Historical events – as well as historical figures – should be
assessed in accordance with the primary task of their epoch. This
approach is fully applicable to the assessment of the 20th Congress
of the Soviet Communist Party, held in February 1956. The main
problem that the Soviet Union faced in the mid-1950s was its
incessant experimentation with state-led bureaucratic socialism.
Instead, it required the launching of reforms that would transform
it into a more progressive, post-industrial system.
In my recent book, The Three Wars of Stalin, I wrote that Stalin
missed a historic chance to start reforming socialism in 1944-45.
Only after his death was there an opportunity to launch this
Below I analyze three basic questions:
1) What made it possible to begin post-industrial
transformations 50 years ago?
2) What stood in the way of those reforms?
3) What model of reform was implemented and why? What lessons
should we learn from the events of 50 years ago?
PREREQUISITES FOR BREAKING AWAY FROM COMMUNISM
In my opinion, there were five factors that made this decision
First, the denunciation by Nikita Khrushchev of Stalin’s
personality cult. For the first time, the leaders of the Soviet
state and the Communist Party spoke not just about individual
shortcomings or even gross mistakes but about the inadmissibility
of the Stalin regime in general. This admission inevitably raised
the issue concerning the inadmissibility of “the dictatorship of
That criticism laid the foundation for the quest to find a new
alternative to the Communist system. However, in reality it may
very well have been the actual starting point of the renunciation
of that very system.
The second factor that prompted the breakaway from Communism was
the presence in the Soviet Union of a large sector of non-Communist
forms of farming, as well as groups of the population that were
economically independent of Communism.
According to a 1959 census, which collected data for the year 1956
as well, the population of the Soviet Union stood at 208 million
people, including 120 million of employable age. Of these 120
million available workers, two million worked in producer
cooperative societies and in the handicraft industry. Another 10
million people worked on their home farms. The thirty-two million
members of Soviet collective farms spent not less than one-third of
their time tilling their personal plots of land. This made an
equivalent of another 10 million people. As a result, at least 22
million people were able to produce for themselves.
In 1956, of the 12 million tons of meat produced in the country,
collective farms accounted for only four million tons, while state
farms added an additional one million tons. Compare these figures
with the non-Communist forms of farming that produced over 50
percent of all meat. Of the 50 million tons of milk produced in the
same year, private farms accounted for more than 50 percent.
The collective farmers and a majority of workers and employees of
the Soviet Union were comprised of former peasants, and under
Communism they were terrorized and denied any initiative. Yet they
managed to preserve their habits and skills associated with
individual private farming. It is a fact that not less than 50
percent of workers and employees lived in private houses and had
small plots of land for a kitchen garden.
To sum up, 50 years ago 20 percent of the Soviet population were
completely economically independent of the Soviet government, while
another 30 percent were independent to a considerable extent. By
the time of the 1989-1991 post-industrial reforms launched in the
Soviet Union, there was already no trace of that social base left
in the country.
Third, the nation as a whole was in a state of historical
optimism. The victory in World War II gave strength to the people
and faith in their own significance. Additionally, the millions of
people who fought in the war got accustomed to not only obeying
orders, but making independent decisions as well.
Millions of people were released from prisons and labor camps under
a general amnesty issued by Chief Police Officer Lavrenty Beria,
while Nikita Khrushchev rehabilitated millions more. Ethnic
minorities that had been subjected to Stalin’s repressions were
acquitted en masse.
In the territories occupied during the war years, millions of
Soviet citizens witnessed the complete and rapid disintegration of
the Soviet system.
Then there were the millions of Soviet prisoners who were forced by
the Nazis to work in Germany, as well as the soldiers of the Red
Army who fought Nazi troops in Europe. These groups witnessed for
themselves that people lived better without Communism.
On the whole, the Soviet people were ready for change; moreover,
they wanted it. But again, this readiness did not automatically
predetermine the type of change. However, reform initiatives for
breaking away from Communism were not ruled out.
The fourth factor involved the Communist Party, bureaucracy, the
nomenklatura, and political leaders.
In 1956, the Communist Party was comprised of seven million full
and candidate members. In 1941, there were only two million members
within its ranks. Since about half of these members died in the
war, this means that six out of the seven million members joined
the party after 1941. These new members were not involved in the
revolutionary terror, the collectivization programs or the
reprisals of 1937. They were not responsible for all the crimes of
the past if the country decided to create an alternative system to
The bureaucracy and the nomenklatura wanted changes as well.
First of all, they wanted to remove the axe of terror that was
hanging over all of them.
But the political leaders turned out to be the most prepared for
reforms. They knew the real situation best and understood the need
for change better than others. Although they were divided among
themselves on other issues, they were unanimous in their wish for
reforms. This equally applied to top officials, such as Georgy
Malenkov, Lavrenty Beria, and Nikita Khrushchev.
The state of the ruling class could be described by the
classical formula: the upper class no longer was able to rule in
the old way. It was ready for change.
Fifth, the international situation was favorable for reforms as
well. Many people in the West still viewed the Soviet Union as an
ally. On the other hand, the Soviet Union’s achievements in
developing nuclear weapons made fewer people think that a military
victory over the Soviet Union was possible. These factors created a
prerequisite for large-scale Western help for reforms in this
WHAT STOOD IN THE WAY OF POST-INDUSTRIAL REFORMS?
The aforementioned factors suggested that in 1956 there existed
the theoretical possibility for breaking away from Communism.
What prevented those efforts? Here again five factors can be
The first factor was the bureaucracy and the nomenklatura. By
1956, the Soviet bureaucracy had developed a taste for material
benefits. It actively sought material wellbeing and removed
anything that stood in its way. So it could accept only those
reforms that would guarantee that the bureaucracy would remain the
master of the country and that its positions would only
On the other hand, there were differences as to which reforms to
implement, depending on the particular position of various groups
inside the bureaucracy.
Second, the Soviet bureaucracy included people who either were
directly involved in Stalin’s repressions or played an active part
in them. The higher the level of the bureaucracy the greater the
number of people involved in such actions. Criticism against
Stalinism demoralized and instilled fear in the main strike forces
of Stalin’s dictatorship, namely the People’s Commissariats of
Internal Affairs (NKVD) and State Security (NKGB), courts and the
Prosecutor’s Office. However, this criticism failed to eliminate
those forces. Therefore, it was necessary to refute any reforms
that would make the past record of these forces a stone on their
The only criticism of Communism they would accept was criticism
against Stalin alone, thereby blaming him and his personality cult
for all the mistakes of that era.
A large part of the Soviet bureaucracy comprised that of the army
and military-industrial complex that had already been formed by
The development of nuclear weapons and the missile strike force,
for example, required immense resources, while the management of
these resources and their uncontrolled use was critical for that
part of the Soviet bureaucracy. Thus, it could not allow reforms
that would threaten its very existence. The threat originated from
the idea of peace, while the chances for peace depended upon the
removal of the irreconcilable opponents: Capitalism and
To continue prospering, the bureaucracy needed an orientation to
war and, consequently, the preservation of Communism as a
justification of that war. Any other types of reforms were
The most conservative part of the Soviet bureaucracy, however,
involved regional bureaucracy and the bureaucracy of ethnic
autonomies. That bureaucracy specialized in squeezing the last
ounce of effort out of people; it had a very narrow idea of the
country and the world, was obsessed with career making, had
constant fear of higher-placed officials, and was always short of
funds. Therefore, most of all it hated the central power and the
very idea of centralization.
Obviously, this part of the Soviet bureaucracy would be willing
to accept any reforms that would limit the center – but not more.
It was this kind of bureaucracy that prevented the true
rehabilitation of political prisoners and the reinstatement to
Incidentally, of all the sections of bureaucracy, the ethnic
bureaucracy was the strongest part of the Soviet bureaucracy,
especially at the level of the Union republics.
The third factor preventing post-industrial reforms was the
people themselves. I mentioned above that millions of people were
independent of the government. Yet it was a fact that not less than
half of all the workers had a constantly improving economic status
under Communism. Millions of people moved from rural areas into the
towns, thus escaping from the medieval standards of rural life in
favor of electricity, shops, cinemas, warm toilets and overall
better living conditions (after all, even a barracks is better than
a log hut).
Stalin constantly took pains to maintain people’s confidence
that tomorrow would be even better than today – largely with the
help of reparations paid by Germany. Suffice it to recall annual
consumer price cuts under Stalin. Therefore, a large part of the
population had a strong belief that Communism had enough resources
and only some shortcomings that must be eliminated. This
confidence, however, was also supported by continuous large-scale
political and ideological terror. There was no opposition to
criticize the regime.
At the same time, the nation was tired of the bloodshed of
revolution, collectivization, terror and war and did not want
changes that could bring more upheavals.
The fourth factor was the intelligentsia. A very large part of
the Soviet intelligentsia was comprised of men of the common
people. They had enough knowledge from their education, but they
did not experience the “complex of the intelligentsia.” Russian
author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, analyzing the reformations initiated by
Peter the Great, described such educated people as “technicians,”
while Alexander Solzhenitsyn coined the term “obrazovantsy”
[derived from the Russian word obrazovaniye – “education”] to
describe people who have a higher education, but are void of the
traditions of genuine intellectualism.
After Lenin’s and Stalin’s purges, there was little left of the
genuine intelligentsia, which was the brain and soul of the people
and its supreme moral and spiritual authority. This referred
particularly to the intelligentsia that worked in the
The most the Soviet intelligentsia was able to do was bring
about a period of “thaw” in Soviet life and literature – but not
more. The intelligentsia failed to create, discuss and put forward
the idea of breaking away from Communism and, moreover, disseminate
this idea among the broad masses.
The fifth factor was the Communist leader, Nikita Khrushchev,
who was the main obstacle to post-industrial reforms. Although he
was the most radical of three contenders for leadership – Malenkov,
Beria and Khrushchev – he emerged victorious not owing to a radical
approach to reforms but to his connections in the regional party
and state bureaucracy, which was particularly “pro-Soviet.” It was
that bureaucracy that controlled the votes of the party members.
This victory, which depended upon many allies, bound Khrushchev
hand and foot.
Besides, Khrushchev found it impossible to renounce the system
that had elevated him – a man of the lower classes – to the
nation’s helm. He was ready for the most radical reforms, but only
within the framework of the Communist system and Communist
ideology. Also, like the entire top of the Soviet pyramid, he had a
great fear that he would be made personally responsible for what
had taken place in the country during the Stalin years.
Khrushchev was unable to find forms and methods for building
bridges to other parts of the party, including the people, which
were ready for reforms; he also failed to reach the liberal
intelligentsia. He was obsessed with what he knew and what he was
accustomed to – the Party apparatus. He failed to see other
Realizing that the bureaucracy stood in his way, Khrushchev tried
to weaken it by dividing it into industrial and agrarian
bureaucracy, thus creating a prototype of a two-party system. But
even this project, which eventually cost him his post, remained
within the bureaucracy’s framework.
In pyramidal structures, only the leader can be the final author
of reforms. The czar was the main moving force of the
transformations in Russia under Peter the Great, and of the reforms
for abolishing serfdom in this country in the 19th century. In the
Soviet Union, however, the leader was only ready for radical but
not revolutionary reforms.
The historical chance to launch post-industrial reforms in the
middle of the 20th century was missed. Khrushchev never became a
Soviet Deng Xiaoping.
THE IMPLEMENTED REFORMS AND THE LESSONS OF THE PAST
At first, the bureaucracy disciplined by Stalin was obedient to
Khrushchev and tolerated various kinds of radical transformations.
But Khrushchev’s reforms were of two colors. Some of his reforms,
such as large-scale housing construction that provided millions of
people with apartments of their own, the renunciation of reprisals,
and the “thaw,” led to a post-industrial society. Other moves,
however, only consolidated the positions of the Soviet bureaucracy
as the ruling class. These moves included the expropriation of the
retail cooperative societies and the larger part of home farms, the
proclamation of the program for achieving the final stage of
Communism in the lifetime of the current generation, and the
abolition of democracy within the Communist Party. Finally, a
demonstration of workers in Novocherkassk was ruthlessly squashed,
while fierce attacks continued against artists and authors.
Khrushchev’s reforms called into question the Marxist model of
the future. But at the same time they let the bureaucracy retain
its power and become stronger. So the radical reforms launched by
Khrushchev worked for the country’s post-industrial future, while,
at the same time, removed it from that goal.
What lessons can be learned from the epoch of reforms that were
symbolized by the 20th Congress?
Lesson one. The variant of reforms, under which these ideas are
authored and organized by the country’s leader (as was the case
under Peter the Great and Alexander II, for example), did not work
in the 20th century – either under Khrushchev, Mikhail Gorbachev,
or Boris Yeltsin.
The country’s leaders should, perhaps, consider a different model
of reform that could lead to the revision of the present
Lesson two. The bureaucracy should not be the primary, as well
as the only, basis of reforms. History shows us that when the
bureaucracy united, it deposed Khrushchev. Unification of the
bureaucracy strengthens its general conservatism and weakens the
small reform-minded groups within itself.
Furthermore, unification of the bureaucracy, especially into one
body, liquidates one of the fundamental principles of democracy and
post-industrialism – the division of powers. A division of
bureaucracy into rival groups opens up great opportunities for
Therefore, it is important that we reject the notion that
unification of the bureaucracy is a positive thing.
Lesson three. There are two true bases for reform – civil
society and the independent intelligentsia. Building both is a
particularly important task today.
Lesson four. The transformation of radical reforms into moderate
reforms leads to stagnation within the country.
Moderate reforms increasingly worsen the situation and give rise to
growing opposition. As the government suppresses the opposition,
the result is stagnation.
Thus, it is important to be aware of the dangers posed by a policy
of moderate reforms and make it clear that this policy has no
Lesson five. The bureaucratic policy must be opposed with an
alternative project for radical reforms. This concept must be
widely discussed by the intelligentsia and then agreed upon by the
Nature abhors a vacuum. If there is no project for radical
transformations, sooner or later there will emerge a program for
building Communism, or some sort of a bureaucratic national idea.
Unfortunately, no conclusions were drawn from the 20th Congress,
thus, when breaking away from Communism, we fell into the same trap
that Khrushchev had fallen into before.