When I was growing up in Russia, the dissident Andrei Amalrik wrote a pamphlet, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?. The Soviet Union did, barely, but Amalrik didn’t: he emigrated to Spain and died in a suspicious road accident.
That happened in 1980, but the writing was already on the wall. And in December, 1984, it became legible.
That one month holds the key that opens a chest of secrets. For those with eyes to see and brains to interpret, the events of December, 1984, explain the subsequent history of Eastern Europe, Russia, glasnost, perestroika, post-communism – the lot.
By analysing that one month I knew straight away that the much-vaunted collapse of the Soviet Union was merely a game of musical chairs, with the KGB bumping the Party off the seat of power. Conversely, those who missed the significance of that month – a group that included most analysts – accepted the subsequent developments at face value.
What was merely a transfer of power from the Party to the KGB was hailed as a triumph of democracy and even – by particularly inane commentators – as the end of history. Since Western governments use such analysts as advisers, they were caught off guard when the KGB, fronted by Col. Putin, took over Russia in 2000 and created a kleptofascist regime presenting a greater threat to the West than even the Soviet Union did.
Four events evenly spread throughout that month had no business being practically simultaneous. Yet simultaneous they were, vindicating the ironclad rule of intelligence analysts: if coincidences number more than two, they aren’t coincidences.
On 2 December, Army General Hoffmann, East Germany’s Defence Minister died of cardiac arrest. On 15 December, Army General Oláh, Hungary’s Defence Minister, died of cardiac arrest. On 16 December, Army General Dzúr, Czechoslovakia’s Defence Minister, died of cardiac arrest. On 20 December, Marshal Ustinov, Soviet Defence Minister, died of cardiac arrest.
Since it’s statistically improbable that four defence ministers of communist countries succumbed to the same diagnosis during 18 days of the same month, one has to doubt either the cause of their deaths or its natural, unassisted aetiology.
A doubting Thomas will put those events in the context of communist history and crack a knowing smile. For throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union (and therefore its satellites), the army and the secret police were at each other’s throats.
The pitched battle was like a kaleidoscope, with today’s winners instantly becoming tomorrow’s losers and vice versa. The Party was able to control the hostilities, acting as a referee in a sporting contest. When either side became too powerful, the Party threw its weight behind the other lot.
Thus in 1937-1938, the army was getting ideas above its station. The Party pushed the button, and the NKVD, as it then was, went into action. Practically the entire high command, some 40,000 ranking officers, including three of the five marshals, were wiped out.
Marshals and generals were savagely tortured, with NKVD interrogators urinating on their heads as a final nice touch. Those who survived the torture (Marshal Blyuher, for one, didn’t) were then dispatched with a bullet in the nape of the neck.
The army got its own back in 1953-1954, after Stalin died. Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, was charged with… well, the usual things: espionage, attempted coup, placing the MGB (as it now was) above the Party. The Soviets then presaged the MeToo movement and livened things up by also charging Beria with a whole raft of sex crimes. Those were so numerous that one wondered how he managed to do any work at all.
It was the army, led by Marshal Zhukov, that arrested and executed Beria. It was also the army that inundated Moscow with tanks to prevent any resistance on the part of the MGB (as a little tot, I was impressed by the roar of those machines driving through the city centre).
Once in control, the Party, ably assisted by the army, proceeded to arrest and eliminate hundreds of top MGB officers, some of ministerial rank. The KGB, as it then became, had to lie low until 1980, when its head, Andropov, ascended to the post of General Secretary, effectively dictator.
It was in the subsequent few years that the KGB began to lord it over not just the army, but also the Party and therefore the country. As the only part of the triumvirate that had regular contacts with the West, the KGB came up with a blueprint for a more flexible system, one that could appear less threatening to the West and hence able to request and receive vast subsidies.
The other two powers didn’t go easily. Two of Andropov’s closest lieutenants, Politburo member Kulakov and Byelorussian boss Masherov… I almost wrote ‘died under mysterious circumstances’, but let’s not equivocate: they were killed.
Andropov himself died in 1984, with foul play also alleged. But, as the standard Bolshevik eulogy went, ‘Our comrade died but his cause lives on’. The relay baton was eventually passed to Andropov’s appointee, Gorbachev, who several years later was to go down in history as a great democrat. However, there were many indications that the army reacted to the advent of the new order with hostility.
The KGB, and its clones in other Warsaw Bloc countries, had to act decisively – after all, the brass might have been short of brain, but certainly not of brawn. The traditional competitor of the secret police had to be put down quickly.
Hence the pandemic of cardiac arrests simultaneously befalling the military leaders of four communist countries, including the Soviet Union. After they were buried with honours, both the armies and the communist parties fell in line.
The only exception was the Romanian dictator Ceaușescu, who turned his nose away from the wind of progress. He wasn’t going to go without trouble, like, when the wind turned into a hurricane sweeping old-fashioned communist dictatorships away. That’s why Ceaușescu had to be shot in the gutter together with his wife – the only communist leader who perished in the regime change for being slow on the uptake.
Those developments signalled the victory of the KGB that emulated Julius Caesar by scoring a triumph over the other two members of the triumvirate. At first it ruled through two Party leaders that had close links with the KGB throughout their careers: Gorbachev first, then Yeltsyn.
Then, in 2000, the FSB, as it had become, decided to abandon subterfuge and rule directly through one of its middle-rank officers, Putin. To what extent its sister organisations in Eastern Europe have relinquished control is open to discussion.
Suffice it to say for now that things in that part of the world are seldom what they seem. Hungary and Poland, for example, may belong to the EU and Nato just like Germany and France, but take my word for it: they aren’t just like Germany and France.
Decades of communist rule sully a nation so thoroughly that a scrubbing operation, even assuming that it’s undertaken in good faith, must take even more decades. And if it’s not undertaken in good faith… oh well, let’s not go there.