Books: From the Land of Shadows : A State of Boredom | clivejames.com
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A State of Boredom

Brezhnev: A Short Biography by The Institute of Marxism-Leninism, CPSU Central Committee (Pergamon Press, Oxford)

Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead. There is no author’s name on the title page, merely a modest line of italic type advising us that Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev’s ‘short biography’ has been composed ‘by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, CPSU Central Committee’. This is the one statement in the entire opus which is undeniably true. Only an Institute could write like this:

Monumental progress in building communism has been made by the Soviet people under the leadership of the Communist Party, its Central Committee and Politburo headed by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee, LEONID ILYICH BREZHNEV.

Monumental progress in probing the outer limits of tedium has been made by the time the hypnotised reader has slogged through more than two hundred pages of ideological prose at its most glutinous. Unable to believe that the Institute could keep down the pace, I read the whole thing from start to finish, waiting for the inevitable slip-up which would result in a living sentence. It never happened. That the book could be read from any other motive seems highly unlikely. Even the most rabid Brezhnev fan would be catatonic by the end of the first chapter.

It is safe to predict that sales will not be large. What, then, does Robert Maxwell hope to gain from the deal? Brezhnev has contributed a foreword graciously mentioning Maxwell by name. Perhaps that’s enough. But leaving aside any suspicion that the chairman of Pergamon Press might have finally mislaid the last of his marbles, there are grounds for according him a vote of thanks. If nothing else had ever done so, this book would be more than enough to prove that boredom is not just incidental to Soviet life, but fundamental. Boredom is built into the Soviet system. The Soviet system runs on boredom. Boredom and the Soviet system are the same thing.

State-induced ennui on the Soviet scale is not something we can easily imagine. We think we are being bored when we chance to tune in on a television programme starring Sir Harold Wilson, or when we accidentally stumble on a short quotation from Edward Heath’s latest book. Our own Marxists are fond of telling us that such mendacious bathos is ultimately more corroding than whatever drabness might occasionally make itself manifest behind the Iron Curtain. But really there is no comparison. What you have to imagine is being forced to listen, your whole life long, to stuff like the following paragraph, chosen at random from page 61 of the life story of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee.

The plenum once again proved convincingly the CPSU’s monolithic unity, its stand on Leninist principles, and its political maturity. It demonstrated the fidelity of the Party and its Central Committee to Marxism-Leninism and expressed the unswerving determination of Communists to adhere to and develop steadfastly the Leninist standards of Party life and the principles of Party leadership, notably that of collective leadership, and boldly and resolutely to set aside every impediment to the creative work of Party and people.

But once again it is not enough to say that the Institute’s style is devoid of interest. What the Institute’s style is devoid of is truth. In fact so thoroughly has the truth been siphoned out that you might even find yourself getting interested in the consequent vacuum. James Joyce used to say that he had never met a boring man, and I suppose that by the same criterion there is no such thing as a boring book: even trash raises questions — among them, the question of how it came to exist. From that viewpoint, Brezhnev’s Brief Bio is unputdownable. Every euphemism, circumlocution, outright omission and flat lie is an eloquent testimonial to the Soviet government’s regard for the truth. The Soviet government has such a high regard for the truth that it will go to almost any lengths to ensure that the common people never get even a smell of it. Hence the care with which the Institute makes the facts unintelligible even when they don’t matter.

The Institute, in a solitary burst of candour, makes it reasonably clear that the Ukrainian town of Kamenskoye, nowadays called Dneprodzerzhinsk, was favoured on 19 December 1906 with the birth of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev. After that the story gets a bit blurred. There is much emphasis on his early career as a steel-worker, but what really mattered was his climb through the ranks of the Komsomol and the Party. He grew up as a member of the ‘first generation of builders of socialism’ who ‘were remodelling the country’s agriculture on socialist lines and carrying out a cultural revolution’. Millions of people whose existence might have impeded such a process had already been wiped out, but there is no mention of these, beyond a blanket statement that ‘trends hostile to Leninism ... were overwhelmed in this struggle’. It could be said that those particular millions of victims have no relevance to this story. But later on there were further millions of victims whose relevance to this story is beyond question, and there is no mention of them either.

Brezhnev’s heroism as a soldier during the Great Patriotic War is heavily underlined, but first there is the sensitive topic of what he was up to during the years immediately preceding. The Institute calls it ‘Party work’. By 1939 he was ‘propaganda secretary’ of the local Regional Committee. It appears that he ‘ran extensive campaigns among the Communists and all working people for the successful implementation of the tasks set by the Party.’ This, remember, was the Ukraine, and the tasks set by the Party were the brain-children of Stalin. They consisted mainly of rounding people up and shipping them off to be killed. How, you might wonder, does the Institute get around the unarguable fact that Brezhnev was faithfully engaged in carrying out Stalin’s lethal plans? And then as you read on and on you gradually realise. There is no mention of Stalin at all.

But here comes the war, during which ‘Communists were everywhere in the forefront’. More to the forefront than almost anybody was Leonid Ilyich, variously ‘deputy chief of the Southern Front’s political department’ and ‘chief of the political department of the 18th Army of the 4th Ukrainian Front’. Brezhnev spared no efforts in his task of ‘instilling in Soviet troops a spirit of utter devotion to the socialist homeland and hatred for its enemies’. The Institute doesn’t explain why it should have been so necessary to instil this hatred, unless the devotion to the socialist homeland wasn’t all it might have been.

Anyway, Brezhnev, as a leading member of the political organs, ‘stimulated the morale, political consciousness, fortitude and courage of the troops in the heavy fighting’. The citation for his first Order of the Red Banner in 1942 described how he had ‘often visited the troops at their battle stations’. He was ‘a fearless political worker’. By 1943 Colonel Brezhnev was in charge of all the 18th Army’s political instructors. The Institute seems to be in no doubt that the Party won the war with the help of the army. Nowhere is it suggested in this book, and in no book published in the Soviet Union has it ever been suggested at any time, that the Party’s heroic efforts were mainly devoted to supplying deficiencies which the Party had caused in the first place.

The Party having brought the war to a successful conclusion, Brezhnev ‘took part in liberating Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary’. With the passing of ‘the cult of personality’ (i.e. Stalin), Brezhnev was obliged to switch bandwagons. There is not much data from any source, and none at all from this one, on how he managed it, but connoisseurs of grotesque euphemism will be pleased to learn that as the man in charge of transforming the Kazakhstan virgin lands in 1954-5 Brezhnev inspired ‘the thousands who came from all parts of the Soviet Union’ with creative fervour. One of the places they came to, of course, was Karaganda.

How does the Institute deal with the awkward fact that Brezhnev was Khrushchev’s man? Easy. There is no mention of Khrushchev at all. Instead, ‘it was necessary to remove the subjectivism which was in evidence at that time’. The subjectivism having been removed, the way was eventually clear for this ‘outstanding political personality of the Leninist type’ to assume power. There is no telling, certainly not from this source, quite how he did it, but Brezhnev made it all the way to the top, and set about ensuring that he stayed there.

There are probably no exceptions to the rule that power corrupts, but Brezhnev can perhaps be cited as evidence that absolute power need not necessarily corrupt absolutely. His power by now is as absolute as anyone’s has ever been, but he has not gone mad with it, although there can be no doubt that he is an ugly customer. Dub?ek and the other Czech leaders were personally favoured with a sample of what Brezhnev is like when he is putting on the squeeze, since he it was who did most of the shouting down the telephone. But generally he has gone about his business with such tact as to make it appear that a monopoly of power has dropped into his lap impelled by nothing more assertive than gravitational force.

Brezhnev, the Institute assures us, has eliminated ‘the consequences of the personality cult and manifestations of subjectivism and voluntarism’. This is good to hear, even if it is bad to read. There is something to it. Compared with, say, Kim II Sung, Brezhnev can even be said to have kept a low profile. But the appearance of this biography should be enough to start people wondering. My own view, for what it is worth, is that Brezhnev is just as keen on himself as Stalin was, but has a more acute sense of what he can get away with without having himself written out of Soviet history. He wants his immortality to last, like Lenin’s.

As a philosophical brain Brezhnev is no better than Stalin. Indeed at times he sounds just like him, especially when he contends, in the same paragraph, (a) that scientific and industrial progress can be attained only through socialism, and (b) that socialism can be attained only through scientific and industrial progress. He is also as vain as Stalin: the photograph on the jacket of this book is retouched to suit the self-delusions of a man who can’t pass a mirror. But he is less nuts than Stalin. During Brezhnev’s reign the innocent have been permitted to live, as long as they don’t heckle. Even at its mildest, totalitarianism is never less murderous than that: a society in which the rulers talk on and on without making any sense, but nobody is allowed to laugh.

New Statesman, 1978.