Archive for August 2009
Was Krushchev forced to liberalise by the Gulag revolts?
“The Unwilling Reformer”
An excerpt from an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta by Igor Chubais, PhD (History), director of Russian Studies Institute at the Peoples’ Friendship University, Moscow
Translated by Szarapow [Thanks!]
[…] Let’s go back mentally to the mid-1950s and ask ourselves why the [Communist] Party which unanimously supported the great leader [Stalin] for so many years has one day condemned him just as unanimously? And if the people approved of this renunciation, then why did Nikita Khrushchev made his chief report secretly, at night, and why was the text first published – that is, informed the people of what it was exactly that the people supported – more than 30 years later? Why did Nikita Sergeyevich who had a reputation of being Stalin’s right-hand man had suddenly changed his views and anathemise his teacher? As we try to look into the questions that were ignored by the Soviet and post-Soviet social pseudo-science, we find three possible answers.
Approaching it formally we may think that the new party leader felt remorse, overcame himself and decided to repent. (Something similar happened in Hungary when the people’s revolution was headed by a former apparatchik Imre Nagy.) Alas, this explanation doesn’t apply to Khrushchev, if he really did repent the country would’ve been freed from censorship, collective farms, the Communist Party, the KGB, and the Hungarian revolution wouldn’t have been crushed by the Soviet tanks…
Or maybe the First Secretary’s about-turn could be explained by powerful external pressure? Alas, after WWII the worldwide international respect for Stalin’s native land has sharply grown, people of the many capitalist countries have been tuning in to Soviet propaganda, and their authorities listened to their own people’s voice.
We only have the last option left – powerful internal pressure on the authorities of the USSR appeared. And although the school books or TV won’t mention that, it’s high time it ceases to be a mystery…
After a rising of hundreds of prisoners at the Ust-Usinsk camp in 1942 all sorts of riots and protests were happening at the GULAG regularly. But after Stalin’s departure from this world they quickly gained new amplitude and scale. On May 25, 1953 in six camps near Norilsk a riot started which lasted for 72 days. No less than 20,000 people took part in the strike. More than half of them were activists of anti-communist national liberation movement in the West Ukraine, usually referred to in Soviet and post-Soviet press as Banderovites [after the nationalist leader Stepan Bandera]. These young lads underwent military training, were in good physical shape, and they trusted each other. They organised the first protest. One of the leaders of the riot was the ex-leader of the youth partiotic organisation of the West Ukraine, Yevgeniy Gritsak, [now in his 80s.] The prisoners had made domestic, economic and political demands from the administration.
Right after Norilsk, in August 1953 in the Vorkuta area a new, even more powerful uprising started. The protest was very well-organised, so the information about it is very hard to get even now, as all the documents are kept secret. But I got lucky, I listened to and remembered the address by one of the Vorkuta leaders, Igor Dobroshtan, to the first conference of Memorial Society in Moscow in October 1989. When combined with other sources, the following picture emerges. The core of the insurgents were former Vlasovites [from the Nazi collaborator Andrey Vlasov’s army] and Ukrainian anti-communist patriots. Such a union proved too hard a nut to crack for the camp administration or for the thieves in law [Soviet criminal organisation similar to the mafia]. After secretly manufacturing piercing objects, the prisoners attacked the guards, killed them and got a hold of the correctional officers’ machine guns. One by one, all brigades were set free. Vlasovites made a decision to move onto Vorkuta to capture the city’s powerful radio station and address the country. En route, the 10,000-strong prisoner army freed several more camps. NKVD detachments that were sent to intercept them couldn’t stop the 100,000-strong column. The tanks sent against the rebels got stuck in the tundra. And only the military planes managed to stop and disperse the insurgents, twenty kilometres from the city. By that time all of Vorkuta’s party and state functionaries fled or were promptly evacuated. According to Igor Dobroshtan, at the first stage of the operation, at the demand of the rebels’ staff, some of the rising’s leaders were flown to Moscow for negotiations with the highest level leadership of the Party.
Third rising, by time and importance – in Kengir – started in May 1954 and lasted for 40 days. The information about it has been better known because Kengir was described by Solzhenitsyn in ‘The Gulag Archipelago.’ Nearly half of insurgents were members of OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), its leader was the Jewish UPA member Mikhail Keller. Former “Forest Brothers” from the Baltics [anti-communist guerrillas in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia] and Vlasovites also took part.
It’s not hard to understand that there were reasons for Khrushchev, who would be getting his information from the KGB and in some cases from the insurgent leaders, to be desperate. The machine of authority was falling apart. It was becoming evident that if there were one or two more uprisings, the regime would collapse. Guards, taiga or Kremlin walls, – nothing would save the apparatchiks. The powers-that-be were forced into stopping the repression machine promptly – new arrests stopped, some prisoner-manned construction projects were suddenly halted, the dissolution and dismantling of the GULAG has started.
It was this process that was taking place in Summer and Autumn of 1953. I stress that the importance of the uprisings that were led by Gritsak and Dobroshtan wasn’t just about dismantling two of the GULAG camps. The prisoners’ revolution forced the authorities into dismantling the entire system of terror which was being created since October 1917. And by the time that the 20th Congress of the Communist Party has opened and the apparatchiks were first asked to officially condemn Stalin’s crimes keeping Lenin’s name untouched, nearly all of the political prisoners were already free.
If we analyse the decisions that the Kremlin made after Norilsk and Vorkuta, we get another proof of the role these uprisings played.
Why in the spring of 1954 the campaign of reclamation of virgin and derelict lands started and 2 million young, active people were sent to the semi-cultivable steppes of Kazakhstan (when the country had the Black Earth Belt and even the subtropics)? The project was not about economics, it was all about politics. Reclamation of virgin lands was the launch for the mechanism of indirect repressions. Khrushchev very calmly took the fact that his original illusions – that the virgin lands would solve Soviet Union’s food problem and allow to start exporting grain – weren’t realised. The other, most important yet unannounced task was being carried out successfully: by pushing the most active part of society into very tough conditions, into distant districts under propagandists’ fanfare, the party apparatus has expertly isolated potential young rebels, prevented and transformed possible political protest into safe mass Sisyphean labour. (If the authorities really wanted to sort out the agricultural problem they would’ve privatised the land and continued Stolypin’s reforms.)
And why in the latter half of the 1950s did the USSR start mass housing construction, why Khrushchev’s five-storey houses appeared? It was because millions of people returned from the camps. It wasn’t possible to live in the already overcrowded communal flats anymore. After stopping mass repressions, in 1957 the party was forced to make a decision on starting mass residential housing construction.
Camp uprisings have significantly changed Soviet Union’s foreign policy. In 1956 the last German and Japanese POWs were allowed to go home, and in 1955 the USSR suddenly signed a treaty with an openly non-communist country, Austria, about its neutrality and returned its troops home (so they wouldn’t flee.) During the first ten post-war years Finland always feared that they’ll be forced to join the socialist camp and obliged to construct a better future. But the Kremlin ceased to give its attentive advice, and the peace-loving USSR even abandoned its navy base on Finland’s Porkkala peninsula. (The concession agreement, signed in 1947 for 50 years, was denounced in 1955.) I will finally add that the limited liberalisation and criticism of Stalinism which were taking place under Moscow’s command in the post-Stalin years in Poland and Hungary, to a lesser degree in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania (pre-Ceausescu) and Mongolia – that was also due to fear of potential and real Dobroshtans and Gritsaks.
On the other hand, it was after the 20th Congress that Moscow lost support of the fraternal Chinese Communist Party. Beijing had no reason to repent and “self-liberalise” because their version of the KGB was, alas, dealing with any rioting well enough. The People’s Republic keeps the pictures and the personality cult of Chairman Mao not due to “political wisdom” as the post-Soviet spin doctors tell us, it’s just that it hasn’t gotten hot enough yet. It was the same set of factors that led to a conflict between Moscow and Tirana in the latter half of the 1950s. The communist dictators Enver Hoxha and Haxhi Lleshi were already suspicious of the increasing influence of Yugoslavia’s liberal socialism on the Socialist People’s Republic of Albania. When the thaw was announced by the Kremlin, the small Balkan nation found itself under an even more brutal tyranny of its leaders who naturally sided with Beijing against Khrushchev.
The picture would be incomplete if a few more touches wouldn’t be added. The GULAG uprisings put a crack in the totalitarian regime but didn’t break it. The Politburo had to permanently abandon physical terror as its main strategy. For a short time the political atmosphere in the country became cleaner and freer. But the thaw, short-lived and dangerous for the authorities, was soon stopped, and a switch to a new kind of control started. Information censorship, as opposed to physical [elimination] has become the main element of oppression. The society was deprived of an opportunity to receive and create any sort of independent information, you could open your mouth but the only words permitted would be “Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!” […]