Letter on Corruption in the Soviet Union
From S.V. Arbuzov to I V. Stalin

(August 12, 1946)

The following letter by S.V. Arbuzov to I.V. Stalin is an important document which sheds light on the inner workings of Soviet society in the post Great Patriotic War period. It is well known that the Soviet people paid a heavy price to win the war against Nazi Germany and her allies, and the Soviet economy was severely weakened. This gave rise to many negative tendencies, like increased criminal activity. In some parts of the country, criminals effectively ruled over the population, and even in Moscow organised crime posed a big challenge for the Soviet police. Another problem was rampant corruption, which spread widely in the Soviet administrative apparatus.

Honest Soviet people, like Arbuzov, were alarmed to see these developments, and they appealed to the CC of CPSU (b) and Stalin personally to take urgent measures. The letter by Arbuzov is a part of the monthly compilation of letters, which were selected by Stalin’s Secretariat from all the letters which were sent to his name during a particular month. An opis (catalogue) was made on these letters with short descriptions about each of them and notes to whom it was sent for decision. In August 1946, the Secretariat made a compilation of 42 letters. As we can see from the opis, most of them were sent to other members of the Soviet leadership, such as A.A. Zhdanov, L.P. Beria, A.A. Kuznetsov, A.A. Andreev, A.I. Mikoyan, N.A. Vosnesensky, N.S. Khrushchev etc. Five letters were selected and sent directly to Stalin. Among them, there were letters about some small matters and two letters about widespread corruption in Soviet society by P. Golub and by Arbuzov.

A letter by Golub, an old Party member (since 1921), focuses mostly on economic problems of the sovkhozy and hard life of ordinary Soviet people. Because of problems with accounting (records keeping), it was difficult to say how much products sovkhozes produced, and this created a situation where corrupt officials could steal these products (and in some cases, the whole sovkhozes!) and realise them on the market. Narkomsovkhozov itself (the People’s Commissariat of Sovkhozes) participated in this corruption and gave agricultural products to organisations, like airports etc., to receive their services in turn. The war, which devastated the Soviet economy, led to shortages of many essential goods and also to a situation where wages were paid not in money, but in products. Workers sold them on the market, and earned money, which created inequality and dissatisfaction. Golub stresses the fact that widespread corruption led to the re-emergence of a bourgeoisie, a class of rich people, who made money by stealing national wealth and they ‘wait for soon coming fundamental economic changes in the country and are ready to become new bloodsuckers’. Among measures to fight corruption, Golub proposed a financial reform which will confiscate large sums of money from these rich people (this reform was carried out in 1947).

This letter by Arbuzov, a former NKVD/MGB employee, focuses more on corruption itself. Arbuzov, like Golub, also mentions that the reason of the emergence of this widespread corruption was war and the devastation of economy by it. Arbuzov wrote in detail about different kinds of bribes in transport, medicine, tailoring etc., and the culture of indifference towards corruption, which he deemed very harmful. He noted that corrupt people were a rich ground for recruitment by foreign intelligence agencies, and that corruption led to dissatisfaction and disappointment among the working class. Arbuzov proposed a mass crackdown on bribe-takers (including the death penalty for the biggest among corrupt officials), which should frighten them and after that to organise an education campaign among the masses about zero tolerance to corruption.

Arbuzov made an important note about the reasons behind the re-emergence of corruption during the war. He criticised the ‘economist’ approach according to which corruption spread only because of shortages and argued that even with shortages it was possible to have fair distribution of goods. The reasons behind corruption, according to Arbuzov, were: bureaucratism (when officials saw themselves as ‘kings’ who could do whatever they wanted), lack of control from the Party, the trade unions and control organisations (he mentions that there was no Rabkrin anymore) and a culture of liberal approach to corruption, which developed in recent years.

He warned about the idea that corruption will disappear by itself after the economy would recover. It will only take new forms, which could be even more dangerous. However, Arbuzov didn’t make a connection with the restoration of capitalism and emergence of new bourgeois class, which was made by Golub. He only wrote that corruption is incompatible with socialism and should not be tolerated in Soviet society.

This connection is important. Corruption in socialist society is different from corruption under capitalism in that sense that under capitalism it means just ‘dishonest’ competition on the market (or in case of lobbyism, it could be even legal). Under socialism, corruption means the re-emergence of market economy and thus capitalist relations. For example, there is a socialist enterprise which officially belongs to the whole Soviet people. But in reality, with a corrupt manager at its head, it is his own little kingdom, and he uses its resources for his personal gains. These means that capitalism is effectively restored, although formally this could be still a ‘socialist’ enterprise. When such enterprises connect through the market, we have a market economy (capitalism) existing alongside with a socialist planned economy and stealing resources from it. Socialism exists only on paper, but in reality, it is capitalism.

As we know since 1953 the Soviet economy gradually moved in the direction of a ‘socialist market economy’ where relations as described above were legalised and became normal (see the article by Vijay Singh https://revolutionarydemocracy.org/archive/marksoc.htm). This was the first step towards the full restoration of capitalism, which came after 1991 when state property officially became private property, and former managers became capitalists.

In the whole Soviet period we see a constant struggle between those who advocated decentralisation of the economy and the increasing autonomy of enterprises, and those who stood for centralisation and directive planning from above (see the above mentioned article by Vijay Singh and the letter by V.G. Grabin http://maoism.ru/13498). The issue is complicated. One of the reasons behind economic reforms during the Khrushchev era was the desire to raise the living standards of Soviet people which remained quite low (Golub mentions the poverty problem in his letter). It was the correct idea, however, the means to achieve it were chosen badly. In modern Russian publications about the Soviet economy this is a recurring theme, that to raise living standards it was necessary to introduce market reforms. However, this explanation only shows the bourgeois thinking of our academia and even some communists, because it is unimaginable for them that it is entirely possible to achieve this goal within a planned economy (see the above-mentioned letter by Grabin on how to increase productivity). To the credit of Golub and Arbuzov it can be said that they never thought about legalising market relations, on the contrary, they defended socialist principles. Sadly, fifty years later, during Perestroika, it became a common view that the only way to save the Soviet economy was to make it a truly market one (this view still holds till today).

Another issue touched upon by Golub and Arbuzov was the new bourgeoisie which emerged thanks to corruption. Of course, it was this class which was behind the market reforms and bourgeois counter-revolution in the USSR. It consisted of corrupt party and government officials, managers of industrial and agricultural enterprises (sovkhozes and kolkhozes), the bourgeois intelligentsia, even workers and peasants who were involved in these black market relations and benefitted from them, and of course criminals. All these social strata later became the new Russian bourgeoisie which rules the country today.

It would be silly to limit this new bourgeoisie only to Party ‘bureaucracy’ because 1) not all Party leaders were corrupt, 2) corrupt Party officials were not the only members of the new bourgeoisie class. Still, Party apparatchiks played an important role during the Khrushchev reforms and served as his main social base. In fact, his rabid rhetoric against repression during the Stalin era was mainly to appease this kind of people. There are interesting documents which show that even in the 1940s corrupt Party officials already made pleas that they were punished for their corruption ‘unjustly’ and likened their punishment to a ‘new 1937’. So when 1956 came, they could be sure that they could rule their ‘kingdoms’ as they please with little interference from above. This is what Soviet Union became during the long Brezhnev era – a situation which was impossible under Stalin. Honest Party leaders, on the other hand, were purged during the 1950s and removed from their positions in the leadership or even from the Party (and with them many other communists and honest managers like Grabin). So it could be said there was an acute class struggle inside the Party itself.

Where does corruption come from? Arbuzov mentions that one of the reasons was the lack of political education, the abandonment of ‘Leninist-Stalinist zero tolerance to all kind of wrongdoings [crimes]’. It shows that the repression cannot end this problem forever, because it will re-emerge sooner or later under the ‘right’ conditions. The reason is bourgeois thinking, the culture of individualism and egoism which remains among the people, even workers and peasants, after the revolution when the means of production (basis) became socialised. The only way to destroy this culture is to continue the revolution in the superstructure.

N. Svetlov

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