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Eight-Episode TV Documentary Series: Preparing For Danger In Times Of Safety, Episode Four

{Editor’s Note: In June 2006, Beijing released an eight-episode TV documentary series: Preparing For Danger In Times Of Safety – Historic Lessons Learned from the Demise of Soviet Communism. It was a research project conducted by the government think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Science. Afterwards, the Chinese Communist Party instructed party members across the nation to watch the series and launch serious discussions. The script of the prelude of the documentary quotes Hu Jintao’s words, “There are multiple factors contributing to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a very important one being Khrushchev throwing away Stalin’s knife and Gorbachev’s open betrayal of Marxism-Leninism.” The full text of the narratives has been translated. What follows is the fourth episode.}


The statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin stands quietly. Behind him is Smolny Institute, the once general headquarters of the October Revolution. Inside the gate lurk the shadows of history and the lawn that quietly witnessed so many momentous events.

During the October Revolution, a guard stopped Lenin at the gate. Someone on the staff said, “He is comrade Lenin.” The guard replied, “He should show his ID even if he is Lenin.” After Lenin showed his ID, he praised the Red Army soldier for his loyalty to his post. This story, entitled “Lenin and the Guard,” was in a textbook for Chinese elementary students during the 1950s and 60s.

While this story illustrates the loyalty of the Soviet soldiers, it highlights the decency of the leader of the proletariats and the working style of the Bolshevik Party, particularly the tight bond with the people that existed under Lenin’s leadership.

The working style of the party matters for the attitude of the people toward the party, even the life and death of the party.

Before it took power, the Bolshevik Party, led by Lenin, promoted the slogan “Peace, Land, and Bread” to rally the people together under the flag of the revolution. The party emerged victorious after the October Revolution because it represented the fundamental interests of the vast majority of the people, depended on the people, and led them to fight on behalf of their own interests.

After the establishment of the Soviet Union, the people were in charge of the country. The source of the party’s power was the thousands of millions of people who supported it.

May 1, 1920, a Saturday like any other, was a beautiful spring day for Moscow. Lenin and other Communist Party members across the city participated in a voluntary activity initiated by a party member at the Kazan Railroad Bureau. Lenin gave high praise for the initiative, calling it “a great creation” and dubbed it “Saturday Communist Volunteer Work.” It was soon being promoted across all party levels throughout the country. A great number of people who were not Communist Party members were mobilized to join in.

The leaders of the party and the members of the party should be merged into a single unit that, in turn, is assimilated into the vast majority of the people. Lenin, with his own behavior, warned the party, “It is a very naive idea that a communist society can be built only by the hands of communist party members. Communist party members are only a tiny drop of water in the immense sea of the people.” [1] “For a communist party with not many members in the transition to socialism and without immediate support from more developed countries, the most critical and the most frightening danger would be for us to separate ourselves from the people.” [2]

“Keeping a tight connection with the people is the most basic magic tool to keeping such danger at bay.”
Lenin personally drafted management regulations for Soviet agencies: “Each Soviet agency should post its scheduled dates and times to meet visitors, and the meeting rooms should be in places where people can come and go freely without showing any identification.

“Each Soviet agency should have registration books that record the visitors’ names, opinions, and, the nature of their problems. You should also schedule time for visitors on Sundays and holidays.” [3]

The regulations were very specific and reflective of the importance with which Lenin viewed people’s requests. Lenin personally followed the regulation. According to records in the Reception Office of the Soviet People’s Committee, from October 2 to December 16, 1922, he personally met with 125 people, two or three every day on average. The American reporter Albert Williams, who once interviewed Lenin and saw him meeting with people, called Lenin’s office “the greatest reception room in the world.”  [4]

Lenin knew clearly that if the party could not obtain the wholehearted support of the people, “the power of the Bolsheviks would not last even two and a half months, let alone two and a half years.”

This is Moscow’s subway. It feels like an art museum. From the 1930s until today, it has been the most developed and high quality underground transportation system in the world. It is a record of the history of the Soviet Union and is the mark of an era. That was the era of Stalin.

Looking back at the history of the Soviet Union in the 20th century, it can be said that, without Lenin, socialism would not have triumphed; without Stalin, the first powerful socialist country would not have existed.

The name “Stalin,” once symbolizing strong will and steel-like strength, had enormous power to inspire. That was because Stalin and his comrades—fellow Communist party members and the people—won a glorious victory in the Great Patriotic War. With that strength, he helped realize socialist industrialization quickly in an otherwise backward agricultural country.

In the hearts of CPSU members and the Soviet people, Stalin was once seen as a blazing, glorious banner. They did not forget that he sent his beloved son, Yakov, to the very front lines in the war. In July 1914, Yakov was taken prisoner. Hitler proposed that he was willing to swop Yakov with the German general Paulus. Stalin’s reply was, “I am not going to exchange a soldier for a general.” Yakov died in a concentration camp in Fascist Germany.

During either the war or in the peaceful period, Stalin lived simply. After he died, it was discovered that he only had four sets of clothes: two Marshal uniforms and two sets of casual clothes, one of which his staff had pushed him to have made for Mao Zedong’s visit. His Marshal uniforms were patched. The old-fashioned, faded wool and leather jacket was the one he had worn since the October Revolution. He was laid in his coffin in his old Marshal uniform, the tear in his sleeve mended, and the grease and stains brushed away. He only had about 900 rubles (the amount a skilled worker made in two weeks) in his savings account at his death. [5]

Stalin’s speeches and articles often referred to the ancient Greek legend of Antaeus. The hero Antaeus had enormous strength, which came from his mother Gaia, the goddess of the earth. When his feet left the earth, he was as weak as other men. Antaeus’ enemy discerned the source of his strength, held him up in the air, and crushed him to death. Antaeus’ enemies killed him while in the air, as when his feet left the earth, he could not replenish and absorb nutrients and energy.

Stalin likened the Communist Party to Antaeus and the people of the Soviet Union to Mother Earth.

After leading the party and the country for many years, Stalin began to rely on listening to reports and reading documents to gather information, and issuing directives and orders to solve problems. He rarely had contact with the common people or communicated with them in depth. In January 1928, he visited Siberia to inspect the grain purchase, but during the next 20 years, he never again visited a rural area. His knowledge of rural areas was therefore quite limited. By the time he died in 1953, the Soviet Union’s agriculture was in dire straits. Except for a few years, the level of grain production did not even exceed the level during the time of the Tsars. Probably that was related to his understanding. In addition, because of the great victory in the Great Patriotic War and the Soviet Union’s rapidly rising influence in the international community, Stalin increasingly became an object of hero worship. It became hard for higher-ranking officials to listen to the opinions of the people, and for lower level people’s opinions to be passed to higher-ranking officials. Detached from the “earth” of the people, Antaeus-type heroes make all kinds of mistakes.

During the Khrushchev era, there was an expansion of bureaucracy within the party: theories were separated from practices, and party cadres distanced themselves from the people. Bragging, flattery, and busy-work became the order of the day. Khrushchev, as the First Secretary of the CPSU and the chairman of the Council of Ministers, grasping the power of the party and government, was directly responsible for the tenor of the times.

Khrushchev criticized the personal worship of Stalin, but he encouraged people to have blind belief in him. He put himself on a pedestal and was domineering, authoritarian, and willful. He made blunt decisions and listened only to praise instead of criticism. He would not listen to the voices of the people inside or outside the party, let alone any word of discontent or criticism of himself.

On October 14, 1964, at the meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Khrushchev, who had been voted out of his official positions, gave his last political speech. He said in tears, “Nobody sitting here has ever openly and honestly pointed out any of my shortcomings and mistakes. You always followed whatever I said and supported all my suggestions. You, too, lack the courage and character to stick to your principles.” [6] His comments realistically reflected the serious problems within the CPSU.

When Brezhnev was in power, the problem of the party’s working style was more serious. Conformism and conservatism took the front seat in the party ideology. A large segment of the party leadership was content with the current situation and did not want to change—or improve—anything. Inside the Soviet political system, the sentiment often repeated in private was, “No, we do not need to change anything.” The party and the government became more and more detached from reality and the people.

During this period, there were many empty talks, and people became more attached to formalities. Viktor Afanasyev, the chief editor of Pravda, participated in drafting many of the important documents for the CPSU Central Committee. In his later recollections, he expressed his disappointment with the atmosphere surrounding the party. He gave an example that, when drafting the Central Committee’s report for the CPSU Congress, the style, the method, and the order of the contents were already set. The report always began with “the overall crisis of capitalism” and the second part of the domestic situation always included “great accomplishments” or “a couple of mistakes.” He also revealed that, when drafting for Brezhnev, there was no need for “new ideas,” not to mention “creative ideas.” As long as one could find new formalities to express the habitual thinking, it was considered “creative.” It was this formalism and impractical working style that kept the party leaders at all levels from paying attention to people’s letters about the current issues. [7]

As the highest leader of the CPSU, Brezhnev not only failed to rectify this situation, but exacerbated it. He himself liked to hear praise and other people’s adulation. During his reign, his strange obsession with superficial honors and awards reached the point of culmination.

Because Lenin and Brezhnev both had the middle name of Ilyich, the phrases “The Two Ilyiches” and “From Ilyich to Ilyich” were proposed within the ideological circle. In the 1977 October Revolution celebration parade, for the first time Brezhnev’s portrait appeared as the same size as Lenin’s. Not long after, portraits of “The Two Ilyiches” were hung across the country.

It is estimated that Brezhnev was awarded more than 200 medals during his period, including the “Order of Lenin” and “Hero of the Soviet Union.” Many of them were awarded because of his hints. It is dumbfounding that, at the funeral procession of his death, as many as 44 officers were holding all of his medals.

Brezhnev also had a great fondness for material wealth, in addition to honors and adulation. When Brezhnev visited Azerbaijan, Aliyev, the First Secretary of the Azerbaijan Republic’s Communist Party, gave him a half-life-sized sculpture made of pure gold. Aliyev was soon promoted to Moscow to take the position of the First Vice Chairman of the Ministerial Conference, and also became a member of the Politburo.

“Something that is liked by the higher levels must become popular among lower levels.” Within a short period of time, members of the CPSU went after money, awards, and praise. People lied to each other and became corrupt. Many joined the party to get a government or party position and reap personal material benefits instead of to build the socialist cause. When grasping personal and group interest became the ultimate pursuit, the working style of CPSU deteriorated. During the 18 years when Brezhnev was in power, the Soviet Union’s economic, political, and societal problems accumulated steadily.

In March 1985, Gorbachev became the top leader of the Soviet Union.

If an outstanding problem in the party’s working style was gradually moving away from collective leadership and from the people, then it became even worse when Gorbachev came to power. Among the party leaders, Gorbachev was famous for “eloquence,” his capability of speech. He was zealous about going to different places throughout the country for high profile inspections, eager to speak and write articles, and frequently appearing in the media and public. According to memories of his long-term staff members, in October of 1985 alone, he inspected many different places and gave as many as 15 speeches and reports. The political ideas he presented in his speeches often did not agree with those of the Politburo; he did not inform the members before making them public. The members of the Politburo often found out about his ideas and promises from newspapers. Gorbachev not only threw away the collective leadership but divorced himself from reality and the public. Not listening to the voices of the people and their suffering, he usually made decisions based only on his own thinking. In order to impose a nationwide “anti-alcohol” campaign, he ordered the complete destruction of all the grape vines in Georgia to achieve a zero production of alcoholic beverages. As a result he was nicknamed the “Secretary of Mineral Water.” [8]

Bolstered by public opinion inside and outside of the Soviet Union, especially in the Western world, Gorbachev gloried in his image of being thought “open-minded.” Valery Boldin, an assistant to Gorbachev at the time, wrote a book- Ten Years That Shook the World: The Gorbachev Era as Witnessed by His Chief of Staff. In the book, he wrote that Gorbachev often “read aloud the comments from other countries on his great reforms, and sometimes did this for hours. This is how he spent his time instead reading important documents waiting to be taken care of.” [9]

Nikolai Ryzhkov, who was once the chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers, said that Gorbachev “was not good at, did not like, and did not want to listen to others’ opinions, but only liked to talk endlessly about himself, with lots of fabulous but empty words. He liked to talk about boring ideas and make them sound like the best things in the world.” [10] Others recalled that, while Gorbachev’s original intent was to accomplish “remarkable achievements,” when he took office, he viewed the impact of his speeches and writings as his “remarkable achievements.” He was not interested in constructing correct reform policies, did not take practical measures to achieve his goals, and did not implement the plans by exerting a lot of hard and meticulous efforts. His leadership style was to “start with talking and end with talking.” As a result, many resolutions made in the early stages of the perestroika were not carried out. Due to his working style of empty talk without pragmatic approaches, many problems of the party and the country were not only not resolved, but rapidly accumulated and worsened.

What Gorbachev said and what he did never matched. He focused on mental tricks and what would benefit him.

Gorbachev was more of a double-faced figure whose words never matched his deeds. Good at calculation, he quite often sat on the fence. Ryzhkov said, “Many people, even those who knew Gorbachev to some degree, usually could not figure out what he would do next, because he could change at any time.” Before Gorbachev became President, he claimed many times, “To me, the party is everything. I can give up the position of president, because in my heart, the most important thing is the CPSU.” But after he became President, his actions belied his previous declaration. After the Soviet Union fell apart, in a conversation with the Japanese social activist Ikeda Daisaku, he said that he felt honored to be able to clean the vicious influence of communism from people’s minds during the years of reform. Boldin recalled that Gorbachev’s ideas were very diverse and that he was very good at talking in a roundabout way. Boldin said, “He usually walked forward two steps, and sideway three steps, and then backward one step.” “Facing the steadfast Marxists, he would say that he would fight for the bright future of communism and would never deviate; while facing the capitalists, he would say that the country would be successful only by adopting a free market economy, democracy, and freedom like Austria and Sweden.” “He was good at manipulating. Over the years this ability reached an unbelievably perfect level.”

Ligachev, a former member of the Politburo, painfully recalled that, at that time, the culture, both inside the party and in society, was saying one thing and doing another thing. This was one of the main reasons the party lost popularity among the people.

An editor of a TV station based in Moscow and also once a CPSU member said, “I was once a proud and honorable Communist Party member, and I have actively participated in various party activities. However, people like Gorbachev, under the banner of reform, were actually fighting for power and fighting to be the president. They never thought about the needs and wishes of the ordinary party members and the people. They have long become a group of special bureaucrats high above the people. With such party leaders and bad working style, how could we still follow them?

From January 1989 to January 1991, within merely two years, more than 2.9 million CPSU members declared their resignations from the party. Those who stayed had mostly lost their trust in the party.

The country’s largest automobile factory—the Ural Automotive Plant—had more than 9,000 party members in 1989, but by January of 1991 only about 1,600 remained, and 300 of them refused to pay their party dues. In the Bryansk area, more than 6,000 people joined the Communist Party in 1986. The membership shrank to 750 in 1989, and only 4 in 1991. According to incomplete statistics, by 1990, one fifth of the party organizations at factory workshops and one half of the party groups had been dissolved or become inactive. The party had basically lost all its fighting power.

The wrong path that Gorbachev took not only destroyed the party’s cohesive force but also led to the collapse of its base. The relationship between the party and the people was as tense as it could ever be. The economic conditions deteriorated; the conflicts among ethnic groups became acute; and the people lost their trust in the party.

Ryzhkov once painfully said, “By 1990, the party was already slowly dying.”

By the end of 1990, the Communist Party in republics such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, and other Soviet republics had already lost its ruling power. The positions of mayors of major cities such as Moscow and Leningrad fell to members of opposition parties. A poll in early 1991 showed that only 13 percent of the people supported the Soviet Union’s government; 73% were not supportive of the Soviet Union’s government, and only 14% supported the CPSU.

After stepping down Gorbachev admitted, “Losing the support of the people, we lost our most important asset. This led to the emergence of political adventurers and speculators. This was my mistake, a major mistake.” No, it was more than just a “mistake,” it was a betrayal of the people. Gorbachev eventually betrayed the Soviet people utterly. He, under the name of people, waved the flags of humanity and democracy, harmed people’s fundamental interests and eventually stood in opposition to the people. As the CPSU leadership, headed by Gorbachev, completely betrayed the people, people had no interest in the party because it no long represented the fundamental interests of the people.

After the 8.19 incident, some of the genuine Communist Party members in the CPSU were extremely grieved but very powerless. General Akhromeyev, the Chief of Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces, killed himself with the handgun that had accompanied him during his entire life. In his suicide letter, he left his final lament, “What I have fought for with my entire life has been ruined.”

[1] The Complete Works of Lenin, 2nd Edition, Volume 43, Page 96.
[2] Selected Works of Lenin, Volume 4, People’s Publishing House, year 1995, 3rd Edition, Page 626.
[3] The Complete Works of Lenin, Volume 28, Page 330.
[4] State Affairs of Lenin, Renmin University of China Press, 1982 edition, Page 617.
[5] Refer to [Russian] IU. V Emelianov, The Secret File of Joseph Stalin: A Hidden Life, Yilin Publishing House, 2006 edition, page 523.
[6] Sergei Khrushchev, The Behind-the-Scene of Khrushchev Stepping Down, Central Compilation and Translation Press, 2000 edition, Page 146.
[7] Viktor Afanasyev, The Rise and Fall of the Prevda, Oriental Press, 1993 edition, Page 92.
[8] Valery Boldin, Ten Years That Shook the World: The Gorbachev Era As Witnessed by His Chief of Staff, Central Compilation and Translation Press, 1996 edition, Page 133-137.
[9] Ibid., Page 282.
[10] Nikolai Ryzhkov, Ten Years of Great Upheavals, Central Compilation and Translation Press, 1998 edition, Page 369.