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

{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 fifth episode.}

Episode Five: The Privileged Class Of The Communist Party Of The Soviet Union

In the autumn of 1988, hundreds of thousands of people gathered all of a sudden in front of a shop located at No. 2 Granovsky Street in Moscow. Why would this small store concern so many people and be such big news?

This was a special shop serving a few special customers. That day was the last day before the store’s declared date of closure. Ordinary Soviets referred the special customers of these special stores as the privileged class, calling them “our communist aristocrats.” This privileged class was gradually formed during the Brezhnev era, and further developed and evolved in the Gorbachev era. It is this privileged class that played a catalytic role in the collapse of the CPSU from within, and became an important factor that caused dramatic changes in the Soviet Union.

After the October Revolution, war and famine posed serious threats to the nascent Soviet regime.

“Bread will be there; everything will be there.” These well-known words of Vassily from the movie October Revolution once became a fashionable classic statement. People today may find it hard to believe that Lenin’s staff members would yield for a small piece of bread, but it is real history.

This movie plot was written based on a true story. In 1918, the nascent Soviet regime faced a food crisis. In a People’s Committee meeting, Yoruba, the People’s Member of the Food Committee, suddenly collapsed. The doctor came after an emergency call and said that it was due to hunger. As the Soviet Government’s top official in charge of food, he had the privilege of allocating hundreds of millions or even tens of millions of pood of food, but did not leave enough food to fill his own belly. Lenin immediately recommended establishing a “convalescent canteen,” so that these people who worked hard day and night were able to have enough food. It was entirely right and justifiable.

The “convalescent canteen” initiated by Lenin slowly expanded into special stores, with their scale, quantity, and especially their nature undergoing fundamental changes.

Half a century later, only the CPSU’s high-ranking officials, with special passes, were entitled to enter the building that had no sign. This is the largest special store in Moscow. Every weekend, limousines parked in front of the building, filling the street for the whole block.

The store had everything, including luxury foreign commodities such as French brandy, Scotch whiskey, American cigarettes, Swiss chocolate, Italian neckties, Austrian leather shoes, British woolen cloth, German radios, Japanese tape recorders, and goods that are scarce in the Soviet Union. One reporter publicly said, “For the elite, communism was already built.”

There were more than 100 stores like this in Moscow alone. The Kremlin’s privileged class had its own rules: the higher the cadre’s rank, the more privileges he was entitled to, and the greater the contrast in material benefits between the elite and ordinary people. Of course, those who enjoyed this privilege constituted a tiny fraction of the CPSU cadres. However, was this privilege the first step leading to the generation of the special class?

When the Soviet Union’s socialist development just began, people worked hard toward a new life. In the hard struggles to achieve a common ideal, society despised the grabbing of privileges and personal gain.

In the nation, at the critical moment, as the leading cadres of the CPSU, if there was any “privilege,” it was to take the lead, fight a bloody war, and lead the people to drive out invaders amid the roar of Katyusha.

In the Stalin era, the party put strict requirements on the cadres as a whole. The Soviet Union was facing a harsh war environment, as well as waves of political struggles. Party members and cadres marched towards the front battlefield in throngs. As leading cadres changed frequently, it was impossible to form an elite class.

When Khrushchev came to power, he implemented special cadre policies. According to Article 25 of the Constitution of the party passed at the 22nd Congress of the CPSU, members and cadres were to change on a regular basis. [1] At the grass-roots-elections each year, a large number of party secretaries were replaced as their term of office expired. The replacement rate was as high as 60%. Therefore, during this period, a privileged group within the party did not really emerge.

The elite class within the CPSU gradually came into being after Brezhnev came to power, especially in his later period.

In April 1966, at the 23rd Congress of the CPSU, the first national Congress of the party after Brezhnev presided over the work of the CPSU’s Central Committee, he amended Article 25 of the Constitution of the party. Brezhnev especially admired a sentence from Suslov, who was a long-term supervisor of the ideological work, “The stability of the cadres is a guarantee of success.” Starting from one-sided pursuit of the stability of cadres, Brezhnev developed the formation of de facto tenured positions for leading cadres. Brezhnev, Suslov, and other high-ranking officials died in their positions. [2]

Guided by Brezhnev’s cadre policy, the composition of the CPSU’s leadership remained largely unchanged for a long period of time. At the 23rd Congress of the CPSU, as many as 79.4% of the Central Committee members were re-elected. At the 25th Congress, except for the Central Committee members who died, the re-election rate was as high as 90%. Some member’s terms were as long as 25 years.

During the 1978 – 1981’s two state Communist Party congress period, among the 156 state party secretaries, only five were replaced. In the spring of 1978, the average age of 58 ministers and the vice chairman of the Council of Ministers reached 70 years. Thus, a group of aging leading cadres with lifetime tenure was formed. The consequence of such a cadre system was not only that the leadership lacked vitality, but it enabled the easy formation of a core group of a privileged class.

Lifetime tenure of the leading cadres, objectively speaking, fostered the growth of the privileged class. At the same time, more agencies were set up to allow for more leading cadres’ positions. At the end of the 1970s, the department-level agencies directly under the CPSU’s Central Committee reached as many as 20, most of which duplicated government agencies. Some even had the same names as the government agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense Industry, the Department of Heavy Industries and Energy Resources, the Department of Machinery Manufacturing, and the Department of Culture.

The CPSU during the Brezhnev period provided the right soil for the formation and growth of the privileged class.

The abundant “special treatment” often surprised high-ranking officials who were newly promoted. Ligachev once recalled that in 1983, the day after he started serving as the chief of the Department of Organization of the CPSU Central Committee, he was equipped with a limousine. When he proposed to change to a low-end car, the Director of the General Office of the CPSU’s Central Committee reprimanded him. What he was doing would make him “special” and undermine the conduct of the agencies. [3]

Without personal experiences, it’s impossible to imagine the enjoyment of the privileges.

In Brezhnev’s period, sons and daughters of the privileged class easily gained access to the best universities only by virtue of their parents’ positions. After graduation, they then entered the most privileged sectors, and quickly savored the power of the elite positions. Privileges can even become a shield for unimpeded corruption.

One example is Brezhnev’s son-in-law Churbanov, who, relying on his father-in-law’s power, soared from a junior officer to an Admiral within only 10 years, and later served as First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs. During this period, he was taking bribes of 650,000 rubles, shocking the country with the famous “case of the emperor’s son-in-law.” Brezhnev’s son Yuri was another playboy. At a very young age, he became the Soviet Union’s First Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade.

In January 1982, customs officials found a large number of hidden diamonds from a Soviet Union citizen who was to travel abroad from the Moscow airport. After verification, they were found to be the personal collection of Bouguer Liehmova, a female lion trainer from the Soviet Union’s Great Circus. Shortly thereafter, the Circus’s Art Editor Zvíkov and the Circus head Quelle Vatov were arrested. At Zvíkov’s home, an investigation uncovered approximately one million U.S. dollars worth of diamonds and other precious items; in Quelle Vatov’s room, they found approximately 50 million pounds worth of Western currency, and expensive jewelry and paintings. These items belonged to Brezhnev’s daughter Galina.

The “story” did not stop there. Yuri, Brezhnev’s son and First Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade were also implicated in jewelry and diamond smuggling. This case should have been heard by the Ministry of the Interior, but was interestingly handled by the KGB. Tsvigun, the First Vice-Chairman of the KGB and in charge of the case, was Brezhnev’s in-law. As a result, the “story” ended. Brezhnev’s son Yuri and daughter Galina remained free.

Shchyolokov, as the Minister of Internal Affairs for 17 years, had been using his powers to turn public assets into his private property. He not only appropriated the largest country villa and guesthouse of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but also occupied a large apartment at No 24 Herzen Street. In these two residences, he stored a large number of personal assets and belongings. In one of the villas, light carpets were piled up to the seventh floor, while famous Russian artists’ oil paintings were actually stuffed under the bed.

At the late stage of Brezhnev’s rule, the corruption was rampant in Moscow and other Republics.

In 1980, a detective occasionally bought some canned herring. When he opened the cans, he found the cans were not filled with herring, but with expensive caviar. How did it become caviar instead of herring? After a painstaking investigation, the case was finally exposed. It turned out that a large number of Soviet Union officials at the Ministry of Fisheries had reached a secret deal with some companies to put expensive caviar produced in Sochi and Astrakhan into cans marked as herring, and then ship them abroad. Western companies bought these cans at the price of canned herring, and then sold them as canned caviar. The Soviet Union officials who participated in this deal made a huge profit from it. The money was deposited in their Swiss bank accounts. This reselling activity lasted a decade.

After verification, the case caused the Soviet Union millions of dollars worth of economic losses. It involved a number of officials, such as the Deputy Minister of Fisheries, the Deputy Director and senior officials from the Fish Production and Selling Administration, the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Trade, the Ministry of Food Industry, the Pacific Fleet, as well as hotel staff in Moscow and other cities. A total of 300 people were involved. It was the mayor of Sochi, Wolongkefu, who was responsible for the distribution of such canned products. Maidunuofu was the first secretary of the Krasnodar jurisdiction. He was in charge of the city, a member of the CPSU Central Committee, and a trusted aide of Brezhnev. He was ordered to be involved in the case, and tried to protect Wolongkefu in every possible way he could.

After the newspaper Literature reported the news of Wolongkefu’s arrest, Maidunuofu was extremely nervous. He went to Brezhnev in Moscow for help again and again. Due to the seriousness of the case, the KGB Chairman Andropov presented the case to Brezhnev in person, giving the details of the ins and outs of the case. In front of the concrete evidence, Brezhnev asked, “What do you think?” Andropov replied, “It seems you need to send Maidunuofu to court.” Brezhnev said, “This cannot work. We now don’t have a reliable person in Krasnodar. Is it possible to first find another place to move him?”

Although later, Maidunuofu was removed from the post, he was then transferred to Moscow. He became the Deputy Minister of Food Grains and moved into a luxury residence in Moscow. This “story” was thus drawn to a satisfactory conclusion.

In addition, the “Krasnodar case,” “Ocean cases,” “Uzbek cases,” and so on … attracted widespread public attention.

The Soviet Union’s privileged class first came from the officials. Some people thought that the higher rank, the more the privileges. To get promoted, one had to offer bribes to please the leaders. Thus official positions had a price. In some areas, even the party’s secretary position was clearly marked with a price. In 1969, in the District of Azerbaijan, the first secretary was worth 200 thousand rubles; the second secretary was 100 thousand rubles.

The phenomenon of selling official positions for a price also existed in other Republics, although in different forms, and in varying degrees. As it was pointed out at the February Plenary at the Georgian Communist Party Central Committee in 1973, “There are serious violations of Leninist principles in the selection and employment of cadres. The administrative leading cadres are not appointed according to their capability and moral character, but behind the scenes, through acquaintances and family relations, based on whether the person is personally loyal to individual superiors.”

In order to protect vested interests, the privileged class is against any type of change that would compromise their privileges. It was impossible for them to take the initiative to curb the widespread corruption within the party and the whole society. Brezhnev sarcastically commented on reform, “Reform for what? To do our work well is enough.” At the end of the 70’s, the chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, Kosygin and his aides, drafted a report on economic reform, causing dissatisfaction and resistance among some of the bureaucratic elite. As a result, Kosygin’s aides were fired.

The privileged class seriously damaged the reputation of socialism, created social gaps, and ruined social morality. The gap between ordinary people and the privileged classes widened. In Soviet society, the general public called themselves “we”, but called the privileged as “they.” When speaking about the “privileged class” of the CPSU, we must emphasize three points as follows:

First, the “privileged class” referred to just a small portion of CPSU cadres who were degenerated and abusive of power. The West used to call all CPSU cadres, approximately about 600-700 thousand at that time, as the privileged class. They did so deliberately and maliciously. The purpose was to smear and overthrow the CPSU with distorted propaganda. At that time, most of the Soviet Union’s cadres had integrity, courage, and dedication. They were firmly walking on the socialist path.

Secondly, we must distinguish between what is a reasonable difference in the income or wealth distribution and what is “privilege.” At that time, even though the Soviet Union did have a “privileged class,” within the party as well as within society, the “iron rice bowl” egalitarian distribution existed in the Soviet Union at the same time.

Thirdly, we cannot only pay attention to the “privilege” phenomenon that exists in the distribution system, but also need to observe the existence of the “privilege” phenomenon in other areas, such as in policy enactment, the appointment of cadres, corruption and even violation of the law in order to obtain a benefit for themselves or their small groups, and escaping the supervision of party discipline and regulations. All of this undermined the ties between the party and the general public, causing more harm in changing the nature of the party. The phenomenon was far more notable during the Gorbachev era.

Gorbachev had a villa after he took office. He later moved to a new bigger and better house. Let us take a tour on this outdated villa. Right after entering the door, there is a huge lobby. Downstairs is a glass patio and a movie theater. The dining table is 10 meters long; the kitchen is like a large food processing plant; there is an underground freezer; on the second floor, a hall is connected to the sunroom, office, and bedroom. The interior furnishings in the entire house are extravagant.

In a certain sense, this extravagant living standard by far fails to reflect the truth of the privileged personal life. After Gorbachev came to power, he started the so-called “reform,” which turned out to be the catalyst for the privileged class to become the new bourgeoisie. Chaotic reforms provided a perfect opportunity for the privileged class to pursue their utmost interests. During the Gorbachev period, the privileged class was not satisfied to only pursue personal enjoyment. They wanted to possess all of the privileges forever, and to pass the privileges from generation to generation. At the same time, they found that the so-called socialism, communist beliefs, and the aura of a Communist had all lost their value. The already possessed privileges needed a face-lift. Capitalism was the most appropriate system to legalize their vested interests, especially when the CPSU and the country were in a crisis of life and death. The privileged class, in order to maintain their special interests and to legitimize these interests, did not hesitate to tear off their masks, openly promote the abandonment of socialism, and completely adopt capitalism.

During this period, the privileged class used their powers to aggressively grab things for personal gain. Especially for those economic bureaucrats who directly managed the wealth of the state-owned enterprises, when Gorbachev introduced commercialization, a market-oriented economy, and economic liberalization, it was a chaotic time. These bureaucrats turned government bodies into private companies by simple name change, and occupied the state property as their own. Some vigorously exchanged their power for money, obtained favorable export quotas, exported raw materials and ammunition and stole public property. Some obtained huge profits by working in securities exchanges or the futures market, or built new banks and other financial institutions. Later a few of them evolved into the new financial oligarchy.

In 1991, most of the more than 10 thousand rich people in Moscow were former party and government officials. A survey in June of the same year indicated that 76.7% of high-level cadres in the Soviet Union thought it was right to take the capitalist road. It was exactly these so-called “communists” who suffocated the Soviet’s life.

These people not only seized enough economic interests for themselves, but continued to sit in high positions, controlling state power. In Russia, after the dramatic changes in the Soviet Union, except for a small number of people on top of the pyramid of power, a large number of cadres just transformed into Russian dignitaries. They account for 75% of the total number of the high-ranking officials surrounding the new president, 57.1% of the political leaders of the new government party, and 74.3% of the total officials in the new government.

The well-known American economist, David Kotz, among others, analyzed such a peculiar phenomenon. They said [in their book], “Will a Catholic suddenly become an atheist?” “As to the Soviet elite, although their material interests significantly increased, what’s enjoyed by the Western capitalist countries dwarfed what they enjoyed.” “In the Soviet system, the income gap between the upper social strata and the bottom is much smaller than that in the capitalist system.” “In the Soviet system, the income of the top leaders is 8 times higher than the general industrial workers.” “The general managers of large enterprises were paid about 4 times more than industrial workers,” while the U.S. senior elite’s income is 150 to 400 times that of the average worker. “Under the socialist system in the Soviet Union, to accumulate material wealth through legal means is almost impossible. The Soviet leaders who have accumulated material wealth always lived in fear, afraid of one day being discovered or prosecuted.” [4] Therefore, “the collapse of the Soviet system” originated from the Soviet’s “ruling elite themselves pursuing personal interests.” The CPSU is the only party that became rich at its own funeral. [5]

Right before the collapse of the CPSU, an agency conducted a poll of the general public asking the question “Whom does the CPSU represent?” The result showed that 7% thought the CPSU represented the working people; 4% thought it represented industrial workers; 11% thought it represented all party members; and 85% thought the CPSU represented the bureaucrats, cadres, and government officials.

The formation and development of the CPSU’S privileged class went through a long historic process. During this period of time, these visible and invisible hands greedily snatched the national wealth that belonged to the people, while the CPSU seldom restrained the privileged class, or stopped their corruption. It even sheltered them or was complicit in their behavior. It eventually resulted in the cancer that grew and spread rapidly in its own body.

When the CPSU’s own cancer caused its decay and degeneration, the people had already abandoned it.

[1] See Khrushchev’s report on the platform of the CPSU, Compilation of Documents of 22nd Congress of the CPSU, the Chinese edition, page 287 – 290.
[2] [Russian] Brezhnev, CPSU’s Summary Report, Presented to the 23th Congress of the CPSU, from Compilation of Main Documents of 23rd Congress of the CPSU, Joint Publishing, 1978 edition, page 98.
[3] Ligachev, Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: the Memoirs of Yegor Ligachev, Xinhua News Agency Reference News Editorial Department, 1992 edition, page 40.
[4] [American] David Kotz, Fred Weir, Revolution from Above: The Demise of the Soviet System, China Remin University Press, 2002 edition, page 148-149.
[5] Ibid, page 10.