Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev is a surprising counterpart to my essay, “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” 1That essay proposed a general theory of cultural change. Key to its thesis was the observation that most cultural change does not occur because people change their ideas, but because people with new ideas replace people with old ones. As most people form their essential political worldview by the time they are 30 and only adapt it on the edges to new circumstances, only the most earth shaking events have the power to fundamentally shift the frameworks and values that the majority filter their politics through. Large scale cultural shift is largely a story of generational churn.
While the focus of that piece was on American domestic politics, this is a general phenomena that applies across cultures and time periods. Vladislav Zubok understands this. The generational nature of political change is a recurring theme of Failed Empire, which chronicles the ups and downs of Soviet diplomacy from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While we often describe Soviet history in terms of the leader reigning at the top of the system, Zubok argues that shifts in Soviet strategic behavior reflected not only the differing leadership styles of the various CPSU General Secretaries, but broader transitions from one generation of leaders to another.
Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2009); Tanner Greer, “Culture Wars are Long Wars,” The Scholar’s Stage (3 July 2021).
It is really only in the 20th century that Americans began obsessing over their generational identities.2 Russia is different. They have been obsessing over this generation thing for, well, generations. By the time Turganev’s Fathers and Sons (1860) and Dostoevsky’s Demons (1871) were published the spectacle of the liberal reformer a generation out of date (lampooned in both of these books) was already a generation old. I sometimes wonder if this tradition is why historians of Soviet society have been so quick to place Soviet politics within a generational frame. Mary McAuley ties the optimism of the Khrushchev project to Khrushchev and co’s formative experiences with the “heroic” socialism of the first five year plan.3 Yuri Slezkine’s award-winning history of elite Soviet life is a 1,100 page comparison of the formative experiences of the old Bolsheviks—the rebels of seminaries and boarding schools, who grew to love their Engels in Siberian prison camps—with those of their children, who spent their childhood reading Tolstoy and Pushkin in the luxury of the ‘House of Government.’4
While the Boomers were hardly the first American generation to conceive of themselves as such, I suspect the explosion of generational awareness in the ‘60s reflects the relative cultural homogeneity relative to other periods in American history. In the 19th century ties of place, race and creed mattered far more; circa 1860 a young social climber from Boston had more in common with the older Brahmins than with his counterparts in Charleston. William Freehling’s two volume Road to Disunion is an excellent study of how different values could be even within different parts of the South, as well as an investigation of how these values changed as one generation of conservatives were replaced by fire-eaters.
Mary McAuley, Soviet Politics, 1917-1999 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 71; see also Yuri Slezkhine, House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 407-478 a compelling picture of why this period seemed “heroic” to those who lived through it. I take the ‘heroic’ terminology from Stephen Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution : A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).
The central generational conflict of Failed Empire lies between the Party ‘old guard’ whose careers were unnaturally advanced in the Terror and the generation that Zubok calls, following Russian practice, “the men and women of the 60s.”
Brezhnev is characteristic of the first type. Like Brezhnev, most of his leadership cohort came from working class or peasant stock; most had technical degrees, but took management or administrative jobs sometime between 1937-39 when Stalin’s purges opened up great chasms in the Soviet bureaucracy. Hitler’s surprise attack on the U.S.S.R. was the great test and great trauma of their lives. They emerged from The Great Patriotic War confident in their own powers and well versed in making the machinery of the Stalinist state work in their favor. In many ways these men were the true builders of the Soviet state; when Stalin died, their impulse was not to revolutionize the institutions they helmed, but to systematize, rationalize, and solidify their structures and rules. While their Soviet Union would not be subject to rule of law, it certainly would be subject to rule by law. Under their tutelage even the KGB and the Gulag camps would be bound up in a web of rules and red tape.5
On this point see also Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century (New York: Verso Books, 2005), 153-202; 217-236; 343-348.
Ideology was one weak point of this generation of leaders. Zubok explains:
Stalin, who knew his cadres better than anyone else, was concerned about the ability of the next generations of Soviet nomenklatura to provide ideological leadership. In his words, the political class that replaced and destroyed the Old Bolsheviks was too busy “with practical work and construction” and studied Marxism “through brochures.” And the generation of party and state officials that followed was, in Stalin’s estimation, even less prepared. The majority of them were raised on pamphlets, newspaper articles, and quotations. “If things continue this way,” Stalin concluded, “people might degenerate. This will mean the death [of Communism].” Stalin believed that future party leaders should combine theoretical vision with practical political talent
Indeed, there was nobody in the Kremlin who could be a political leader with a vision. Mikhail Suslov, the last survivor among the theoretically minded party apparatchiks, turned out to be the least imaginative and politically talented. The post-Khrushchev oligarchy, as Robert English writes, embodied “the last hostages” of orthodox thinking. Their collective thinking did not stem from pro- found ideological faith or revolutionary passion but was rather the product of their lack of education and tolerance for diversity and their Stalinist formative experiences.”
…In domestic politics, many of them supported the abrogation of de- Stalinization, the greater suppression of cultural diversity, and the freezing of liberal trends in literature and art. On the other hand, they were not the masters but rather the prisoners of ideology, afraid to abandon the orthodox tenets and unable to reform them. (196)6
Zubok, Failed Empire, 196.
Their background as bureaucratic climbers often made it difficult for these Soviet leaders to sympathize and work easily with communist leaders in Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere in the Third World, who were genuine revolutionaries7. This generation’s other weakness—at least at the end of their tenure—was their age. The Soviet Union of the ‘40s was directed by energetic bureaucrats barely entering middle age; by the ‘70s the USSR was directed by these exact same bureaucrats, now more geriatric than energetic.
Waiting in their wake were the “men and women of the sixties.” This cohort experienced World War II not as a heroic victory of their own making, but as children or young teenagers. They remembered it chiefly in terms of the fear they felt as the Germans swept through their hometowns or in the searing loss of parents, family members, and homes. They were young party apparatchiks, college students or Komsomol activists when Khrushchev gave his Secret Speech; they imbibed its spirit so totally that they were often called “the children of the 20th Congress.” The optimism of Khrushchev’s domestic program infected their souls. But these political events were not the only shapers of their worldview. Just as important was…. Tarzan.
I will let Zubok explain:
After Stalin’s death, a great number of works of American writers in translation, among them Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and J. D. Salinger, were published in hundreds of thousands of copies; they were available in thousands of public libraries around the Soviet Union. American films became another window into the New World for the curious public. After World War II, state authorities authorized a controlled release of trophy German and American films captured in Europe. These were mostly musicals, light-hearted comedies, and soap operas. The response of the Soviet public, from children to the old, to these releases was wildly enthusiastic. Music from American films, especially swing by Glenn Miller’s orchestra, successfully competed with the Russian classics repertoire. The Tarzan series with Johnny Weismuller and His Butler’s Sister with Deanna Durbin became as much a part of the generational experience as American canned food from Lend-Lease, ration cards, and fatherless childhood.”
During the Thaw, the trickle of Western films became bigger. State film distributors in Moscow and the provinces liked American blockbusters for monetary reasons and won bureaucratic fights against party propagandists concerned by the enormous popularity of Hollywood productions among viewers in the cities and the countryside. Many of the best-known American dramatic films (by Elia Kazan, Cecil B. DeMille, and others) did not reach broad Soviet audiences because of their cultural and religious content. Still, millions saw The Magnificent Seven with Yul Brynner, Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon, and others. Their impact on Soviet audiences cannot be overestimated. As the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who lived then in Leningrad, recalled, these films “held us in greater sway and thrall than all the subsequent output of the neorealists or the nouvelle vague. The Tarzan series alone, I daresay, did more for de-Stalinization than all Khrushchev’s speeches at the 2oth party congress and after.” Writer Vasily Aksenov remembers: “There was a time when my peers and I conversed mostly with citations from those films. For us it was a window onto the outside world from the Stalinist stinking lair.”8
A surprisingly influential event for this generation was the 1957 World Youth Festival, held in Moscow in the August of that year:
For a quarter of a century, the Soviet Union had remained virtually closed to foreigners, and there was almost no tourist infrastructure in place. The festival’s organizers tackled many daunting tasks, such as what to do with the squalid look of most urban areas; the inadequacy and small number of hotels; the absence of nightlife, advertising, attractive quality clothing, carnival costumes and paraphernalia; and the lack of fast-food places and restaurants and opportunities for shopping. All this exposed the relative backwardness of Soviet society and economy in comparison with the capitalist West.
Khrushchev let the leadership of the Komsomol run the show, with instructions “to smother foreign guests in our embrace.” As a result, the festival became the first “socialist carnival” in the streets and squares of Moscow since 1918. Even the Kremlin flung its doors open for the young crowds. Soviet authorities were unprepared for the scale of the event and failed to maintain centralized control over it.
The festival turned into a giant grassroots happening that paralyzed all attempts at spin control, as well as crowd control. Three million Moscovites provided enthusiastic hospitality to over 30,00o young foreigners. The curiosity and enthusiasm of the hosts was immeasurable. Many corners of the capital turned into impromptu discussion clubs-a completely new experience for Soviet citizens. The festival did in peacetime what the last stage of World War II had done before. In 945, the war brought Ivan into Europe. In 1957, the Soviet regime itself brought the world to Moscow. The appearance of young Americans, Europeans, Africans, Latins, and Asians in the streets of the Soviet capital shattered propagandist clichés. In the Soviet media, a memoirist recalls, “Americans were depicted in two ways-either as poor unemployed, gaunt, unshaven people in dregs or as a big-bellied bourgeois in tuxedo and tall hat, with a fat cigar in the mouth. And there was a third category-hopeless Negroes, all of them victims of Ku-Klux-Klan.”
As Russians saw freethinking and stylishly dressed youth, their xenophobia and fear of secret police informers evaporated virtually overnight. Many witnesses of the festival would concur later that it was a historical landmark as important as Khrushchev’s secret speech. Jazzman Alexei Kozlov believes that “the festival of 1957 was the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet system. After the festival the process of fragmentation of Stalinist society became irreversible. The festival bred a whole generation of dissidents and intellectuals who lived a double life. At the same time, a new generation of party-Komsomol functionaries was born, double-dealers who understood everything perfectly well but outwardly professed to be loyal to the system.” Vladimir Bukovsky recalls that after the festival “all this talk about ‘putrefying capitalism’ became ridiculous.” Film critic Maya Turovskaya believes that at the festival Soviet citizens could touch the world for the first time after three decades: “The generation of the Sixties might have been different without the festival.” 9
The institutions that shaped the ‘men and women of the Sixties’ also differed from those that shaped predecessors. Many of this generation received an education in a formal university environment; their course of study was just as likely to be in sociology as in engineering. This generation never ran the command economy during war. This had consequences. Here is Zubok on Gorbachev:
As a graduate of Moscow State University’s Law Department, he was exempted from military service and exposed to views that clashed with official militarist propaganda. In contrast to Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, who supervised the military-industrial complex and understood the nuts and bolts of Soviet military power, Gorbachev came into contact with nuclear issues only when he became the general secretary of the CPSU. According to the tradition established by Stalin and Khrushchev, the leader of the party was also the head of the Defense Council. Oleg Baklanov, who was the head of the Soviet atomic and missile complexes, later recalled that as late as 1g87 Gorbachev demonstrated a lack of interest in or knowledge of missile technology.” In an interview with a Russian nuclear physicist, Gorbachev admitted a moral revulsion when he realized his personal responsibility for the accumulation and possible use of nuclear weapons. He also admitted that he was familiar with the report on “nuclear winter,” which predicted that the fallout from a massive use of nuclear weapons would destroy life on the planet. When Gorbachev participated in a secret strategic game simulating the Soviet response to a nuclear attack, he was asked to give a command for the retaliation strike. He allegedly refused to press the nuclear button, “even for training purposes.”10
But it was not just Gorbachev who belonged to this generation. So did his diplomats and key foreign policy thinkers:
Gorbachev acquired an immediate and ardent following among the small group of “enlightened” apparatchiks, those who had started their careers in the 19508 and early 1960s and who called themselves “the children of the Twentieth Party Congress.” This vibrant group consisted of people who had worked in Andropov’s and Brezhnev’s close circle as speechwriters, the directors of academic think tanks, and the international relations experts from the International Department of the Central Committee. Some had worked as Brezhnev’s speech writers and “enlightened” advisers. But these well-informed people had grown disillusioned and cynical during the late Brezhnev years. They were sick of stagnation and corruption and still hoped to resume the policies of de-Stalinization and the cultural Thaw abrogated in the late 196os. They also had been among the earliest and most consistent supporters of détente with the West. The head of the Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies, Georgy Arbatov, immediately sent Gorbachev a list of innovative proposals aimed at breaking Soviet international isolation: immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan; unilateral reductions of Soviet forces in Europe and on the border with China; and even a return to Japan of the Kurile Islands annexed in 1945. 11
As were those leading the charge on glasnost and perestroika:
Meanwhile, with tacit encouragement from Alexander Yakovlev (who was in charge of media), as well as from Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev, an informal network of the “men and women of the sixties,” “enlightened” apparatchiks and intellectuals, and those who had been devoted to de-Stalinization and democratic change twenty years earlier began to grow and influence the public climate. Since 1986, these people had rapidly come to occupy strategic positions in the state controlled media. Yakovlev’s protégés would become the editors of some leading periodicals, among them Sergei Zalygin in Novy Mir, Vitaly Korotich in Ogonek, and Yegor Yakovlev in Moscow News. The “new thinkers” began publishing forbidden manuscripts, promoting anti-Stalinist films and novels, and criticizing the Brezhnev era of stagnation.
In the summer of 1987, Gorbachev revealed his intentions to a narrow circle, including Yakovlev and Chernyaev: he wanted to overhaul “the whole system- from economy to mentality.” Chernyaev jubilantly recorded Gorbachev’s words: “I would go far, very far.” By that time, Gorbachev already had nothing to fear from the conservative side, including the Politburo and the party nomenklatura. On the contrary, among the new cohort of party officials, people, among them Boris Yeltsin, head of the Moscow party organization, were beginning to grumble about Gorbachev’s slow pace of domestic reforms12.
The people leading these reforms had believed in their necessity for decades. They kept these beliefs even as they served as the speechwriters and secretaries of the Brezhnev elite. What they lacked before Gorbachev was control of the most important positions in the Party; what they needed was some sort of precipitating event that might force the remnant old guard (and their political descendants) to see things their way. Zubok argues that Chernobyl was that event. With most of the old guard gone and with the remaining old-thinkers blind-sided by this event, the Soviet Union was open to vast changes. A movement that had been bubbling beneath the scenes since the ‘60s transformed the political economy and foreign policy of the USSR in a few short years. As in America, change came gradually, then suddenly.
One of the questions I have been pondering after reading Zubok’s book: how useful is this generational framing (as opposed to a focus on individual leaders or general regime type) for understanding China’s future?
A fair amount of work has been done that analyzes past generations of Party leadership in generational terms—indeed, entire books have been written to describe the formation of the ruling class of “red engineers” who combined revolutionary family heritage with training in the hard sciences (that generation is now gone: Xi’s politburo is filled with leaders whose academic backgrounds are in law, economics, and the social sciences).13 When I look for connections between Xi’s cohort, their foundational political experiences, and their current policies today, the most obvious is the CPC’s decision to re-embrace Maoist thought and imagery. While there is a political logic to rehabilitating Mao (which Xi has explained himself), it is clear to me that a lot of this is driven by nostalgia for the Maoist world of Xi’s youth.14 I do not think this resonates with younger cohorts; I doubt that future generations of Chinese in power, even if they remain committed to an authoritarian future for the Chinese people, will feel the need to Mao things up.
Joel Andreas, Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009);
The best presentation of this remains chapter 3-4 of Francois Bougan, Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping (New York: Hurst, 2018), 45-95. For Xi’s argument, see Tanner Greer, trans. “Xi Jinping in Translation,” Palladium (31 May 2019)
Could China have its own “men and women of the Sixties?” If there is a cohort more disposed to rapprochement with the Western world it would probably be that which came of age in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. (In Chinese terms these would be the “七零后“ or the ‘post-70s generation.’) This was a time when the outside world was a place to learn from, Chinese society embraced radical change, rules were few, and liberalism had a hopeful sheen. Even today the most committed liberals of the Chinese diaspora tend to be of this cohort. In my personal, purely subjective judgement, this is the most “pro-America” generation of Chinese now living. Younger cohorts’ attitudes towards the United States, especially the ‘post-90s’ and ‘post-00’s’ generations, were shaped by the events of the last two decades, a time when China climbed from strength to strength as America blundered from one catastrophe to another. Where antiparty sentiment exists among the post-‘70s it usually is wedded to a reflexive defense of American style liberalism; among the newest cohorts, even those most vehemently against the party are likely to frame it as “a pox on both their houses.”
Of course, the ‘post-70s’ leaders who rise to the top of the Party will be no more anti-party than Michael Gorbachev was. Gorbachev loved to read his Lenin; he sincerely believed his role was to save Soviet socialism.15 He was, however, a committed anti-Stalinist and a firmly believed there was a geopolitical and humanitarian imperative to bring the Cold War to a permanent close. If Zhongnanhai is ever run by a General Secretary determined to pull down the security framework that drives the CPC’s distrust of the West, it will probably be for similar reasons, not because he wishes to transform China into a carbon copy of American democracy.
Today’s top leaders were born in the late ‘50s; the majority of the National People’s Congress was born in the 1960s.16 If I am right about the “Post-70s” generation, then the generation least threatened by Western liberalism and most disposed to foreign perspectives will take power in the late 2030s. I doubt Sino-American competition will decrease in pitch or fervor until then.
Zubok, Failed Empire, 296, 312.
Cheng Li, “The Coming-of-Age of China’s Sixth Generation: A New Majority in the Party Leadership,” China-US Focus (24 August 2017).