18 May 2014

M. S. Gorbachev: The Last Ploy? - Or What Was Really Going On

Hungary and I go back quite a long way, in fact some fifty years, and I have learned a vast amount from the country. I first came here in 1961, to attend a Hungarian language course in Debrecen. Back then I was taken up with the Habsburg Monarchy and the British Council had started an arrangement with the Hungarians, who looked after a mixed bag of students very well – there were some west Europeans, as well as people from the Bloc, headed by a Ukrainian colonel, as I remember, who may have been from formerly Hungarian Ruthenia for all I know. My Hungarian was not very good but I could at least read it, and, after a period when I was greatly influenced by the works of the elder Seton Watson, I began to understand Hungary’s enormous strengths. I read various books about it – whether John Lukacs’s splendid book on Budapest or Josef Horvath’s Budapest um die Jahrhundertwende or for that matter the three-volume Erdély Története which I did manage to read and review for The Times Literary Supplement back in 1987: then in 1988 when there was a Hungarian Festival in London I was chosen to do four lectures on Hungarian history in which I think I struck the right notes. The Hungarians certainly did, because right at the moment they replaced János Kádár, and brought the leading reformist Imre Pozsgay into the Politburo, a very clear indication that a big change was in the offing. As it happens I was sent to Budapest by The Daily Telegraph just in time to see the change, in Parliament itself. After that, people in the streets outside somehow just walked differently. I have known Maria Schmidt for more than twenty years and have admired what she has done with the Museum here; by chance I also taught some of the members of the present government when they were students at Oxford. A long story in other words and thank you for the invitation.

The present moment marks not just the liberation of Hungary twenty one years ago, of course. That occurred in a much larger context, by which I mean Germany. 9 November, when the Wall came down, was dramatic, and Willy Brandt was quite rightly in tears.

At that time I had got to know the wonderful Margaret Thatcher and I wish I had persuaded her to see the truth about Germany: her unification in present shape is a very good thing, which we from the British Isles have wanted since about – should I say the Thirty Years War. Adenauer always said that the worst thing the British did in Germany was to let Prussia annex the Grand Duchy of Berg in 1815 (it is the Ruhrgebiet and is not bad at world wars) – to create a Germany that is an enormous prince bishopric.

I begin on this personal note sincerely enough, but my own very tangential involvement in Hungarian affairs is symbolic of something much larger. That Debrecen course, fifty years ago, was a small piece in the machinery of what Cold War historians call “the first detente”. Khrushchev had denounced Stalin, more vigorously in 1961 than in 1956, and he was launching socialism with a human face. In that, Hungary had a role much larger than her size would warrant. Allowing parts of the Hungarian diaspora to remake its old links was part of this and that of course was to turn eventually into big business, literally so in the shape of George Soros. Even in the sixties, as Austria prospered, Hungary was used as a sort of shop-window. True, the shop window did not go much beyond the Váci utca: once you had gone two tram-stops past the Eastern Station you were well and truly into Communist Europe, but at least in Hungary there was a beginning of something, there was some room for manoeuvre and there was even a talk of economic reform that was not just fictitious. In the seventies she built up the largest per capita debt with western banks, and so had links with the West and especially Germany that were separate but also useful to Moscow. The time was to come in the later 1980’s when Hungary in effect took a lead role in destroying the Iron Curtain and the Bloc. The Hungarian part of the Iron Curtain was dismantled in June 1989, which meant that East Germans wanting to take refuge in West Germany only needed to go to Hungary, as tens of thousands, that summer, did. This led to the humiliation and fall of the East German government and on 9 November, famously, the Berlin Wall itself was rushed by a mob. After that, other parts of the Bloc experienced revolution of a similar sort – Czechoslovakia on 17 November.

An interesting case was Romania, where, as he was led out to be shot after what was obviously a kangaroo court, Ceauşescu said that it had all been arranged between the Americans and the Russians. That was one interesting remark. There had been others, by Hungarians. One, in 1956, had said that Communism would go on until it exploded at the head, in Moscow. The other interesting Hungarian remark was made by Imre Nagy himself, leader of the revolutionary government of 1956, not long before he as well was taken out for execution on 16 June, 1958. He remarked: he was sure that one day he would be re-habilitated; but he feared that it would be the executioners who did the re-habilitating. And so it happened on the 41th anniversary of his execution, when 400.000 people attended the reburial ceremony of the martyrs of 1956 – celebrated by speeches both from the opposition (most notably Viktor Orbán) and the government. That man knew his Communism, and well he might, because he had been in Moscow exile for more than two decades and by some accounts had been an agent for the NKVD in Comintern circles.

The Fall of the Wall at the time seemed to be rather an heroic epic, but it now looks much less so. I wonder if future historians might call it the last lie of Communism, a method by which the last heirs of the Leninist experiment could survive. Survive they have, or at any rate the intelligent ones. Do you argue that this is a dreadful inheritance for the post-Communist settlements, or do you say – the European and American bureaucracies on the whole say it – that the situation resembles the English Restoration of 1660, when common sense prevailed, and the zealots were put in their place? That was on the whole the view of foreign offices, and that went back to the early post-Stalin period when Churchill himself, he of the Iron Curtain speech, had launched a manoeuvre to put himself, together with Eisenhower, at the head of a movement for what was subsequently known as detente.

There is always a problem about Communism, that it treated truth as manipulable. One outcome is that the written sources are problematic. They are of course enormous, of tidal wave proportions, but where do you find the truth? There are not really many books that reveal things. When you look at, say, the Woodrow Wilson institute’s productions, for instance, isn’t it striking that the revelations are more or less what The Reader’s Digest had been saying all along? I maybe exaggerate but I owe more for the understanding of Communism in the past two-plus decades to Alain Besançon and Vladimir Bukovsky. Yes, memoirs. They matter more under Communism than under “capitalism”, and why, is a good question. My Hungarian is not very good but I did read with attention Vladimir Farkas’s Nincs mentség. He worked of course in this very building, The House of Terror, sixty years ago, when it was the headquarters of the Stalinist secret police, with him as a top officer. In that memoir he does tell the sort of story that makes you understand Communism. He was brought up by his grand-mother, an old Jewess from the Felvidék (Upper Hungary, now Slovakia), who took in washing and lived in a damp cellar. His mother had emigrated to France and his father to Moscow where he ran part of the Comintern (and subsequently the Hungarian ÁVO). Vladimir spent a decade in prison after the fall of Hungarian Stalinism and was released in the early sixties, coming to see his little daughter and his wife, who slammed the door in his face.

No doubt there are things wrong with Vladimir Farkas’book but there are many many things right, and you are better off with memoirs than with the shelf-loads of stuff that we all used to have to consider if we talked about Communism.

It survives because of the anti-Communist classics, and Hungary, with Arthur Koestler and Tibor Szamuely in the leading roles, have done their stuff.

What was happening? The Hungarian refugee of 1956 who said this will all one day explode in Moscow was right. What happened with the death of Brezhnev late in 1982? Vladimir Bukovsky had the run of the Politburo archive in surreal circumstances and he showed that in 1975 Andropov knew what was happening. The Americans were losing over Vietnam. However they had an engineering capacity that gave them top class weaponry – “smart bombs” such as were on display a decade later in Afghanistan – and of course Andropov and the KGB very well understood the implications. But in any event the argument over weapons would convince even old-fashioned Marxists that the capitalists were winning, and the contrast between West and East Germany made the same point only too obviously. It is true that in the 1970’s you could very well have argued that “capitalism” was collapsing and many western Marxists had their moment of glory. Twenty-five per cent inflation, and the IMF called in, to England, the heartland of industrial revolution? British soldiers having to be kept going by the social security network? The Americans losing hearts and minds in Vietnam?

No wonder people in Moscow thought that, with a bit of patience, they would win. But the experience of 1981–83 showed yet again that capitalism would rebound. The strangest misjudgement came with the casual decision to invade Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979. The details were written up, a Russian doctor recording his shame at seeing Hazifullah Amin’s small son rushing up in tears to his father who had got out of a hospital bed with the fixtures still attached, part of an operation to cure the food poisoning that KGB cooks had arranged. That war was unwinnable and not really worth winning. The Communists had prided themselves even in 1918 that they knew how to handle Islam. It is certainly true that they gave important help to the Turkish Nationalists, and it is strange to see how, though three months separated letter and response, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Lenin somehow understood each other. But by 1979 that Soviet understanding had gone, and the country was plunged into the Afghan war.

It is just not easy to write the history of all this because the system lied, even to itself, even in secret records. There are hints here and there as to what was really going on but the lies were such that, as someone said, even the initials “USSR” represented four of them. I wonder what historians are going to make of Mikhail Sergeyevitch Gorbachev. Gorbachev was of course not an idiot but his role in late Communism was to reassure the West that it had nothing to fear, that Communism did indeed have a human face. That was what struck Margaret Thatcher when Gorbachev came to see her at the end of 1984. It was not what he said. It was his eyes. She knew she was dealing with something different and not just an apparatchik of the old sort. At the time oddly enough a miners’ strike was under way in Great Britain and Moscow was supporting it in a way that had become usual since 1926, but that did not prevent Margaret Thatcher from “doing business” as she said. The business was mainly to reassure the Americans that a change was coming in Russia.

The Soviets had tried to do a deal with the European Left, and had advanced the cause of disarmament. This was part of an old strategy, going back to the later 1940’s and early 1950’s, to stop Germany from joining up with the Americans and NATO. There had been the Stalin Note of 1951–52 which promised German unity in return for neutrality (or “Finlandization”) and then there was Molotov’s proposal in 1954 of a pan-European “Security Conference” which led twenty years later to the OSCE. This was another way of attaining the same end, and the machine went into action from 1980 and the Olympic Games in Moscow, which, cleared of critics, became a sort of Forbidden City. In Germany there was mass mobilization of the Left, and it was Helmut Schmidt who stopped the rot – killing his own government in case it killed Germany. But at any rate in 1981 the West was recovering.

There had been a decisive moment in October 1979, when the Federal Reserve of the US had put up interest rates to almost twenty per cent as a way of defeating inflation. Credit was thereby (and in other ways) restricted. The incoming Reagan and Thatcher administrations knew that this would mean unemployment but that was a price that needed to be paid because the inflation had got out of hand and was rewarding the enemies of the West, internal and external. Margaret Thatcher was especially outspoken on this. That she also regarded disarmament as specious nonsense, and as far as the installation of Soviet SS20s were concerned, as outright hypocritical, added to the overall Soviet picture.

There was one straight-forward answer to this, a good Leninist one. Make an appeal on common sense grounds to the Right and especially try to appeal to “our common European home” – an expression owing originally to Brezhnev if not even Adam Rapacki. But this time round there was going to be a very bold strategy. The USSR was going back to a policy of Beria’s, by which the East German state (or proto-state: the formal proclamation had not been quite made) would simply be sold to the western Germans. Of course it was all concealed in coded language, even in the old Stalinist Wilhelm Pieck’s diaries, but that was the burden of the tale. Moscow found Ulbricht tiresome and could do a deal with the West. Andropov, from Bukovsky’s documents, was saying or suggesting something similar (and as a precaution against a Hitler cult, actually told Brezhnev that Hitler’s remains were buried with other Bunker remains including the dog in boxes under the KGB parking lot in Magdeburg: at dead of night they were tipped into a tributary of the Elbe).

What this took was Socialism with a human face. That, with Gorby, it duly got, though whether a prohibition as regards alcohol counts within the parameters we may doubt. In the first years as he consolidated his position in the usual way by replacing very widely men of the old order, he did not really do much. There was more heavy investment, but no real economic reform at all. Nor was there much formal economic reform in the Bloc though of course informal (if that is the word) change had been going on in Hungary for decades. At any rate it was extraordinary to see that Gorby wrote a book, Perestroyka, which is almost unreadable, and became, especially in Germany, a best-seller.

If this had continued as in the old days, it might have had some permanent success for the Soviets. The West would as ever when offered some sign of gratitude or recognition have lined up the subsidies, produced the commentators to say that after all the Socialist countries had full employment, the bankers, as with Flaubert’s Dambreuse, “would have paid to be bought”. However, events showed that poor Gorbachev was the last of the ploys. He thought he could manage matters with reform Communists, that East Germany could survive as a sort of Austria, that the Soviet peoples would support socialist internationalism.

It was in the end a strange false consciousness, one that entirely neglected the nationalism that had been building up under the surface. That in the end swept the whole edifice away. The whole Communist phenomenon went, as that Hungarian said, when it exploded in Moscow.

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