Greasing the Wheels of the Soviet Machine


Confiscated Power: How Soviet Russia Really Works, by Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, translated by George Holoch, New York: Harper & Row, 1982, 401 pp., $19.95

USSR: The Corrupt Society, by Konstantin M. Simis, translated by Jacqueline Edwards and Mitchell Schnider, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982, 316 pp., $14.95

Two new books about the Soviet Union have recently appeared. Hélène Carrère d'Encausse's Confiscated Power is actually not a new book but a translation from the French edition published several years ago. Although written in a strictly academic and therefore sometimes tedious manner, the book nevertheless provides, for an outsider, an unusually deep insight into historical and present-day Russia. Analyzing the historical, traditional, and cultural aspects of Russian society, Carrère d'Encausse searches out the reasons why Russia became a laboratory for the horrible experiment on humans called communism. But the main subject of her research is to show how the Bolsheviks were able to seize power in 1917 and how Russia—or, more precisely, the Soviet Union—has been governed since then.

Was power ever confiscated from the people of Russia? It would have had to belong to them for more than a few hours. But as the author herself states, "the Bolsheviks seized the power that the revolutionary masses had taken." The promise of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" was fulfilled in a different way from that expected: by allegedly embodying society, the Communist Party also had the right and duty to detain all powers.

In an attempt to understand the Soviet scene at the end of Brezhnev's era, Carrère d'Encausse first examines what it inherited from the past. Problems entailed by economic modernization and World War I, and a tradition of authoritarian power linked to a dictatorial phenomenon developing in Europe, provided a favorable context for the birth of what was to become the Soviet Union. Although the author acknowledges the fact that this dictatorship outlived its European counterparts, she fails to mention the dissimilarities between totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

Carrère d'Encausse's survey of the Russian legacy includes an examination of Stalin's personality cult and the terror that left the country in a state of fear and complete inertia. Khrushchev's daring attempt at reformism awoke the country's consciousness. Though later repressed, it is still alive, as Carrère d'Encausse likes to recall upon studying the relationships between power and society under Brezhnev.

Unfortunately, the English-edition subtitle—How Soviet Russia Really Works—does not express the author's main concern as well as the French subtitle, which, in an approximate translation was, "those who govern; those who are governed." Relationships between power and society in Soviet Russia have changed since 1917 not because power has changed but because the society has new requirements. Power is still dominated by the leading role of the Communist Party and the indispensable need for party spirit (Partiinost').

In discussing the possibility of change, Carrère d'Encausse asserts that hope lies in society rather than in the leaders. She does not, however, tell us how this change might occur. Should it commence from within or outside the system, and from within or outside the country, perhaps with the action of émigrés?

Though Confiscated Power was published three years ago in France, and it is unfortunate that it is only coming out in the American version in 1983, it remains a good book for anyone unfamiliar with Soviet organization of power and "participation" of society. The facts are not new, but they are well explained.

Konstantin Simis's USSR: The Corrupt Society is, frankly, much more interesting. It is written by a professional Soviet lawyer who lived and worked in the Soviet Union for over 60 years and who dealt on a day-to-day basis with the corruption that penetrates practically all layers of Soviet society: from the Politburo to the drunken peasant on the collective farm. The facts presented in the book are not sensational or even new to the Western public. We hear and read about these things from time to time. But probably for the first time we now have a systematic description of the corruption and the corrupted in the Soviet Union among the ruling elite, police, the courts, district mafia, educators, the medical profession, underground entrepreneurs, industrial workers—you name it.

Corruption was not invented by Bolsheviks. It has in Russia flourished during almost its entire history. But the Communists can certainly take the blame for bringing corruption to its current level. One of the most important conclusions that Simis derives from analyzing the state of corruption in the Soviet Union (and one can hardly disagree with him) is that in the Soviet Union, life without corruption is unthinkable. Though it exists in other countries, it still can be eliminated by one method or another and society will only gain from the elimination. The Soviet Union, however, would simply disintegrate, because all its links would be broken, just as a car engine breaks down when deprived of lubrication.

Simis mentions campaigns against corruption that from time to time arise in the Soviet Union. But one does not have to be a fortuneteller to predict how all of these campaigns will end: with nothing, or as Russians say, with "pshik." And this is, of course, obvious. The Soviet government cannot rid society of corruption as long as it remains Soviet. It is as simple as that, says Simis.

It is strange, therefore, that the new boss in the Kremlin, Yuri Andropov, started his activities in office with yet another anticorruption drive. He even appointed one of his most loyal KGB men, Vitaly Fedorchuk, to run this campaign. Being an intelligent and educated man, Andropov should know what are, as mathematicians say, the necessary and sufficient conditions for the total elimination of corruption in the Soviet Union. Does this mean that Andropov wants to finish off the Soviet regime? Or perhaps that he is not so perceptive as many may think? In any case, the book by Simis provides an excellent picture of Soviet life as it really is.

Edward Lozansky is a professor of mathematics and physics at American University and executive director of the Sakharov International Committee. He left the Soviet Union in 1976 after being fired from his prestigious teaching jobs for dissident activity.