armed virtue – or in the Leninist case, not exactly virtue, but a sort of intentionally post-ethical counterpart to it, self-righteously brutal. Wisdom was to be set where it could be ruthless. Once such a system existed, though, the qualities required to rise in it had much more to do with ruthlessness than with wisdom. Lenin’s core of original Bolsheviks, and the socialists like Trotsky who joined them, were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages, learned in the scholastic traditions of Marxism; and they preserved these attributes even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorised. They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters. But their successors – the vydvizhentsy who refilled the Central Committee in the thirties – were not the most selfless people in Soviet society, or the most principled, or the most scrupulous. They were the most ambitious, the most domineering, the most manipulative, the most greedy, the most sycophantic; people whose adherence to Bolshevik ideas was inseparable from the power that came with them. Gradually their loyalty to the ideas became more and more instrumental, more and more a matter of what the ideas would let them grip in their two hands. High-level Party meetings became extravagantly foul- mouthed from the 1930s on, as a way of signalling that practical people were now in charge, down-to-earth people: and honest Russians too, not those dubious Balzac-readers with funny foreign names. ‘Ladies, cover your ears!’ became the traditional start-of- meeting announcement. In a way, the surprise is that Bolshevik idealism lasted as long as it did. Stalin took his philosophical obligations entirely seriously. The time he spent in his Kremlin library was time spent reading. He held forth on linguistics, and genetics, and economics, and the proper writing of history, because he believed that intellectual decision-making was the duty of power. His associates, too, tended to possess treasured collections of Marxist literature. It was practicalf Molotov’s complaints, after Stalin’s death, that by sending him off to be ambassador to Outer Mongolia, Khrushchev had parted him from his books. And Khrushchev, in his turn, tried his best to talk like the great theoretician one magically became by elbowing and conniving one’s way to the First Secretaryship. It came even less easily to him, but the transition to utopia by 1980 was all his own work, and so was the idea of peaceful competition with the capitalists. He was not a cynic. The idea that he might be committing an imposture bothered him deeply: he worried away at it, out loud, in public, busily denying and denying. A sculptor dared to tell him he didn’t understand art: ‘When I was a miner,’ he snapped, ‘they said I didn’t understand. When I was a political worker in the army, they said I didn’t understand. When I was this and that, they said I didn’t understand. Well, now I’m party leader and premier, and you mean to say I still don’t understand? Who are you working for, anyway?’ Stalin had been a gangster who really believed he was a social scientist. Khrushchev was a gangster who hoped he was a social scientist. But the moment was drawing irresistibly closer when the idealism would rot away by one more degree, and the Soviet Union would be governed by gangsters who were only pretending to be social scientists.


The ‘Kosygin reforms’ of 1965 put a lot more money in factory managers’ pockets, but they did almost nothing to stop the slowing of the Soviet growth rate. Even according to the generous official figures, there was only a 0.5% upward blip in growth during the Five-Year Plan that ran from 1966 to 1970. CIA estimates put the i>effect at only 0.2%, and recalculations later suggest there may have been no improvement at all. Whatever the effect, it was momentary: in every set of figures, official and unofficial, the growth rate then went on inexorably falling and falling, plan period after plan period, trending grimly downwards towards zero. The growth machine was grinding to a halt. Leviathan’s gears had jammed. This was one of the reasons for Kosygin’s own relative loss of power in the government. He and Brezhnev had been equals when they deposed Khrushchev. By the end of the 1960s, Kosygin was just one of Brezhnev’s ministers, a definite underling to the placidly wily specialist in ‘organisation and psychology’. In political terms, it turned out that the winning response to the problem was not even to try. For help was arriving from an unexpected direction. In 1961, the first oilfield had been discovered in western Siberia, and by 1969 geologists – many working out of Akademgorodok – had identified almost sixty of them, brimming with saleable crude. They were just about all on-line and pumping in time for the 1973 oil shock, when the world price for petroleum rose by 400%. Suddenly, instead of being a giant autarchy, trying to bootstrap its way to prosperity, the Soviet Union was a producer for the world market, and it was awash with petrodollars. Suddenly, it was possible for the Soviet leadership to buy its way out of some of the deficiencies of the economy. If the collective farms still couldn’t feed the country, then food could be quietly imported. If the people wanted consumer goods, you could buy the technology to produce them, like the complete Fiat car plant assembled on the banks of the Volga. The Brezhnev regime managed to make some everyday luxuries available. There were thirty million TV sets in Soviet homes in 1968, and ninety million at the end of the 1970s; by which time, too, most Soviet families owned a fridge and a majority had a washing machine. Vacations to the sunny beaches of the Black Sea became ordinary. Cigarettes and vodka and chocolate and perfume were usually on the shelves, even when milk and meat were not.

But the oil windfall was nowhere near big enough to pay for the threefold commitment that Khrushchev had made: to superpower- sized military spending, plus abundant consumption, plus a complete new industrial revolution. They could afford the guns – the Politburo made it a priority to funnel the oil dollars into fighter planes and aircraft carriers and helicopter gunships – and they could contrive to find a certain amount of butter; but the limitless, utopian plenty that Khrushchev had promised for 1980 had depended (so far as it was plausible at all) on successfully reconstructing the economy at the next level of technology and productivity, and it was this that did not get funded. The Soviet economy did not move on from coal and steel and cement to plastics and microelectronics and software design, except in a very few military applications. It continued to compete with what capitalism had been doing in the 1930s, not with what it was doing now. It continued to suck resources and human labour in vast quantities into a heavy-industrial sector which had once been intended to exist as a springboard for something else, but which by now had become its own justification. Soviet industry in its last decades existed because it existed, an empire of inertia expanding ever more slowly, yet attaining the wretched distinction of absorbing more of the total effort of the economy that hosted it than heavy industry has ever done anywhere else in human history, before or since. Every year it produced goods that less and less corresponded to human needs, and whatever it once started producing, it tended to go on producing ad infinitum, since it possessed no effective stop signals except ruthless commands from above, and the people at the top no longer did ruthless, in the economic sphere. The control system for industry grew more and more erratic, the information flowing back to the planners grew more and more corrupt. And the activity of industry, all that human time and machine time it used up, added less and less value to the raw materials it sucked in. Maybe no value. Maybe less than none. One economist has argued that, by the end, it was actively destroying value; it had become a system for spoiling perfectly good materials by turning them into objects no one wanted.

The gap with American living standards widened again, precipitously. It became clear by any measurement that the Soviet Union was not going to overtake and surpass. All talk of full communism was abandoned, and in its place Brezhnev’s government promoted the idea of ‘developed socialism’, an era in which the USSR could comfortably announce it had already arrived. Developed socialism was due to last a nice long time, with no awkward timetable. There only remained the problem of the 1961 Party Programme. Convenient official amnesia engulfed it. It was buried in silence, never to be dug up again. Indeed an émigré journal reported the rumour that when a couple of citizens in Balashov who really had buried the Programme in a home-made time capsule exhumed it in 1980 and read it aloud in public, they were promptly arrested under Article 190 of the Criminal Code, for ‘spreading fabrications and defaming the Soviet social and state order’. Suspiciously neat, this may be an example, not of a Brezhnev-era event but of Brezhnev-era Soviet joke-telling, which was sometimes difficult to tell apart from a reality that constantly verged on satire. If it did happen though it would have been of a piece with the Brezhnev answer to anything that seemed to offer an explicit challenge in the realm of ideas: always and every time, the police. Brezhnev had abolished the Ideological Commission as soon as he took over. There were to be be no more of Khrushchev’s shouting matches. But what replaced exhortation was enforcement. Gradually, all of the relatively liberal areas of life during the Thaw were closed down. After a last burst of adventurous releases in 1964–6, Soviet film became a steady progression of conformist comedies and tub-thumping war spectaculars. Literature shrivelled. Science, said the Central Committee secretary responsible for it, was to be ‘administered’ not ‘supported’. Universities became infested with the discreet little unmarked offices of the security service’s Fifth Department, which scholars were encouraged to drop into to denounce their colleagues. This was the era when the psychiatric hospital was pioneered as a place of punishment for people who made a nuisance of themselves; this was the time when a minute fraction of the intelligentsia gave up on the Soviet system altogether and became ‘dissidents’.

On the other hand, Brezhnev’s government was conciliatory towards labour unrest. Several times in the late 1960s and 1970s there were strikes, especially in the oil industry, where the workers lured out east to work the Siberian wells knew teir own bargaining power. Never again was the Novocherkassk solution applied. Each time, a Politburo member flew promptly out and negotiated. After all, what the workers were doing was no different, really, from what the waiter was up to in the restaurant when he wanted a little something before giving you a decent table, or what the saleswoman in the department store meant when she needed you to make it worth her while to look for your shoe size. There was nothing troubling in it; no threat, no malice. They were good Soviet citizens; they were just looking out for a little reciprocity in their dealings with their fellow creatures, ty-mne, ya-tebe, ‘you to me and I to you’. All the indicators suggest that the vast majority of the Soviet population were, indeed, basically contented with their government. This was not history’s end, with every obstacle to human fulfilment dissolved in the gush from the horn of plenty, but it was quite comfortable, especially compared to earlier Soviet decades. The work was pointless but not hard. The environment was increasingly toxic, but the concrete flats were cosy boxes of warmth. The spectacle of Soviet power on the telly was gratifying, and after the news was over and the missile launchers had rolled by, it’d be time for KVN, Klub veselykh i nakhodchivykh, ‘the club of the gay and the witty’. Life was not bad. Nobody bothered you if you didn’t bother them. Things seemed to have settled into a status quo that could last forever. And if you were one of the real elite, you had a little personal exemption from some of the constraints of the world you ruled over. You could command the command economy to simulate, just for you, a little bit of what you had admired on your trips abroad. Brezhnev himself, for example, was very taken with denim jackets when he visited America, despite being a bulky sixty-something at the time. When he came home he summoned his tailor, Aleksandr Igmand, and had one made to measure. The problem was the metal buttons. The USSR didn’t manufacture the right kind. So a special order was put in to a steel foundry, and back came just enough round American-type metal buttons to ornament one jacket. As a procedure, it was the absolute opposite of the dream of harnessing the fecundity of mass production: but as Brezhnev drove out of Moscow on a summer evening in his jean jacket, black coiffure shining, a tyrant without a cause, he could tell himself that the promise of abundance had been kept for him, at least.