SAVING THE SOVIET EMPIRE
Toward a Russian Junta?

June 1991By Thomas Molnar

Thomas Molnar recently retired from teaching philosophy at Yale and the City University of New York. In the fall he will begin teaching philosophy at the University of Budapest in Hungary. His latest book is The Church: Pilgrim of Centuries.

Karl Marx had both harmful and useful lessons to pass on to his disciples. It was harmful to their future cause to teach them that religion would in the long run liquidate itself as a result of radical changes in society, and that the sense of nationhood would be dissolved in the proletarian International. Instead of disappearing, they went underground. On the other hand, it was useful to warn them of the ever-lurking bourgeois threat, coming not from capitalism, supposedly in its death throes, but from the army. Marx himself had before him two such examples: Bonaparte, who had essentially confiscated Robespierre's work, and Napoleon III, who did the same thing with the revolution of 1848, then used his republican presidency as a steppingstone to the imperial throne. In both instances, according to the Marxist interpretation, the bourgeoisie reaped what the revolutionaries had sown.

Stalin learned the lesson and became obsessed by it. As soon as he consolidated his power, he set out to purge the officer corps: The first step was the elimination of Trotsky, a potential "Bonaparte" as the founder of the Red Army. The Great Purges were mounted in view of the inevitable war with Hitler (let's not forget Moscow's German fixation since Lenin!), but also to protect the revolution against an army putsch -- labeled "Bonapartism." Stalin was aware, like all trained Marxists, that the revolution dismantles the old structures, but, because it has insufficient time to create a new order (the Hegelian "synthesis"), a military officer or (why not?) a junta may arise to usher in a counter-revolution.

After Trotsky, chief among the candidates in the young Soviet Union for the role of Bonaparte was the fortyish Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky. Moreover, he had friends in the German general staff with which the Soviet military officially co-operated. The trouble with the Soviet generals in Stalin's eyes was that they had gained prestige in the early wars against the White Army and the Poles, and were still popular heroes. Why would they not take the leadership of the discontented bourgeoisie and the disappointed masses, further encouraged by German agents? Thus, while it was a huge risk, the decimation by Stalin of the Soviet high command could appear to him as the lesser evil. "Bonaparte" had to be uprooted from the popular imagination and removed from the grasp of the tempted bourgeoisie, which was by then more a ghost than a reality. We have Eisenhower's testimony that Marshal Georgy Zhukov, two decades after the above events, was held on a short leash by Stalin's successor, Khrushchev.

Today, more than a half-century after the Great Purges, the situation is reversed, but similar in its basic elements. Many Western commentators and Sovietologists expect to see Russia's collapse and dismemberment. Yet, one should quote the response of the 19th-century Turkish sultan Mehmet V to a Western visitor who mentioned just that possibility: "You speak to me of Russia's collapse! Do you realize that even the falling corpse would be heavy enough to crush us, its neighbors?" This, from the mouth of an old foe of Russia, threatened by the empire for centuries, in the 19th more than ever. Maybe we should learn from Mehmet and envisage alternatives -- as the Russian generals and marshals are doing now.


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