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Susan Green

Reviewing Kravchenko’s I Choose Freedom

A Powerful Indictment of Stalinism

(5 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 31, 5 August 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I Chose Freedom
by Victor Kravchenko
Publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons. Price $3.50

Every person in whom capitalism has not dried up the fountain of human feelings cursed the Nazis from the very depths of his soul. In the same way one hates the Stalinist gang as one reads this detailed record of Stalinist barbarism. Victor Kravchenko’s book is additional proof that Hitler learned his first lessons in Stalin’s school, making a few improvements compatible with a country of more advanced technology.

Those who have consistently followed the advance of the Stalinist counter-revolution and the crystallization of the new exploiting class of bureaucrats will not learn any basic political truths from I Chose Freedom. The annihilation of the old Bolsheviks, the false amalgams, the mass purges, are common knowledge. The disappearance of the last shred of workers’ control and workers’ democracy, the use of slave labor, the thin line which separates slave labor from the rest of labor, the gulf between the poverty of the masses and the well-being of the ruling bureaucrats, all these features of Stalinism have not been concealed even by the “iron curtain.”

Forced Collectivization

Kravchenko shows us how forced collectivization looked to the peasant whose cow, pig and broken plow made him a dangerous kulak to be liquidated by the government. To the Stalinist policy-makers the peasants who resisted collectivization were no obstacles. They had no human value to the commissars who tortured them into submission or exiled them to a living death. Thereafter these commissars boasted of one hundred per cent collectivization. And what a success that was!

The Kremlin-created famine which resulted needs a Dante to describe it, though Kravchenko does pretty well. He does not forget to compare the heaps of corpses with the heaps of food available to Russia’s new ruling class, to recall for us that butter was being exported out of Russia to show how prosperous this Russia was, when actually thousands upon thousands of children perished for lack of milk, to record that while peasants could get no grain to eat, the grain they had harvested was stocked as reserves in government granaries.

Of all the vile effects of the police-spy system which honey-combs every apartment house, every street, every factory, the vilest is what it does to the human feelings of friendship and loyalty. In most cases, the urge to protect one’s own skin from the purge surmounts all other considerations. Should the NKVD become “interested” in an individual, he becomes at once a social leper, turned away by his erstwhile friends.

How does the intricate spy system seep into all the crevices of life? Here is a father purged and exiled to a labor camp. His frantic family knows nothing about him, whether he is alive or dead, or where he is incarcerated. The NKVD keeps the family on tenterhooks. There may be a grown daughter that the NKVD wants to press into the spy system, or maybe the wife, or perhaps both. Finally a visit is arranged and the loved ones see with their own eyes what a human wreck has become of their husband or father. In return for a measure of mercy, the daughter or wife, or both, do anything asked of them.

The Author’s Background

Who is Victor Kravchenko? He was sent to Washington by the Russian government as a member of the Soviet Purchasing Commission, and chose freedom on April 4, 1944, by abandoning his post, fleeing to New York, and seeking whatever protection American publicity might give against the agents of Stalin’s NKVD? Kravchenko describes himself as a member of Russia’s ruling class. He climbed to the topmost rungs of the bureaucratic ladder, not so much by choice as from an inevitable sequence of events.

As an engineer of note and many accomplishments, he finally found himself behind a desk in the Kremlin as Chief Engineer of one of the departments under the Council of Peoples Commissars. Though the picture of Stalin under which he sat was not as large as the one under which sat his immediate superior, still there he was in the Kremlin. However, Kravchenko is one of the few who retained enough personal integrity to let his hatred and enmity for the regime dominate him. His one aim was to get out of Russia to be able to write what he knew about it. He finally maneuvered himself into a foreign appointment. I Chose Freedom is a personal history. He hopes to write a more political work next.

As an engineer at the head of factories and combines he had occasion to see many ramifications of Stalinism from the inside. The misrepresentation of the Stakhanovist speed-up system by the Kremlin did not take in Kravchenko. When this plague descended upon him, he was at a plant where he had been sent to increase production that had reached only thirty-five or forty per cent of the goal set. After superhuman effort he and his colleagues, despite obstruction from the NKVD, had succeeded in reaching eighty-five per cent of the goal. However, in Moscow it was decided that a bit of Stakhanovism would bring production not only to the top but over it. All the technical staff at the plant knew this was impossible.

Soon those sent by Moscow also saw the impossibility of raising production, but instead of rendering an honest report, they sought to protect themselves. The stock piles of the plant were treated as if currently produced and added to the normal production to make up the one-hundred- per-cent-plus that Moscow demanded. In spite of this fraud the “new norm” was taken as standard, the production required from the workers was increased, and since they could not produce the new norm, they suffered wage decreases. This is Stakhanovism in action.

Disillusionment Sets In

This incident shows, in part, the status of the workers in Russia. They are the slaves of the bureaucratic state. The “unions” are agencies of the state. Each worker has a card on which his record is kept, and is at the complete mercy of his superiors. This ties him to the factory like a serf to the soil in old Russia. Sometimes the difference between the ordinary worker and the slave laborer is twenty minutes. For if a worker is late by twenty minutes and if his excuse is not considered good enough by the factory doctor – the only excuse is sickness – then he is submitted to “trial” and is sentenced to slave labor. The slave labor camps throughout Russia include many millions of “purged” people who no longer resemble human beings, so unspeakable is the treatment they get. The NKVD hires these wretched beings to industry under contracts making wages payable to the NKVD for its own use.

There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of Kravchenko’s report. He was a member of the new ruling class and was in a position to know intimately the workings of the Stalinist regime. He came from a working class family, with a revolutionary father who fought against the Czar, but without joining any political party. And with a mother whose pure and deeply religious spirit influenced the son. Kravchenko’s background merged with his own disillusionment from the ideal he had seen as a young Communist immediately after the revolution. In Russia he could do nothing; outside Russia he tries to make known the gruesome facts.

Kravchenko can hardly conceal his contempt for certain American liberals, well-meaning and otherwise, who praise Russia. For Davies and his Mission to Moscow he has a scathing rebuke. Whitewash of the Wilkie and Wallace variety is naive and dangerous. The usual dribble seeking to excuse the Stalin-Hitler pact can’t stand up against Kravchenko’s facts. The pact was not, as the Kremlin claimed after Hitler’s attack on Russia, an expedient the Russians used in order to prepare themselves better against Hitler.

The Kremlin took the pact on trust, believing in Hitler. If this were not so, the propaganda machine would not have stopped grinding out anti-Nazi propaganda as completely as it did. Not only that, but there was positive pro-German propaganda, including songs of praise for the culture of the new Germany. From his position in industry, Kravchenko could see that war preparations were halted, defense works lagged, no preparations were made to meet invasion from the west. Instead industry exerted itself to fulfill the trade agreements with Hitler and supply him with the sinews of war, while the Russian masses wanted for ordinary living needs and remained exposed to attack.

Of course, the complete astonishment at the Kremlin and the utter rout of the Russians when Hitler attacked, evidenced the mistake the Stalin gang had made. Then, to cover up its mistakes, it instituted a most ruthless purge against a so-called “fifth column.”

In a Blind Alley

There is much more of absorbing interest in this book which remains indelibly on the reader’s mind. For example, the panic in Moscow as the Germans approached; the evacuation of the rulers in their fine cars, with their fine luggage, while their household furnishings got space on the overloaded railroads. In contrast, the panic-stricken poor, confused, dazed, mulled around the railroad stations, unable to get a toehold on a train, unable to get food in Moscow, left by their rulers to forage and pillage to survive. Kravchenko declares that Hitler could then have entered Moscow and taken it practically without resistance.

As to Kravchenko’s political development, his book reveals that he has been “taken in” by American democracy. This is understandable. The contrast between the Stalinist police-spy system and even capitalist democracy is to him like the difference between hell and heaven. Furthermore, the absurd picture of capitalism that Stalinist “education” has given its citizens finds little justification even on a surface acquaintance with American capitalism. Perhaps Kravchenko’s future political education will bring to him a truly scientific evaluation of capitalism and capitalist democracy in this period of the decline of that system, and thus lead him into the path of socialist revolution – a path now made surer since the Stalinist pitfalls are well marked.

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