Caste & Class in the USSR

‘All Shades of Political Thought’

In analyzing the political and social character of the Stalinist ruling caste in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, Leon Trotsky laid great emphasis on the political heterogeneity concealed behind the facade of “monolithic” unity. In the 1938 Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International, Trotsky observed: “all shades of political thought are to be found among the [Soviet] bureaucracy: from genuine Bolshevism (Ignace Reiss) to complete fascism (F. Butenko).”

Reiss was a Soviet intelligence operative in Western Europe who declared his political allegiance to the Fourth International in July 1937, but was murdered by Stalinist agents only a few weeks later. Butenko was a Soviet diplomat who defected to Mussolini’s Italy in early 1938. Trotsky asserted that in any confrontation between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the “fraction of Butenko,” i.e., the open agents of capitalist counterrevolution, the tiny handful of “revolutionary elements within the bureaucracy” (the “fraction of Reiss”) must be prepared to temporarily bloc with the Stalinists.

Trotsky’s assessment of the Soviet bureaucracy was abundantly confirmed by events leading up to the triumph of the counterrevolution in August 1991. While the Trotskyist Left Opposition and the majority of the cadre of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party had been eradicated in the course of Stalin’s bloody purges in the 1930s, the top layers of the bureaucracy never lost their anxiety about the dangers of mass revolt from below.

The leading elements of the Communist Party (CPSU) were deeply disturbed by the eruption of spontaneous popular opposition to price hikes in June 1962 in Novo­cherkassk in southern Russia. The protests centered on the city’s electric locomotive plant. On 2 June the army opened fire on a rally in the central square, killing dozens. After regaining control, the Stalinists shot seven “instigators” and threw many more into prison. The KGB (Soviet political police) attempted to suppress all information about the events by threatening eyewitnesses with prolonged jail sentences.

Yuri Andropov, who briefly held power in the early 1980s after Leonid Brezhnev’s death, was reported by one of his aides to have worried about the possibility of a mass revolt against the regime (see The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System, M. Ellman and V. Kontorovich). As the architect of the Kremlin’s suppression of the 1956 Hungarian workers’ political revolution, Andropov was well aware of the precarious nature of the bureaucracy’s grip on power in the face of a popular uprising.

Gorbachev & the Butenko Fraction

Mikhail Gorbachev took over as CPSU general secretary in 1985 pledging to reinvigorate the Soviet economy, but soon came to the conclusion that the USSR could only survive by moving toward a system of “market socialism,” i.e., the introduction of production for profit. Gorbachev’s economic program (perestroika) encountered considerable resistance from conservative elements within the state apparatus. Gorbachev countered by breaking the party’s ideological monopoly and instituting a policy of glasnost, which permitted the expression of all shades of political opinion.

The limits of glasnost were tested in late 1988 with the appearance of the first openly anti-Marxist article in the official Soviet press. Its author, Alexander Tsipko, who had earlier worked as a speechwriter for Gorbachev, proudly recalled:

“My articles in Nauka i zhizn’ [1988-89] were widely regarded as braving the bastion of official ideology. They represented the first attempt to openly challenge Marxism and were written from a White perspective....I managed to get my views published in the official press in a country that just a year earlier had celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution and remained the stronghold of world Communism. I did this while not only being a Party member, but also working as a consultant for the International Affairs Department of the CC [Central Committee].”
—“The Making of an Anti-Communist,” in The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System, M. Ellman and V. Kontorovich

Unlike many pro-capitalist elements among the nomenklatura who underwent an incremental political evolution to the right, Tsipko claims to have been a subjective counterrevolutionary his whole life:

“Ever since I was a child I have experienced awe for everything pre-Revolutionary—books, journals, and even household items such as an old refrigerator with ice, still functional in the 1950s, which my family inherited from my grandfather. These things represented a myth, a paradise lost which captured my imagination....When I watched films about the Civil War I always supported the Whites. I did not like these films, because the side I supported always lost.”

In the late 1960s Tsipko was on the central committee of the Komsomol, the CPSU’s youth group, but his academic career was sidetracked when party ideologues detected a heretical note in his writings and prevented him from obtaining a doctorate. When Tsipko met Gorbachev in 1983, he was the CPSU agricultural secretary under Andropov. A few years later, Georgi Smirnov, a top Gorbachev aide, approached Tsipko to do some speechwriting for his boss. Smirnov assured Tsipko that despite his public utterances, Gorbachev recognized that the sixty years of “socialist construction” had all been a big mistake:

“By confiding to me (naturally, with Gorbachev’s permission) his heretical thoughts, Smirnov realized full well that I would not advertise the fact that the general secretary was saying one thing and thinking something very different. Smirnov did not need to spell it out that the time for coming out with these ideas in public had not yet come and that we needed to exercise caution and support Gorbachev.”

In November 1986, Gorbachev secured a position for Tsipko in the Department of Socialist Countries:

“I felt as if I were one of the initiates. I realized then that there was no limit to Gorbachev’s ideological flexibility. Still, what prompted me to write the anti-Communist articles published by Nauka i zhizn’ in late 1988 and early 1989 was...the rapidly changing intellectual climate in the country and the new opportunities to speak and write the truth.

“...I had not realized it at the time, but the November 1988 issue of Nauka i zhizn’ marked the last test of the ideological resolve of the CC. I wrote that faith in Communism is not merely a weakness or a romantic infatuation, but is ‘a great sin before man and one’s nation’....Our entire social structure is predicated upon false premises. Collectivization and the Bolshevik-inspired self-genocide of the Russian people have their roots in Marxism.”

Tsipko had many co-thinkers within the CPSU Central Committee:

“In the CC and its International Department I was surrounded by the graduates of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations who knew that Marx’s prognosis had proved wrong and that the entire socialist experiment was a futile endeavor. Only the unhappy late Jan Smeral, the son of a Comintern leader and a founder of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, could not break with Marxism. All the other people who surrounded me in the CC were quite indifferent to the fate of the doctrines of Karl Marx. They were, however, afraid of what subsequently happened, that perestroika might lead to total chaos with unpredictable consequences. This possibility was discussed among my colleague-consultants as early as the beginning of 1987.”

‘Red October’: the True Story

In September 2000, Britain’s Channel 4 aired a program telling the story of Valery Sablin, a member of the “fraction of Reiss,” the organic enemies of Tsipko and his ilk. The documentary, entitled “Mutiny: The True Story of Red October,” revealed the background to the 1975 mutiny aboard the Soviet missile frigate Storozhevoy that provided the basis for Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel, The Hunt for Red October, and the movie of the same name.

In Clancy’s version a Russian submarine captain (Marko Raimus) attempted to defect to the West after the death of the ship’s political officer. A second, less popular, fictional account entitled The Red Banner Mutiny, which claimed to be “more authentic than The Hunt for Red October,” was published in 1986. Its author, Andrew P. O’Rourke, used Sablin’s real name as well as that of his ship, and set his tale in the Baltic rather than the North Atlantic. But apart from these details, his account was just as bogus as Clancy’s, as is evident from the backcover blurb:

“Repelled by the tyranny of his government and drawn by the woman he loved—a Bolshoi ballerina who had defected to the West—he [Sablin] steered the renegade ship toward safe harbor in Sweden, weighing the deep moral and political consequences of his act.”

Sablin’s actions were indeed deep and consequential, unlike the low-brow, Cold War propaganda churned out by O’Rourke and Clancy.

It is true that on 8 November 1975, Valery Sablin, the political officer on board the Storozhevoy, locked up the captain and seized control of his ship. But Sablin did not head to Sweden to defect, but rather to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where he hoped to set off a popular revolt that would topple the corrupt and dictatorial Stalinist bureaucracy and replace it with a genuinely socialist regime.

Valery Sablin, a passionate Marxist who was proud of the revolutionary traditions of Russia’s sailors, was particularly inspired by the 1905 mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin. His father and grandfather had been in the Soviet navy, and in 1955, at the age of 16, young Valery enroled in the Frunze Naval Academy in Leningrad. He was soon elected head of the Komsomol branch at the academy. One of his classmates, Alexei Lialin, recalled:

“We were all educated to adhere to the spirit of socialist and communist ethics. We all believed in them, but Valery had such integrity he wanted to put these ideals into action.”

Sablin was deeply troubled by the chasm that separated the egalitarian ideals of Marxism from the rigid hierarchy and privilege which characterized “actually existing socialism.” On the eve of the mutiny, Sablin wrote a letter to his wife in which he explained his decision:

“Why am I doing this? The love of life, and I mean not in the sense of the life of a comfortable bourgeois, but a bright, truthful life which inspires a genuine joy in all honest people. I am convinced that in our nation, just as 58 years ago in 1917, a revolutionary consciousness will alight and we will achieve communism in our society.”

In 1959, while still a naval cadet, Sablin had written to Nikita Khrushchev to complain about the inegalitarianism that characterized the Soviet regime. He was sternly reprimanded for this indiscretion, but because he was such an outstanding officer candidate he was eventually allowed to graduate.

He was offered command of a destroyer in 1969, when he was only 30. His friends and family were shocked when he chose instead to enrol in the Lenin Political Academy for a program of advanced ideological studies. In hindsight his brother Boris speculated that Valery had wanted to understand how the system worked in order to better struggle against it. In studying Marx, Engels and Lenin at the academy, Sablin sought an answer to the riddle of how the workers’ revolution of 1917 had somehow produced an anti-working class political dictatorship. Another brother, Nikolai, commented that Valery was very disappointed that even in the elite party school access to information and books was restricted. Noting the enormous discrepancy between the ideas in Lenin’s State and Revolution and the reality of the CPSU regime, Sablin concluded, “this machine has to be broken from the inside.”

In 1973 Sablin was assigned to the Storozhevoy as the ship’s political officer and second in command, under Captain Anatoly Putorny. One of the duties of the political officer was to deliver lectures on “Marxism-Leninism” to the crew. Sablin’s lectures were far better received than most due to his enthusiasm for the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and particularly the role that revolutionary sailors played in them.

On 8 November 1975, the Storozhevoy was docked in the Baltic port of Riga, where it had participated in a commemoration of the October Revolution. This was the moment that Sablin chose to make his move. His plan was to sail to Leningrad and use the ship’s radio to broadcast an appeal on a civilian frequency for a popular revolt against the CPSU and the creation of a new, genuinely socialist regime.

A few days earlier, Sablin had taken one of the seamen, Alexander Shein, into his confidence. The two began their revolt by locking up the captain and organizing a showing of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film “Battleship Potemkin.” During the screening, Sablin outlined his plan to the ship’s 16 officers and asked for their support. Amazingly, eight agreed to throw in their lot with him. The sailors, following Shein, unanimously opted to go along with the mutineers.

One of the junior officers who opposed the revolt managed to escape from the Storozhevoy while it was still in Riga and went straight to the authorities. Sablin considered abandoning the project at this point, but the crew urged him to carry it through. So, at 1:00 a.m. on 9 November 1975, the Storozhevoy set out for Leningrad.

Sablin decided to broadcast his radio appeal to the Soviet working class before reaching Leningrad. Unfortunately the ship’s radio operator broadcast the speech in code, thus ensuring that only the naval hierarchy was able to understand it. Leonid Brezhnev was woken in the middle of the night and advised of the revolt. He ordered that the Storozhevoy be apprehended, or, if necessary, sunk. Sixty planes and 13 ships were sent out to hunt for the rebels. The KGB initially suspected that the appeal to the workers might have been a blind, and that the real destination of the mutineers was Sweden. By dawn the Soviet coast guard had located the Storozhevoy. The KGB offered to pardon the men if they stopped immediately, but Sablin refused, stating that they were not traitors and had no intention of defecting to the West.

The first wave of planes from the Baltic fleet air wing that reached the Storozhevoy refused a direct order to fire on it. This infuriated Defense Minister Andrei Grechko who demanded that his instructions be carried out immediately. (In 1953 Grechko had commanded the Soviet troops who suppressed the East German workers’ uprising.) The second wave of planes did drop their bombs and managed to crack the hull of the Storozhevoy, disabling it.

When they saw that the jig was up, some crew members freed Putorny who immediately grabbed a handgun, ran to the ship’s bridge and shot Sablin in the leg. Putorny then alerted the authorities that he had regained control, and a party of KGB officers and paratroopers clambered aboard. Six hours after it had begun, the mutiny was over.

On the trip back to Riga a paratroop officer guarding the mutineers asked Sasha Shein: “What made you do it? You broke your oath.” Shein replied: “Look at the way we live! What sort of a life is that? Do you really think people should have to live like this? It’s just one big lie.” The officer made no reply, but Shein had the impression that he seemed to agree.

When the Storozhevoy arrived back in Riga, the KGB arrested the whole crew, even the officers who had opposed the mutiny. The authorities were anxious to suppress news of the dramatic events, but rumours were already circulating in Riga about a “second Potemkin.” To counter the potential political danger of even a failed pro-socialist revolt against the “Communist” party, the KGB leaked a story about an attempted defection to Sweden that was duly picked up by Western intelligence agencies and subsequently provided the basis for Clancy’s version of events. Sablin, Shein and 14 others were subjected to an intensive grilling by KGB interrogators who were chiefly interested in uncovering the nature of the organization which they presumed stood behind the attempt.

Sablin was questioned every day for nine months. Eventually he was charged with “betrayal of the Motherland” and convicted. Normally such a charge was punishable by a 15-year jail sentence, but Brezhnev intervened personally to demand Sablin’s execution. Shein was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Valery Sablin: Working Class Hero

It was not enough to execute Sablin—the Kremlin oligarchs also sought to destroy his good name by slandering him as a pro-imperialist defector. As Russian historian Nikolai Cherkashin explained:

“It was very convenient for the authorities because Sablin could be disowned and treated like a common criminal, or someone who was trying to escape to the West for financial reasons. It was a convenient theory because it reduced the significance of this event. It wasn’t a mutiny, it wasn’t a riot. It was just a regular criminal act.”

Only in 1990, which happened to be the same year Hollywood released The Hunt for Red October starring Sean Connery, did the Russian public learn the truth. The capitalist movie moguls were no more interested in telling the real story of the mutiny than Brezhnev had been.

Valery Sablin’s actions required an extraordinary level of courage and revolutionary will. He was undoubtedly aware that the Stalinist police apparatus devoted enormous resources to locating underground revolutionary organizations in the USSR and he therefore concluded that the only chance lay in surprise.

Sablin’s resolve, nurtured over many years, stands as an inspiration for revolutionaries today. But the failure of the Storozhevoy mutiny also points to the limitations of individual actions, however heroic. Acting alone—without either a cadre of collaborators or a connection to the valiant struggles against Stalinism by earlier generations of Bolshevik-Leninists—Sablin’s isolated action was almost certainly doomed from the outset. This sort of initiative is only likely to spark broader waves of struggle when the normal routines and habits of thought are already disrupted—i.e., during a period of generalized political crisis.

The failed coup by Stalinist “hardliners” in August 1991, which ended with Boris Yeltsin in control, is an example of such a crisis. In drawing the lessons of that experience we observed:

“Even a relatively small revolutionary grouping could have made a great impact during those critical August days, when the weak and vacillating coupists faced Yeltsin’s motley rabble. The weakness and disorganization evident on both sides presented an opportunity for a Trotskyist group committed to preserving nationalized property under the direction of democratic organs of workers power. The immediate tactical objective in those first days would have been to organize an assault to disperse the few hundred lightly armed Yeltsinites in and around the Russian White House.

“A determined initiative against the counter-revolutionaries would have won wide support in the working class, who were fed up with perestroika. It would also have been viewed sympathetically by a considerable section of the armed forces, and could have galvanized active support from pro-socialist elements. The floundering grey men running the coup would have had little choice but to accept this ‘help’ even though, carried out in the name of workers power, it would in the end have threatened their interests too. The scattering of the Yeltsinites could have been followed up by a call for representatives from every factory, barracks and working-class housing estate to gather at the White House to create a real, democratic Moscow soviet.”
1917 No. 11

A recent account of the actions of Major Sergei Yevdokimov, who commanded the ten tanks dispatched by the coupists to take positions in front of Yeltsin’s headquarters on 19 August 1991, illustrates how, at critical moments, major historical events can turn on the decisions of individuals. Initially when Yeltsin’s supporters asked Yevdo­kimov what he would do if ordered to move against the Russian president, he affirmed his intent to carry out his orders. After being harangued for three hours, Yevdokimov met General Konstantin Kobets, whom Yeltsin was soon to appoint as defense minister, and Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, a Soviet Afghan War hero, and promised them his support. Yevdokimov’s decision to turn his tanks around was a pivotal moment in the defeat of the coup. It encouraged Yeltsin’s supporters and unnerved the sclerotic Stalinist “Emergency Committee.”

Many of the hustlers and black marketeers who formed the core of Yeltsin’s support went on to enrich themselves. But Yevdokimov, a career army officer, was not so lucky:

“‘I knew I was in for trouble when my commander greeted me by saying ”Well, you’ll soon be the next defence minister,”’ he recounted with a wry smile. ‘From that time on, I knew my career was doomed.’

“After a few months of dealing with resentment from senior officers, Yevdokimov asked for a transfer. No promotions followed.”
Toronto Star, 14 August 2001

Today Yevdokimov is unemployed, but, unlike the tens of millions of other victims of the counterrevolution, he at least was the author of his own misfortune. The resentment which greeted this “hero” of the counterrevolution by the officer corps suggests that many in the Soviet armed forces would have been sympathetic to a serious initiative undertaken against the Yeltsinites. In such a circumstance a pro-socialist mutiny aboard a single ship, or within a single regiment, could have touched off a workers’ political revolution that might have swept aside both the Yeltsinite capitalist restor­ationists and the Stalinist klept­ocracy.

Valery Sablin was an example of what Trotsky meant when he talked of the  “Reiss fraction” of the bureaucracy. Most of the Stalinist apparatchiks who slandered him as a pro-capitalist renegade have themselves long since made their peace with the counterrevolution. But Valery Sablin’s name will always be revered by revolutionaries as a courageous and incorruptible fighter for the socialist future.

At a reunion on the 25th anniversary of the Storozhevoy mutiny, Sasha Shein commented: “Every society needs noble spirits, without them, no society can move forward. Sablin was that sort of noble spirit.” This spirit shines through in a final letter Sablin was permitted to write to his son prior to his execution:

“Trust the fact that history will judge events honestly and you will never have to be embarrassed for what your father did. On no account ever be one of those people who criticizes but does not follow through his actions. Such people are hypocrites—weak, worthless people who do not have the power to reconcile their beliefs with their own actions. I wish you courage, my dear. Be strong in the belief that life is wonderful. Be positive and believe that the Revolution will always win.”

Published: 1917 No.24 (Feb 2002)