We are very happy to share the recollections of a member of our French organisation (Révolution), who was born in Moscow in the 1960s, and later moved to Paris, joining the PCF (Communist Party of France) and eventually the IMT. There, he discovered Trotsky’s writings, which accurately reflected the comrade’s experiences of the bureaucratic regime in the USSR. This is a fascinating insight into what life was really like in the USSR (both good and bad), and a personal testament to the correctness of Trotsky’s ideas.
My youth in the USSR
I was born in the USSR in 1965, grew up there, and studied in the Brezhnev era. Leonid Brezhnev was the most-known figure of power. In each election, the ballot had only one name, and Brezhnev was re-elected with 99.9 percent of the vote. This gave rise to sarcastic remarks, in private: “where are the 0.1 percent who voted against?” Jokes targeting leaders of the regime and the KGB were very common, and were a form of passive protest.
At that time, the bureaucracy had not yet begun the process of restoring capitalism. Some of the gains of the October Revolution were still present, such as work for all, universal free medical care and education. These were very important achievements. For example, if someone fell ill at night, emergency services arrived quickly, gave first aid, and then transported the patient to the hospital. And all this, hospitalisation (whatever the duration), and all the care received, did not cost the patient a kopeck.
The bureaucratic nature of the regime manifested itself in a thousand and one ways. For example, the regime preached internationalism, in theory. But in practice, it conveyed a narrowly nationalist point of view. I remember a fairly significant incident in this regard. By the age of 9-10, Soviet school children became ‘pioneers’. We then wore a red scarf. One day, our school welcomed Cuban ‘pioneers’. Their delegation was large. But just before the meeting, we were strictly forbidden from exchanging our pioneer scarves with our Cuban comrades. However, the exchange of scarves was a tradition among the pioneers. The most daring Soviet pioneers braved the ban and traded. For us, Cuba was the symbol of resistance to American imperialism.
However, many grassroots Communists were very much internationalists, in contrast to the bureaucracy. In fact, people often stood up for me (my father was a Comorian) against the racist elements of the population, which unfortunately did exist. Racism was fueled by the regime’s Great Russian nationalist propaganda.
The official history
The ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin were part of the regime’s official rhetoric. Our history lessons devoted a great deal of time to revolts and revolutions: the slave insurrection (led by Spartacus against Rome), the peasant wars of the Middle Ages, the bourgeois revolutions in England and France, the Paris Commune of 1871 – and, of course, the October Revolution of 1917. But the bureaucracy had rewritten or torn out certain pages of the history of the October Revolution. For example, our lessons carefully avoided naming the main Bolshevik leaders of the revolution, for a simple reason: since the reign of Stalin, these leaders had almost all become “enemies of the people” in official propaganda!
Lessons in the USSR avoided naming the main Bolshevik leaders of the revolution, as they had become “enemies of the people” / Image: public domain
The 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 condemned Stalin and the ‘cult of personality’. But under Brezhnev, there was a sort of rehabilitation of Stalin. Amongst the population there were always supporters of Stalin. This was the case for one of my history teachers in high school.
One day, one of my comrades took the floor to explain that if, at the start of the war against the Nazis, the Red Army had suffered terrible defeats, it was because they had not been prepared for war. The day before the Nazi invasion began, no action had been taken to put the Red Army on alert. Additionally, the most qualified military leaders, like Tukhachevsky, had been executed during the Stalinist purges at the end of the Thirties.
This was all correct, and many people said that in 1941 it was impossible not to realise that Hitler was concentrating troops on the other side of the German border. But these were truths that our teacher could not bear. She got very angry and exclaimed: “It is easy to criticise today, forty years after the events!”
This divide – for or against Stalin – was found at the university faculty. One day, when a history professor was showing us around the university library, he pointed to a bookshelf and said, “Here are encyclopaedia volumes published in the Stalin era. They have zero historical value.” We all understood that he advised us not to use them to prepare our presentations!
Despite the bureaucratisation of the regime and the enormous waste it generated, nationalisation and economic planning had torn Russia out of its semi-feudal quagmire. Under Stalin and Khrushchev, the Soviet economy had developed at much higher rates than the capitalist world could imagine. But at some stage, the bureaucracy became an absolute obstacle to the development of the productive forces. Under Brezhnev, the USSR entered the ‘period of stagnation’. The bureaucracy had completely exhausted the relatively progressive role it had been able to play. The dysfunctioning economy became unbearable.
Under Brezhnev, the USSR entered the ‘period of stagnation’ / Image: The Central Intelligence Agency
This was particularly apparent in the area of agriculture, the ‘Achilles’ heel’ of the Soviet economy. One day, when I was a student, our local secretary of the Communist Youth (Komsomol) addressed us over the amphitheatre microphone: “Comrades, our leadership of the Communist Youth decided that we are to help the workers of the food storage centre”. We were taken there by bus. This storage centre received trucks from kolkhozes (agricultural cooperatives), and our first job was to unload them. We loaded fresh cabbage from the collective farms into the bags. Then, other trucks came to pick up the goods and deliver them to stores. But rather than loading the fresh cabbages, the officials asked us to take other bags, containing rotting cabbages, to tear off the rotten leaves and load them into the trucks bound for stores. During this time, the bags of fresh cabbage that had just been unloaded remained in the open air, rotting…
In the same storage centre, we were then asked to package potatoes. However, we were given bags of half-rotten potatoes and bags containing undamaged potatoes in equal quantities. The manager asked us, without blinking, to mix the fresh potatoes and the rotten ones in the same packages. Shocked by this absurd instruction, a number of us didn’t strictly apply it. Instead of mixing the two types of potatoes, we would fill every other package with rotten potatoes, but covered them with a healthy row (because we knew that most suspicious Soviets would lift the first row before buying). We’d fill the other package with fresh produce only.
Other students followed the instructions to the letter and bragged about it, without thinking about how they were cheating ordinary workers like their own parents. But this form of cynicism was itself a consequence of bureaucracy. If the Soviets had real power, many students would have been willing to participate. They would have proposed their solutions, such as the construction of new refrigerated hangars, a better connection between the collective farms and the stores, etc. But because the bureaucracy held all the power and nobody wanted to create problems for themselves, many people were content to follow their immediate and personal interests. This laid the political and moral foundations for the restoration of capitalism later on.
Moving to Paris and discovering Trotsky’s writings
I lived in the Soviet Union until 1985, and I studied at Moscow State University. From the 20th Congress of the CPSU, in 1956, we were no longer taught certain crude falsehoods, such as those which attributed a prominent role to Stalin in the revolution of 1917 and the Civil War. Having said that, the official line was complicit in a certain rehabilitation of Stalin. Above all, our history textbooks always referred to Leon Trotsky as an anti-Bolshevik who had fought against the peace of Brest-Litovsk, and who had been guilty of the ‘crazy’ idea of ’permanent revolution’. They also denounced his alleged tendency toward ‘terror’. I remember one of our history teachers telling us that Trotsky’s ideas had been put into practice in China during the Cultural Revolution and the terror that followed.
USSR history textbooks always referred to Leon Trotsky as an anti-Bolshevik, and denounced his ideas /Image: public domain
We were taught Lenin’s political testament, but the censors omitted certain passages, including the one in which Lenin writes of Trotsky: “personally, he is undoubtedly the most capable man of the current Central Committee”. This radically changed our appreciation of Trotsky.
The official history, as it was taught to us, did not correspond at all to what my grandparents, who had experienced the revolution of 1917 and the Civil War, told me. My grandfather, from a very poor family, had joined the Bolshevik Party during the revolution of 1917. During the Civil War, he was first a Red Guard, before being entrusted with running a theatre company that was agitating amongst the soldiers of the Red Army.
My grandparents told me that, at the time of the October Revolution and the Civil War, Lenin and Trotsky were the most famous people in the population. My grandfather added that Trotsky was a remarkable speaker. He also said that, during this revolutionary era, the press was remarkably honest. During the Russian Revolution, the communist press was the expression of popular democracy. In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky speaks of the revolutionary era in these terms:
“While the dictatorship had a seething mass-basis and a prospect of world revolution, it had no fear of experiments, searching, the struggle of schools, for it understood that only in this way could a new cultural epoch be prepared. The popular masses were still quivering in every fibre, and were thinking aloud for the first time in a thousand years.”
In the USSR, two major events were in the spotlight: the October Revolution of 1917 (celebrated on 7 November) and the formation of the Red Army on 23 February 1918. However, at the time, it was unknown how closely Trotsky’s name is related to these two events. In 1917, Trotsky chaired the Revolutionary Military Committee, which prepared for the October uprising and the taking of the Winter Palace. As People’s Commissar of War from 1918 to 1922, he was also the creator and leader of the Red Army.
The reality of life in the USSR was mixed. On the one hand, there were great social achievements, such as free medical care, compulsory free education, which was, despite everything, of a good standard, and work for all, that is to say effective full employment. But at the same time, there were no elections: the Soviets did not hold power. Like under the Tsarist regime, antisemitism was rampant, for instance. It took the form of hiring discrimination in certain occupations and promotion in political bodies. Antisemitism even spilled over into the press, which officially professed internationalism. Discrimination is a plague known in all capitalist countries, but it was shocking to see it flourish in a workers’ state.
I arrived in France in 1985. Disillusioned by my experience of official ‘communism’, I did not think of getting involved politically, at first. I even believed in the benefits of ‘capitalism with a human face’. But the reality of French life and capitalism pushed me to join the PCF (French Communist Party) in 1988. However, I only discovered Trotsky’s writings in 2006, thanks to my comrades of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT). The first of his books that I read was The Revolution Betrayed, which made a huge impression on me.
In this book, Trotsky provides an explanation for the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union. After the revolution, the USSR was an isolated workers’ state, where the working class was largely in the minority against the peasantry, which represented 90 percent of the population. Salvation could only come from the victory of workers in an advanced country. But this victory did not take place. The defeat of the German Revolutions of 1918 and 1923, in particular, was decisive. The isolation of the Russian Revolution in conditions of extreme economic and cultural backwardness allowed the bureaucracy to usurp power. The Stalinist years were accompanied by the elimination of revolutionaries from all positions of power.
Trotsky noted in his time that capitalism would not be satisfied with a half-victory over communism, that is to say, with having to deal with a ‘deformed workers state’. Capitalism needed total victory, that is, the restoration of capitalism in Russia. The accuracy of Trotsky’s analysis is evident today. He also wrote that the restoration of capitalism would be accompanied by a spectacular economic and cultural collapse. This is exactly what happened. By 2000, the industrial production of the Russian economy had fallen to 60 percent of the level of the Soviet era, and the decline was equally dreadful in the other Republics of the former USSR. This fall was accompanied by black reaction in the field of political thought: “Marxist ideas are false; the working class cannot build a classless society; rich and poor are needed, etc.” Religious obscurantism, racism and antisemitism have exploded. As one of my Russian friends sadly wrote to me, it was like “a fire in a madhouse.”
In The Revolution Betrayed, there is the following passage, on youth:
“All revolutionary parties, to begin with, draw support from the young generation of the rising class. Political senility is expressed in the loss of capacity to sweep the youth along.”
When I read these lines for the first time, I remembered all the ambitious young people I knew in the USSR, for whom politics was reduced to the prospect of ‘making a career’. Revolutionary ideas were good in their eyes only for public meetings. It was enough to hear privately from our Communist Youth leaders to understand that they did not believe it. Among them, cynicism prevailed. Some were out-and-out xenophobes and antisemites. Rejected by this suffocating atmosphere, the most honest young people did not push their political commitment very far.
For its part, the bureaucracy made sure to promote only young people in its image. No wonder all these ambitious young people espoused ultra-liberal ideas after the fall of the USSR!
Citizens of the USSR who went abroad had to sign a charter on the “behaviour of a Soviet [citizen] outside the country”, in which a paragraph formally prohibited Soviet citizens from participating in political demonstrations, even those organised by foreign communist parties. For some, this was no problem. But one can imagine how it disturbed all those who believed in international communist solidarity. We were asked to be wary of the western communists, on the pretext that the latter were facing capitalist propaganda, and were therefore not very ‘safe’. The bureaucrats who dictated these orders to us have long since done a 180-degree turn: they fervently serve the capitalists! When I lived in the Soviet Union, it became clear that the bureaucracy felt drawn to the lifestyle and privileges of the western capitalist classes.
The confrontation of ideas and political debate were not to the taste of bureaucracy. Certainly, mass repression, with its deportations and mass executions, stopped with the death of Stalin. The 20th Congress of the CPSU rehabilitated many Bolsheviks – with the exception of Trotsky, to whom official history continued to attribute adventurist and ultimately counter-revolutionary ideas and strategy. This is no doubt because his ideas continued to harm the bureaucracy and its power. Trotsky continued to embody the possibility that Soviet workers would move to demand the safeguarding of the gains of the October Revolution and the power of the Soviets. His writings were forbidden because his ideas gave food for thought to the working class and left-wing intellectuals who did not want the pure and simple return of capitalism – and who are today the victims of its restoration.
On this point, world capitalism and bureaucracy had the same interests, and it was ultimately the bureaucracy that restored capitalism, exactly as Trotsky predicted would happen if that bureaucracy maintained itself in power.
In conclusion, I would say that the correctness of Trotsky’s analysis comes from Marxism itself, of which Trotsky simply – but with genius – applied the method to the events of his time. It is an effective argument against all those who claim that Marxism is dead. The strength of Marxism is the scientific method applied to the evolution of society. Armed with this method, I am confident that the working class will overthrow capitalism and replace it with a classless society.