The study of politics in the Soviet Union and China historically includes attention to policy disputes, interest groups, patronage networks, bureaucratic interests, a “military-industrial complex”, rivalries among top leaders, contrasting approaches to reform, and so on. The two large communist states were dominated by their security services and the heritage of purges, political persecution, and political campaigns, but most scholars still assumed a world of political debate and dispute determined elite political struggle in these authoritarian systems. Joseph Torigian challenges many of these traditional assumptions about elite political struggle by offering a dark picture of a world of domination and force. He describes leadership struggles in the Soviet Union and China as shaped by historical prestige and personal antagonisms, coercion and the “power ministries,” the manipulation of institutions such as central committees, and the use of potentially compromising material against political rivals.
Institutions remained tragically weak in both the Soviet Union and communist China, and “policy differences explain neither the origin nor outcome of elite contestation” (p. 12). Even “reformers” such as Nikita Khrushchev and Deng Xiaoping were dictatorial, personally aggressive, uninterested in collective leadership, and inclined to conspiratorial politics. Georgii Malenkov and Hua Guofeng were more “consensus-oriented figures” than Khrushchev and Deng, and yet collective leadership failed to emerge even after the dictatorships of Stalin and Mao (p. 11,p. 139). Elite struggles and successions under communism amounted to “a settling of scores” (p. 2).
To develop his ideas the author consistently applies a series of hypotheses to four episodes, two from the Soviet Union and two from China. He researches the case of arrested and executed People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) chief Lavrentii Beria after the death of Stalin in 1953, the “anti-party group” that coalesced against Nikita Khrushchev in 1957, the trial of the “Gang of Four” (Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, Wang Hongwen) after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, and the rise of Deng Xiaoping at the expense of Hua Guofeng from 1977–1981. He effectively draws on new scholarship from both Russia and China, as well as recent memoir accounts from participants in elite politics. The book is informed by significant archival research but does not contain substantial new archival material, which is probably not surprising given recent restrictions in the foreign policy archives in both Moscow and Beijing. The accumulation of detail from memoirs, however, is fascinating—an argument about Beria between Soviet politburo members Nikolai Bulganin and Anastas Mikoian in a bathroom in China in 1954 is material unlikely to surface in any archive (p. 32). However, the author might have found some peripheral but useful materials in the readily accessible East European state security archives.
Leaders fought each other but not over policies or visions. Torigian emphasizes that Beria did not offer a distinctly novel approach to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1953 (p. 25); Molotov and his supporters cast themselves as opponents of the Stalin cult and generally shared Khrushchev’s policy preferences, including the relaxation of international tensions (p. 53); the Gang of Four agreed with many of Deng Xiaoping criticisms of the Cultural Revolution and did not have “their own policy agenda” (p. 96,p. 102); after Mao’s death Hua Guofeng “began taking steps toward economic reform that are most commonly associated with Deng” (p. 146), and so on. “Politics”, concludes the author, “were fundamentally not conducive to real policy formulation or debate” (p. 102). The tragic Cultural Revolution in China was not a “grand struggle between two clear, mutually incompatible political visions” but a “court politics” of “underhanded political machinations of dubious legitimacy” (p. 85). Ideas were irrelevant, which meant that the constant references to Marxist-Leninist ideology in the Soviet Union and Maoist thought in China were manipulative and designed to deflect attention away from the brutal character of politics in these dictatorial systems.
Torigian consistently compares the weaknesses of political institutions and the character of elite conflict in the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC), although he does not explore the inter-connected character of the two societies. Domestic politics in both countries were complicated by the experience of broader participation in the socialist bloc, and even after the Sino-Soviet split the two sides carefully weighed developments across the border. Torigian describes, for example, important moments in Khrushchev’s retreat from the critique of Stalin that took place at the Chinese embassy in Moscow (p. 67). He begins chapter four by noting that the inspiration for the Cultural Revolution was Mao’s fear that “Khrushchevs” in China were preparing to take over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (p. 84). This distinction between radical Maoism and the Soviet model of socialist development, or what Maoists denounced as “revisionism,” might be considered by Torigian as an example of a general “policy” distinction. And the dilemma of domestic policy rivals intersecting with positions common to the rival communist power was highly sensitive. Some of the first to be purged in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution were officials with a history of close interaction with Soviets and East Europeans in the 1950s. An example of elite conflict deserving further exploration from this angle is the case of Gao Gang in Northeast China, who was purged in 1954 in part for his eagerness to engage in cross-border collaboration with the Soviet Union. This strong advocate of Sino-Soviet “friendship” was crucial to China’s industrialization program, and he was one of the most powerful leaders in China.
Torigian’s method is perhaps somewhat dated, reminiscent of “comparative communism” of the 1980s rather than more recent studies of border crossings within the socialist world (transnational or international history). His source base is richer, however, than that of previous scholars of elite politics in communist systems, and his exposure to the dynamic field of Chinese politics interestingly informs his treatment of Soviet political history. He concludes by noting that contemporary authoritarian politics in Russia and China represent the tragic outcome of the failures of institutionalization explored in the book (p. 193). This is a well-researched book advancing our knowledge of key episodes in the political history of the Soviet Union and China and enhancing our understanding of authoritarian systems in general.