John Barber

John Barber a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, teaches comparative Communist politics. He is the author of Soviet Historians in Crisis 1928-1934.

The firm went bankrupt

John Barber, 5 October 1995

‘Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!’ Mayakovsky’s words became one of the most quoted Soviet slogans and remained so for decades. And they were not entirely devoid of meaning. Whether or not the dogmas labelled Leninism bore much resemblance to Lenin’s original ideas, they continued to fulfil a legitimising function for the regime, albeit among a diminishing section of the Soviet population. And just as the corpse in the Lenin mausoleum looked fairly lifelike thanks to the skill of Soviet embalmers, so, too, did Soviet ideologues maintain the illusion that Lenin’s theory of socialist revolution still influenced the actions of the USSR’s rulers. Given this, and given the hold of the gerontocracy in the years preceding perestroika, it was even possible to see the point of another ubiquitous slogan: ‘Lenin is more alive than all the living!’

Russians and the Russian Past

John Barber, 9 November 1989

Observers of Soviet politics in recent months might be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. The summer began with the first sessions of the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, whose open controversy and criticism of all aspects of Soviet life continued where the 19th Party Conference of June 1988 had left off. Then followed an uneasy month while Mikhail Gorbachev took his annual vacation. As last year, some members of the leadership took advantage of his absence to make thinly-veiled attacks on current policies, claiming that socialism was being undermined. Pessimistic rumours about his and perestroika’s prospects began to circulate. Then, within a few days of returning to Moscow, he took action. Politburo critics were sacked or demoted, and Gorbachev moved to strengthen his position. Last year he secured his election as President; this year he persuaded the Central Committee to bring forward the next Party Congress, and thus the time when he can change its membership.

Going West

John Barber, 24 November 1988

It is a measure of Gorbachev’s impact in the three and a half years since he became General Secretary that the debate over his significance among Western observers has fundamentally changed. The once common view that he has merely provided a moribund system with a new image is now rarely heard. (Senator Quayle’s recent comment that ‘perestroika is nothing more than refined Stalinism’ is as unusual even for a right-wing politician as it is indicative of his ignorance about the other super-power.) The question which now preoccupies most commentators is not how genuine Gorbachev’s commitment to reform is, but whether he and his supporters can carry their reforms through. Can they overcome the inertia of the huge bureaucratic apparatus, the resistance of officials fearful of losing their power and privileges? And can they win over the sceptical masses to active support for reform?


John Barber, 29 October 1987

Of the various words which Gorbachev has used to describe his reforms, there can be no doubt which has had the most impact. Though perestroika (‘reconstruction’) conveys the intended transformation of the system, it is a vague concept to which all subscribe in theory but whose practical implications few understand. Economic akseleratsiya and political demokratizatsiya remain worthy but as yet unrealised goals. But glasnost – the policy of openness, frankness, candid discussion – has already produced dramatic and highly controversial results, and has even entered the international political vocabulary.’

Can Gorbachev succeed?

John Barber, 4 December 1986

Where is the Soviet Union going? Despite the many striking changes since the death of Brezhnev in November 1982 and particularly since the election of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary in March 1985, it is still far from clear what their result will be. For all the turnover in the leadership, more extensive than at any time since Stalin’s purges of the late Thirties; for all the attack on corruption, with ministers, Central Committee members, regional party secretaries arrested and punished; for all the drive for discipline, with hard-hitting measures against alcoholism and a squeeze on unearned income; for all the innovations in industrial management, agriculture and foreign trade, it is too soon to tell whether the Soviet system is undergoing radical reconstruction or merely modest improvement.

Stalin’s Purges

John Barber, 17 October 1985

Nothing in the history of modern revolution illustrates so vividly the contrast between the ideals of a revolution’s makers and the catastrophes it may be fated to endure as do the Great Purges of 1937-38 in the USSR. It was then that Stalin unleashed the NKVD in a murderous onslaught against all key sections of state and society: the Communist Party and the government apparatus, industrial management and the military, scientists and technical specialists, writers and artists, as well as ordinary workers and peasants. More Communists perished in the Purges, it has been remarked, than in the struggle against Tsarism, the 1917 Revolution and the Civil War combined – among them, many of Lenin’s closest comrades. The flower of the Soviet intelligentsia was destroyed and cultural life paralysed for two decades. Great damage was inflicted on both the Soviet Union’s economy and its defences. Meanwhile the last remaining vestiges of revolutionary Bolshevism were eliminated and a despotic regime created, buttressed by a grotesque cult of Stalin’s personality and by the powerful machinery of a police state.’

After Andropov

John Barber, 19 April 1984

If success in predicting the future is any criterion of analytical accuracy, Sovietology must be among the least exact of social science disciplines. The record of Western specialists on Soviet affairs in forecasting the direction of change in the USSR has been remarkably poor. The imminent overthrow of Lenin’s government in 1917, the victory of the Whites in the Civil War; the natural reversion to capitalism in the 1920s, the impossibility of modernising through a centrally-planned economy in the 1930s, the weakness of the Red Army on the eve of the Second World War, and Soviet technological backwardness in the 1950s, before Sputnik and Gagarin inaugurated the space age, are only a few of the discarded orthodoxies about the Soviet Union over past decades. Predictions of leadership changes have been even less successful. On Lenin’s death the natural successor was held to be Trotsky or Zinoviev. (The inconspicuous Stalin was then and for some time regarded as a cautious moderate far more acceptable to the West than his more prominent rivals.) When Stalin died, the consensus of expert opinion was that more of the same individual despotism was likely, with Beria, Malenkov or Molotov as the new dictator. Surprise at the outsider Khrushchev’s rise to power was exceeded only by that at his sudden fall in 1964. Brezhnev, on the other hand, gave observers plenty of time to identify his successor. Shelepin, Suslov, Mazurov, Kirilenko and Chernenko were among the candidates favoured at various times by the Western media, though not as it happened by the Politburo. One name was notable for its absence from speculation about the succession until the very end of the Brezhnev era. The orthodox view was that the Soviet leader could not possibly be a man who had been head of the KGB for as long as Yuri Andropov.



24 November 1988

It is good to know that Boris Kagarlitsky foresaw the prospect of ‘reform from above’ in the USSR as early as 1980 (Letters, 19 January). However, this is not the point. It was clear then to many observers inside and outside the Soviet Union that change of some kind was inevitable. There had even been abortive attempts at economic reform during the Brezhnev period itself, and Andropov’s...

Stalin’s Purges

17 October 1985

John Barber writes: Mr Weintraub is quite entitled to question my assessment of J. Arch Getty’s Origins of the Great Purges, but it might help if he were to read the book. Unfortunately, he has failed to grasp its most important conclusion. Getty does not simply show, as others have indeed already done, that corruption, inefficiency, and resistance to official policies, existed in the Soviet...

E.H. Carr

10 January 1983

SIR: Reviewing Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front, 1914-1917, E.H. Carr wrote of the author’s ‘slap-dash impressionism’ (New York Review of Books, 29 April 1976). The same characteristic marks Stone’s defamatory review of Carr’s life and works. Among the many distortions, half-truths and mistakes, the following stand out: 1. The unjust claim that Carr was mesmerised...

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