A few years ago I visited a secondhand book store in Delaware and picked up a few books. Naturally they were about Russia; what did you expect when you came here? Now I love a stuffy academic book as much as the next guy but I think you can learn a lot more from a book written in a certain time period. Gunther’s Inside Russia Today is an account of contemporary Russia affairs-or, at least, it was in 1957. A healthy fusion of popular history, investigative journalism, travel writing, and sociological analysis, Inside Russia Today is a comprehensive look into Russian affairs at a critical juncture in history.
Nikita Khrushchev, the bouncy, boisterous, and, occasionally bumbling General Secretary of the Soviet Union was quite busy. After Stalin’s death in 1953 Khrushchev was one of the leading members of the collective leadership scheme that emerged. By 1955 Khrushchev was effectively in control, although for a time he still valued collective leadership. In late February of the following year Khrushchev undertook a radical step by denouncing Stalin at the 20th Party Congress. Tearing down Stalin and the Cult of Personality surrounding him was an enormous risk since it effectively undercut a system that prevailed for decades and which was being imposed as a method for controlling satellite states. Hungary broke out in a popular revolt later that year and Soviet forces had to move in to re-establish order. In 1957 Khrushchev survived an attempt by his old allies, Molotov, Kaganovich, and Malenkov, to remove him from power for having opened Pandora’s Box. The launching of Sputnik later that same year would shock the world and advertise Soviet might for all to see.
The death of Stalin was a rebirth for the Soviet Union, and the 1950s were a dynamic and key juncture for the Soviet superpower. John Gunther had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time; an earlier entry into his Inside series provided a detailed sketch of Europe in 1937 before the arrival of war there. He also really enjoys using semicolons; any student looking to employ the often misunderstood semicolon should look to Gunther as a guide. Anyhow, Gunther does justice to the dynamism, contradictions, and questions of 1957. More importantly, he remained untainted by fears of monolithic Communism that prevailed throughout the time period (more on this later). His assessment of the Soviet Union is fair, sober, and shows a critical attention to detail. I got the feeling that he read translations of Pravda more than most Soviet citizens did.
There are times when he goes native like Kurtz. He gushed at length over Soviet achievements in education, which not only eradicated illiteracy but produced enough STEM students to even put 1950s America to shame (actually the Soviets had a copious lack of engineers according to Gunther). He was rather fond of Soviet soup. He actually met Khrushchev and most other CPSU leaders at one of many vodka fueled parties which the Politburo often held/attended. Gunther fully admitted that the Soviet system is potent, lively, and full of potential, but he also was wholly aware of the inadequacies of the system. Political and intellectual life were becoming more free but creativity was still suppressed. Modern art movements were shunned in favor of Socialist Realism, a state enforced style that effectively makes art subservient to life. While the USSR led the world in ICBMs it could scarcely create adequate housing or quality consumer products. Despite having achieved Socialism, the Soviet Union had enormous disparity in wealth. Gunther’s main critique of the Soviet Union is simply that it is not free. He predicted that the Soviet Union would either have to liberalize at some point or else fall apart. The system as he saw it was wound too tight to adequately take advantage of its potential and be a superpower in an increasingly globalized age. Incidentally he ended up being right, and the promise of the 1950s evaporated in the 60s and 70s as the economy stalled and fatigue set in.
Gunther was prophetic, or at least astute, in many other ways as well. While he lumped China, N. Korea, and N. Vietnam in with the Communist camp he never referenced monolithic Communism. “Russia and China resemble to a degree a husband and wife who get along pretty well, bound up by the same essential interests, but who have sharp disagreements on how to spend money and bring up the children.” Mao ultimately had too much prestige, and China too much self-sufficiency, to be puppets of Moscow. Gunther even suggested that the USSR was intentionally trying to weaken China and make it dependent, perhaps not realizing just how correct he actually was and how this would result in the Sino-Soviet split. The area of the world where the USSR is actually strongest, he argued, is in the Middle East. It is here where anti-Imperial sentiment was (and is) the strongest and where the Soviet Union had the greatest potential to create trouble for the west. Far from being the staging ground for World War III, Gunther labeled Eastern Europe as the Achilles Heel of the Soviet Union. The Soviets, he believed, would have to maintain a careful balancing act to exert continued influence over this region, especially in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution. At times Gunther returned to the same sober analysis of Kennan’s Long Telegram. The Soviet Union ultimately did not really wish to expand, but simply desired security. Communism drove the USSR to create token problems where it could, but for the most part the Soviet Union desired peace (or at least the avoidance of war). Khrushchev was confident enough in the Soviet system to have made a blasé remark that Japan is free to do what it wants. Why bother taking risks to expand global Communism when it will triumph on its own, right? On a related note Gunther avoided the temptation of dismissing Khrushchev as a fool. Gunther candidly acknowledged Khrushchev to be a brilliant leader with great knowledge, skill, and sense. Incidentally, Gunther in no way predicted Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964. Brezhnev gets a nod here and there, but he is largely absent and a reader in 1957 would have no reason to believe that Brezhnev would assume power in 1964.
I have no clue how popular or well known Gunther was. It seems like he had a decent cult following. One of his memoirs was made into a TV movie at one point apparently. Judging by how the Cold War progressed I do not think many people read him. Gunther was neither paranoid nor worried about the Soviet Union. The only thing we had to fear from them was their irrational perceptions of reality, but Gunther believed that caution would be sufficient to avoid misunderstanding. He has a great chapter, “What has Russia Got?,” that details all of the great and terrifying achievements of the Soviet Union. He ends the chapter by stating glibly that Russia lacks freedom, a simple political fact which renders all of its “achievements” untenable and hollow. Asking if Russia will conquer the world, Gunther delivers another great answer: “Perhaps. It is possible. It depends on how stupid we are.” Gunther supports containment and continued solidarity in the face of the Soviet Union, but he emphasizes moderation and rationality. Fight the Cold War, but try not to get carried away. Unfortunately both the Soviets and the West got a little carried away as we all know. It was still interesting to see a sober analysis of the Cold War at a time when it reached its fever pitch.
There are several parts of Gunther’s work that resonate especially well today. His review of Ukraine and Crimea only paint the recent events in a more harrowing, human, and tragic light. Gunther wrote that the USSR was especially paranoid of NATO encirclement, a fear which continues to define Russia’s foreign policy in the present. Most importantly, Gunther highlighted the humanity of Soviet citizens. They are all people, they have hopes, dreams, fears, and beliefs. They were not ardent Communists; they were just proud of their country and its achievements. The Soviet era was not a curse on the Russian people or a blight on their development, but rather just a stepping stone, a transition. Even if totalitarian, Gunther notes that the Russian people in the 1950s, for the first time in history perhaps, felt that the government was made for them. Regardless of how we interpret Russia, we must remember that the government and people are separate and we must be careful not to judge them together.
Gunther’s book provides an important, albeit dated, perspective. Whether travelling to Russia, studying history, or just reading for pleasure, his book will definitely alter your perspectives of both past and present. We cannot travel back in time to 1950s Russia. You can still see it for yourself though, you just need to look in a book store (or Amazon). Plane tickets are expensive, old books like this are not.
Gunther, John. 1957. Inside Russia Today. New York: Harper Publishing.