Thursday, May 14, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Amalrik’s 1969 Predictions about the USSR Apply to Russia Now, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Baku, May 14 – Andrey Amalrik’s 1969 samizdat text, “Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984?” remains instructive for those who want to understand not only why the USSR ended as it did but also for also why the Russian Federation faces many of the same threats to its existence, according to a Moscow commentator.
In an essay in the current issue of “Gazeta,” Sergey Shelin argues that the continuing relevance of Amalrik’s work can be seen by replacing the word “Soviet” with the word “Russian” and considering his precisely worded academic argument rather than just his final judgment on the Soviet system (
Amalrik’s text, composed in the second quarter of 1969, immediately distinguished itself, Shelin notes, from most of the samizdat at that time by both its focus – on the future rather than on the current situation or the past – and its tone – one almost clinically academic rather than emotionally charged.
But what is striking for one who rereads him now, something even the many who know his title have not done, is just how contemporary his argument and even his specific phrases sound and how much they resemble the content of many articles in Russian newspapers, journals and websites.
As an example of this, he cites Amalrik’s observation that “Soviet society may be compared to a kind of three-layer cake, with a ruling bureaucratic upper stratum, a middle stratum which we call ‘the middle class’ … and the most numerous lower stratum – the workers…, petty employees, service personal and the like.”
The future of the country depended, the samizdat writer said, on the relative speeds in the growth of these three groups. If the middle stratum grows most rapidly and begins to organize itself, then the system might survive, but if it does not, then the weight of the other strata will pull the entire system down.
“Replace the word ‘Soviet’ with ‘Russian,’ and this excerpt would not surprise” anyone if it appeared in any present day analysis. But Amalrik deserves credit as a prophet because he said this 40 years ago, long before it became “a commonplace,” and because of his skepticism about all three social strata.
“The upper stratum,” in Amalrik’s view, was “rotting and incapable of government-level creativity. ‘The regime did not want either ‘to restore Stalinism,’ ‘persecute representatives of the intelligentsia,’ of ‘provide fraternal help’ to those who asked that of it. Instead, “it only wants that everything will be as it was before.”
The “middle class” was cowardly and bureaucratized and so intellectually passive that “the success of a democratic movement based on this stratum seems to [Amalrik] extremely problematic,” even though it has been the rise of middle classes elsewhere that has opened the way to modernity and freedom.
And for Amalrik, “the popular masses are a destructive force.” If the economy slows, they could explode, even though he was confident they lacked the ability to organize themselves. Clearly, Amalrik suggested, such a society will not be able to withstand the first serious test, a test that he wrongly assumed would arise from a drawn-out war with China.
Because that war did not happen -- in Shelin’s view, the Afghan war was enough -- and because the Soviet Union fell apart seven years later than Amalrik predicted many people have ignored his other comments and predictions. This is a mistake, Shelin says, because Amalrik’s predictions were not only remarkably accurate but call attention to some looming problems.
In 1969, Amalrik suggested that the East European satellites would be the first to “fall away,” that the GDR would be united with Western Germany, and that “nationalist tendencies among the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union, above all in the Baltics, the Caucasus and in Ukraine, and then in Central Asia and the Middle Volga” would rapidly “strengthen.”
And he predicted, in what Shelin sees with remarkable prescience that “for a long time will continue to exist [states there] which will consider [themselves] the successor of the USSR and combine a traditional communist ideology, phraseology, and form with aspects of eastern despotism, a kind of contemporary Byzantine empire.”
The true value of Amalrik’s work, the Moscow commentator says, is not to be found in these predictions which have come true and not even his description of the reality Russians now find themselves but in another place altogether: in his understanding that a society which freely takes control of its destiny can survive but one that leaves that to others won’t.

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