Review of Autopsy of an Empire: The Seven Leaders who Built the Soviet Empire by Dmitri Volkagonov

Autopsy for an Empire
The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Empire
Dmitri Volkogonov
The Free Press, New York 1998 Pages 556. Price $32.95

Before his death in 1995, Dmitri Volkogonov published three biographies in quick succession, those of Stalin (1988), Trotsky (1991) and Lenin (1994). The present book is the last one to be written by him, and gives an account of all the seven general secretaries of the Soviet regime.

A former Colonel- General in the Soviet Army, during the last years of his life, Volkogonov had unequalled access to all the archives of the Soviet state in his capacity as the director of the Institute for Military Studies and then as Defence Advisor to President Yeltsin. His works represented an iconoclastic break of the writer’s own previously held positions, indeed each of his books are a break, if not a contradiction of the previous one. While this reflects a growing realization about the true nature of the Soviet regime as more and more archives were opened, critics have attributed this meandering in no less measure to Volkogonov’s changing loyalties, from Marxism- Leninism to Gorbachev’s liberal socialism (Stalin, 1998), to Yeltsin’s populist democracy (Trotsky, 1991) to Christian Russian nationalism (Lenin, 1994). The present work falls in the last phase of the writer’s changing convictions.

Right- wing historians have acclaimed Volkogonov’s works since his numerous references to Soviet archives support what these historians have been proclaiming all the while. Others, especially on the Left, have pointed not only to the contradictions referred above, but have also accused him of mutilating facts. Trotskyite writers have termed him a court- historian and of representing the post- Stalinist school of falsification. Within Russia, however, Volkogonov has emerged as the first historian to write on Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky, barring the eulogistic panegyrics of the Soviet school, or vilification in the case of Trotsky.

Most of the criticism of Volkogonov’s works seems to be justified as one reads the book under review. The flow is disjointed and facts seem to have been collected with the sole purpose of driving home the writer’s “convictions” at the time of writing. This is not surprising since Volkogonov held an exalted position in the Soviet hierarchy, which rewarded those who toed the current Party line, appreciated mediocrity and encouraged servility. Volkogonov was the product of such a bureaucratic system.

Yet, just as for all its lies, Soviet propaganda did carry a few grains of truth, the present book too brings out some revealing facts. It is a collage of the leaders’ misdeeds. Only for Khrushchev writer has genuine praise and for Gorbachev, who too earns a few hesitant good words.

Lenin emerges as an unscrupulous power hungry politician, Stalin as the devil incarnate, Khrushchev as the who tried to undo the wrongs of the Leninist- Stalinist system, Breznev as a lazy, slothful mediocrity who was happy to let events take their own course, Andropov as the most intelligent of all the seven leaders but unable to break out of the system’s mould, Chernenko as the least worthy of all- “a head clerk promoted to the topmost post” and Gorbachev as the last communist who brought about the fall of communism.

About Lenin, he says, “he did not appeal to the higher instincts, to patriotism and civic mindedness, but rather to hatred, fatigue and unfulfilled expectations….thanks to Lenin, mankind has learnt that Communism is a road to nowhere”. He quotes Lenin justifying the terror: “The dictatorship- and take this into account once and for all, means unrestricted power based on force, not on law”.

Volkogonov’s account of Stalin does not add anything new on Stalin, except the quotations from numerous archival material. One new fact that he does reveal, though, is the paranoia Stalin had of flying. In his entire life, he made just one air trip!

In 1939, the seventh biography of Stalin was printed in an edition of 18 million copies. Stalin himself edited this edition, shamelessly adding words like “Lenin’s outstanding pupil” in his own hand. At the end of the book, he added: “Stalin is the worthy continuer of Lenin’s cause, or as we say in the Party, Stalin is the Lenin of today”.

There is one reference, a rather unflattering one, to the Indian communists.

He writes: “A conversation between Comrade Stalin and comrades Rao, Dange, Ghosh and Punnaya, in fact it was a long monologue by Stalin. Sitting at the long table and turning their heads in unison as Stalin padded around the huge room, pipe in hand, the Indians absorbed his words of wisdom: Individual terror achieves nothing,….Partisan warfare can be started wherever the people want it. Don’t try to be too clever, just take the land from the landlords and if you take away too much, you can always sort out things later….you can make a fine regime in your country. The important thing is to renounce your personal interests”.

There are numerous accounts of large amounts of money being sent to the other communist parties, notably those of Italy and Spain. As more studies on the archives come out, it may not be too long before the Indian communists too are in the dock. They may have much to answer for.

Khrushchev was a typical leader to emerge from the Stalinist system, uneducated (“two winters of schooling”), energetic, expeditious, never doubting the correctness of Party instruction. He was quick to understand that to survive, he had first to distance himself, and finally discredit his predecessor. The problems accumulated during Stalin’s years could not be reined without drastically reforming the structures of Soviet power. This, however, was not carried to its logical end- indeed it would have been precarious for him to do so- the opposition even to his rather mild reforms within the Central Committee remained strong.

On his part, Khrushchev was not exactly above board for his role in the Stalinist terror. He, too, had played his part in whipping up hysteria, suggesting in 1936 that: “We have to shoot not only this scum (the son of a purged party leader), but Trotsky should also be shot!”. He was voluble and a rather unpredictable character, famous for his quotes as: “My job is chairman of the council of ministers, so I can manage without any brains”. His anti- American rhetoric came to be parodied as: “The USA is standing on the edge of an abyss. We are going to overtake the USA”.

He was not only unceremoniously dismissed by his own prodigy, the rather unassuming Brezenev, making him the sole general secretary not to die in the saddle, his too death was dismissed in a brief and inconspicuous report in Pravada.

Brezenev was the perfect appartchik, his personality the least complex of all. He was a man of one dimension, with the psychology of a middle level part functionary, vain, wary and conventional. He was afraid of sharp turns in policies, and convinced that Communism was on its way at its own leisurely pace like the numerous files that came in and went out from his office. The chapter on Brezenev is exceeded in its dreariness only by the one on Chernenko, the supreme personification of the Party clerk.

Meanwhile, as the Party organization continued to sink in bureaucratic marshlands, the power of the KGB to guide events inside as well as outside the USSR continued to grow. Andropov, then the head of the KGB, prepared the following document: The KGB residency in India has the opportunity (after the explosion in a Jerusalem mosque in 1969), to organize a protest demonstration of upto 20,000 Muslims in front of the US embassy in India. The cost of the demonstration will be 5,000 rupees and would be covered in the 1969- 71 budget allocated by the Central Committee for special tasks in India”. Brezenev wrote on the document: Agreed.

The chapter on Gorbachev is a little out of the place in a book on the “leaders who built the Soviet regime”, for Gorbachev was the man who brought an end this dinosaur like monolith.

18 June 1998
Published: The Tribune 1998

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