Isaac Deutscher 1957

Russia: Who Shall Decide, When Planners Disagree?

Source: The Reporter, 7 March 1957. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The storms over Hungary and Egypt produced a governmental crisis in Moscow. This was to be expected. Both in Hungary and Egypt Soviet policy underwent severe tests, the results of which could hardly be regarded as satisfactory to Moscow. But neither at the Supreme Soviet, which held its session in the first half of February, nor at the two sessions of the Central Committee in December and February were these tests made the subject of public scrutiny. The Supreme Soviet upheld the pretence of unanimously approving Foreign Minister Shepilov’s policy. The Central Committee carried the pretence to the point of not placing matters of foreign policy on its published agenda for either of its two sessions. Yet at both sessions the situation in Hungary and in the Middle East must have been at the centre of an animated and probably sharp controversy.

Behind the scenes of the Supreme Soviet, too, rival groups indulged in recrimination and jockeying for position. However, the leaders have obviously been anxious to conceal and also to reduce the intensity of their controversies, and they have dealt with the governmental crisis in instalments. The first instalment was the dismissal, in December, of Maxim Z Saburov from the direction of economic affairs. The second was the removal of Shepilov from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs only three days after the Supreme Soviet had unanimously ‘approved’ his foreign policy report.

Taken together, these changes in the economic and diplomatic leadership amount to a major governmental upheaval which is not yet concluded. Further changes are likely to follow later in the year. In Warsaw and Budapest there is much talk about a forthcoming reshuffle in which Voroshilov, Bulganin, Khrushchev and Malenkov are to be involved.

What is the nature of this governmental crisis? Outside Russia the abrupt end to Shepilov’s brief diplomatic career has naturally aroused the greatest interest. That the end was abrupt is clear from the circumstances that preceded it. In a regime where every Foreign Minister has hitherto enjoyed a long tenure of office, Shepilov held the post only about eight months. On assuming it last summer, he relinquished his post as Secretary of the Central Committee. This was announced only last December, which indicates that at that time his removal from the Foreign Ministry and return to the secretaryship of the Central Committee were not yet envisaged. The decision was evidently taken only in the few weeks, or even days, before the event. What could have caused it?

Detonation of a Détente: Shepilov was not dismissed as a result of the events in Hungary and of the tension in Eastern Europe. He was not personally and directly responsible for Soviet policy in Eastern Europe, which has long since ceased to belong to the sphere of diplomacy proper. It is not the Foreign Minister but the party’s First Secretary, Khrushchev, who is directly in charge of Russia’s relations with other Communist governments.

Shepilov was dismissed because he was held responsible for the deterioration in the relations between Russia and the West in so far as that deterioration was caused by Soviet policy towards Egypt. Moscow’s rapprochement with Nasser’s government was Shepilov’s specific and, in a sense, personal contribution to Soviet foreign policy. At the Twentieth Party Congress in February 1956, he came forward as a critic of Molotov’s diplomacy, which he openly criticised for neglecting the ‘uncommitted areas’, especially the Middle East. Even before he became Foreign Minister, Shepilov had paid a visit to Cairo and prepared the ground for the rapprochement. No sooner had he become Foreign Minister than he went again to Cairo. This was his first trip abroad in his new capacity. He was in fact the initiator of the Soviet diplomatic offensive in the Middle East. Consequently, by dismissing him the Soviet leaders have acknowledged that this offensive has ended in fiasco.

Shepilov may be regarded as a casualty of the Eisenhower Doctrine. He took office when it seemed that at last Russia’s overtures to the West were beginning to meet with a serious response from both the United States and Western Europe. He was to have been the diplomat of the détente, and he had some reason to view the prospects hopefully. But he made a fatal miscalculation. He was convinced that the Soviet Union could pursue its diplomatic and economic offensive in the Middle East without compromising or impairing the détente. He evidently believed that that offensive, by strengthening Russia’s bargaining position, would on the contrary help to consolidate the détente. He stuck to this view throughout the Suez crisis. After the Anglo-French invasion of Suez, when during a crucial moment the Soviet Union and the United States acted almost in unison at the United Nations, appearances seem to justify Shepilov’s confidence. The two powers appeared to behave like joint umpires in the Suez conflicts; Shepilov may have believed that the United States had in fact consented to recognise Russia as a co-equal partner in the Middle East.

In this mood of confidence, he and/or Prime Minister Bulganin badly overplayed their hand when they announced that Russia would send volunteers to fight the British and French aggressors in Egypt. They did not reckon with the shock this was bound to produce in the United States. They did not foresee that the Soviet initiative in Egypt might lead to a head-on collision between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The Old Crowd Comes Back: With the proclamation of the Eisenhower Doctrine this collision has become a fact. As Moscow sees it, the doctrine is designed to keep Russia out of the Middle East and to establish exclusive American predominance in place of the lapsed Anglo-French hegemony. Hence the tone of frustration in which Shepilov, addressing the Supreme Soviet, denounced the Eisenhower Doctrine as a policy of ‘closed doors’ in the Middle East. From the Soviet viewpoint US predominance in that area would represent a far greater danger than did the old Anglo-French hegemony.

Shepilov is blamed for having provoked or precipitated that greater danger. He has been ousted by the old hands of the Soviet Foreign Ministry who had been trained under Molotov and are now led by Gromyko, the new Foreign Minister.

The career diplomats resented all along the intrusion in their domain of Shepilov, whom they regarded as a ‘temperamental amateur’ and a blundering intellectual outsider. They have never been as sanguine as he was about the détente, and they were, and are, less inclined to work on the assumption of a progressive improvement in Russia’s relations with the West. They also viewed with apprehension Shepilov’s improvisations in Egypt, holding that if the policy of détente was to be pursued, it could be pursued only on the basis of the existing balance of power. Shepilov’s pro-Nasser policy threatened to upset that balance.

This reasoning underlay the apparent indifference to the Middle East that Molotov had displayed and for which Shepilov had attacked him. Molotov and presumably Gromyko have held that Russia had little or nothing to gain in the Middle East. They saw an advantage in the relative aloofness of the United States from the area, thanks to which the Middle East remained largely outside the frameworks of NATO and SEATO. Britain had tried to bridge the gap by means of the Baghdad Pact, but this was an ineffective expedient, and Soviet diplomacy has been less afraid of a British-led grouping of nations than of American military expansion in the Middle East.

Gromyko’s assignment is to try to clear up the mess in the Middle East. He will pursue no line of his own. He stands much lower than Shepilov in the party hierarchy, and he can be only an executant of decisions taken higher up. But with him Soviet diplomatic routine comes back into its own.

Gromyko will try to restore up to a point the status quo ante Suez. If, however, this cannot be restored – and it almost certainly cannot – then Gromyko is the right man to be at the head of Soviet diplomacy in a new spell of Cold War.

No ‘temperamental amateur’, he is a Cold War veteran, second only to Molotov in inexhaustible capacity for patient manoeuvring, for tireless obstructiveness, and for all those interminable contests at mudslinging and pettifogging which belong to the Cold War. It may be, of course, that this characterisation is unjust to Gromyko. During the Stalin era all Soviet public figures had to behave in the same manner, and only now do some of them begin to shed their puppet-like qualities to acquire and show characters of their own. Perhaps the familiar Gromyko postures of the past concealed an unknown character somewhat more attractive than that hitherto associated with him. But until Gromyko has revealed such a new personality, one is entitled to think that Soviet diplomacy is now once again being led, as it was in Molotov’s day, by a ‘stone-bottom’.

The Idol Cannot Be Repaired: The change in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was only incidental to the main controversy caused in Moscow by the crisis in Eastern Europe. That controversy has centred upon de-Stalinisation and economic policy. Adherents and opponents of de-Stalinisation were and are at loggerheads once again. For the first time since Malenkov’s dismissal from the Premiership two years ago, the Malenkov group felt strong enough to return to the attack and to criticise the new Five-Year Plan from a pro-consumer viewpoint.

Over both issues the Khrushchev-Bulganin leadership came under fire from different sides, and over both it had to yield some ground. After the Hungarian uprising, the initiative passed momentarily to the opponents of de-Stalinisation. Shortly before the session of the Supreme Soviet, Khrushchev, yielding to their pressure, made an attempt to rehabilitate something of the Stalinist orthodoxy. Such remarks as ‘Stalin was a great Marxist’ and ‘We are all Stalinists’ were meant not only to rebuff heretics in Poland and Yugoslavia but also to appease Stalinist conservatives at home.

But while one might have expected the Central Committee or the Supreme Soviet to elaborate on Khrushchev’s latest texts, nothing of the sort has happened. The party leaders have not used the recent sessions for any new pronouncements foreshadowing a partial rehabilitation of Stalin. It is evidently too late for them to try to put their broken idol together again.

Instead, the Supreme Soviet has voted for several legislative measures which carry de-Stalinisation a stage further. Thus the Chechens, Ingushes, Kalmucks and other minor nationalities and tribes which on Stalin’s orders had been charged with treason and deported to Siberia towards the end of the Second World War are to be resettled in their native lands. At the Twentieth Congress, Khrushchev had denounced these deportations as acts of Stalin’s cruel barbarism. By rehabilitating these nationalities and voting for their repatriation, the Supreme Soviet staged a striking demonstration against Stalinism. Once again public attention has been focused on the injustices and crimes of the Stalin era, and this cannot but stimulate still further the critical rethinking of policies and principles that is going on in the Soviet Union.

The administrative reforms passed by the Supreme Soviet go in the same direction. They reduce drastically Moscow’s jurisdiction over the non-Russian republics. These reforms are inspired by Lenin’s ‘Notes on the Nationalities’. First published after the Twentieth Congress, the ‘Notes’ were Lenin’s expression of anger at the ‘chauvinist Great Russian’ spirit in which Stalin was depriving non-Russian nationalities of their rights as far back as the early 1920s. The administrative reforms go fairly deep. They affect the judiciary and the working of the economy, and they invest a fairly large measure of autonomy in the non-Russian republics.

All these measures follow logically from the decisions adopted at the Twentieth Congress. Their implementation now, after and despite the Hungarian shock, shows once again that the momentum of de-Stalinisation within the Soviet Union itself is irreversible.

The Plan Comes Under Fire: Soviet citizens are certain to see another important symptom of de-Stalinisation in the debates over the errors committed in the drafting of the present Five-Year Plan. This is the first time that the Soviet government has in fact admitted that a Plan was wrongly conceived and required correction. The admitted errors consist briefly in this: the Plan, it is said, was not based on a realistic assessment of available resources; it included overambitious schemes for capital investment, threatening to freeze too much capital in too many long-term construction projects, and it did not allocate adequate resources for solving the housing problem. Saburov, until December the head of the State Planning Commission, has been made to pay the price of these miscalculations.

Yet the critics did not aim at him alone. They aimed somewhat higher – at Bulganin, for it was the Prime Minister who introduced and recommended the Five-Year Plan, with all its erroneous features, to the Twentieth Congress. Since Bulganin is primarily an economic administrator and not just a ‘pure politician’, he cannot be held blameless in this matter. For the time being, Saburov alone has been brought to book, although not in the old Stalinist fashion. With his dismissal, the coalition that defeated Malenkov’s pro-consumer policy two years ago has approached dissolution. In that coalition Saburov played an important part. (Incidentally, Shepilov too, then editor of Pravda, was a most vocal critic of Malenkov’s pro-consumer bias, and so his dismissal from the Foreign Office may also have its domestic implications.)

This, then, has so far been the visible effect on the Soviet government of the Eastern European tensions. The Polish and Hungarian upheavals were at least in part brought about by the fact that the governments of those countries, following Moscow’s example, had overextended their economic resources and tied them up, to the consumers’ detriment, in too many heavy-industrial schemes, while the Soviet Union was not in a position to relieve their economic plight at a moment that became politically critical. This has induced the Malenkov group, after lying low for nearly two years, to return to the attack.

Industry or Houses? The attack, it seems, is still on, and its final result must still be awaited. The Supreme Soviet was not presented at its February session with any revised and corrected version of the entire Five-Year Plan, although the need for such a revision had been admitted. It had before it the amended Plan only for the year 1957. The corrections were in the nature of a compromise between the opposed views. The principle of priority for heavy industry was upheld. It is a principle that can hardly ever be disavowed entirely and in earnest, for in the economy of any great industrial power, heavy industry of necessity enjoys a certain priority. But some of this year’s targets have been reduced, although not drastically.

The chief ‘correction’ consists in the attempt to avoid the freezing of resources in too many new and long-term construction jobs and in the concentration on completion of industrial projects already under construction. This need not necessarily slow down for good the tempo in heavy industry, but it may free resources for the building of more houses. The importance of this problem is illustrated by a recent disclosure that nearly two-thirds of all Soviet capital investment goes at present into long-term construction projects. (In the 1930s the proportion was nearly nine-tenths.) Less than 30 per cent of capital investment goes into providing industry, both heavy and light, with the actual ‘working tools’. Under these circumstances, the competition between industrial building and housing is severe, and even a mild reduction in new industrial building may help relieve the present disastrous housing shortage. This year’s revised Plan provides for the building of nearly 30 per cent more houses than were erected last year.

An expansion at this rate would be an impressive feat in any country in normal circumstances. But it is highly inadequate in the Soviet Union, where the housing shortage, which is of a gravity unimaginable to people in the West, may become a source of explosive political discontent. It was over housing that the Malenkov group fought its losing battle two years ago against the coalition of Khrushchev, Bulganin, Saburov and Shepilov, and it is over housing again that this coalition is breaking down while the Malenkov group is regaining influence.

However, Malenkov’s pro-consumer policy had as its premise the détente in foreign affairs and a massive reduction in arms expenditure. Without the détente and partial disarmament, the pro-consumer policy and its advocates must be suspended in a vacuum. That is why the success of the Malenkov group has so far been rather modest despite the fact that the Khrushchev-Bulganin-Shepilov-Saburov team has been weakened and discredited and despite the growing ferment within the Soviet Union itself. The decisive question now is whether Soviet diplomacy under Gromyko will succeed in saving the détente or whether it will have to revert to the Cold War.