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An Interview With Leon Aron

Roads To The TempleWe are honored and pleased  to present the following interview with Dr. Leon Aron, author of Roads To The Templereviewed here earlier this year.  Dr. Aron was incredibly patient and generous with his time.

Section 1: Background on your book (and you)

Martin: First of all, thank you very much for giving me some of your time.  I am honored to be speaking with you.  How did you develop an interest in this topic?   One of the things I really enjoyed in Roads to The Temple was the inclusion of the the transliterated Russian in the text, and especially in the footnotes.  It seems that you did the bulk of the translation in the book.

Dr. Aron:  The interest is inborn, literally. I was born and raised in Moscow and came to the U.S. a month short of 24. I did ALL the translations of the Russian originals myself. I am very glad that you liked the transliterations. I am told that in an “reader’s review” of my book on Amazon, someone vehemently objected precisely to this feature. Go figure…

Martin: The approach you took in writing this book was fascinating.  When the publicist contacted me about this book, I had no idea what I’d find in reading it.  At first I though it might be a book of literature from the former Soviet Union.  Instead, you have written a comprehensive analysis of the second Russian Revolution and framed it with some of what appeared during the period of Glasnost’.  What was your inspiration for this book?

Dr. Aron: I think I began to think about something like this book when I was writing YELTSIN (2000), which at the time was the first full scholarly biography of this great man (which got me the front page cover of the New York Times Book Review) Although I’ve tried to expand the intellectual and moral background of this biography as much as I could, so much of the glasnost oeuvre was left on the cutting floor. And I guess  this huge untapped intellectual and moral treasure pressed on my brain somehow…

Martin:  I hate to gush, but I think this is one of the most important books I’ve read in a very long time.  It is a hugely impressive bit of scholarship, with an amazing bibliography.  The amount of research you had to have done in writing this book is mind-boggling.  How long did it take to put this together?  Were you able to pick things up from earlier research?  How did it tie in with other work you’ve written?

Dr. Aron: Gush away, please! But seriously thanks so much for your kind words. Looking back, it is hard for me to figure out how I’ve done it. I remember reading in Naipaul memoirs about his studying, in Trinidad, for an exam that would admit him to a British University. He wrote that it “still hurts when I think about it.”  It still hurts me to remember that labor. I’ve had huge help though: between 2004 and 2010, when the writing was basically done, over a dozen research assistants and interns went to the Library of Congress and, per my specs, read and copied about a dozen key publications of glasnost. I’ve estimated that they and I have looked through over 8,000 pages of Russian original, of which perhaps 2,000 made it into the “material”, which I then read very carefully for quoting in the book. This work, somehow, was combined with my “regular” Institute load. At the very end of Acknowledgements, I talk about stealing Sundays from my wife and daughters. This “still hurts”…

Martin: This isn’t just a book about literature, politics, culture, and history.  It is a book about the psychological effects of totalitarian rule.   It seems as though you had sufficient material in any one of the areas you examined to make a complete book.  Yet you were able to tie in many different areas.  For instance, you devote 3 chapters to “Unveiling The Legitimizing Myths.”  This was painful and sobering to read.  How did you come up with the different angles from which you approached this book?

Dr. Aron: In the end, it is the material itself that helps crystallize the structure and the “flow.” One just has to be patient and wait for that magic “click”

Martin: As I mentioned earlier, the amount of research that obviously went into this book is staggering.  Did you travel to Russia?  How did you get access to some of the materials you referenced in the book?  Do you suppose you are on any “lists” now in Putin’s Russia because of this work?

Dr. Aron: I was fortunate in that the research design presupposed work ONLY with the materials openly published in the Soviet Union at the time. I wanted the reader to see (at least in part, of course) what the Soviet Russian reader saw and read at the time. And the Library of Congress had all the periodicals that I needed and was (and is) but a short cab ride away!

I did travel to Russia, of course, while writing the book but despite the many articles that must be rather unpleasant for the Kremlin to read, I’ve never felt crimped in any way. Here’s a difference between the totalitarian Soviet Union and an authoritarian Russia.

Martin:   What did you leave out of the book and why?

Dr. Aron: More brilliant essays and fiction because of the space problem. Someday someone is going to publish a multivolume anthology of glasnost…

Section 2:  Connections and Rabbit Trails Back To The Past

Martin: I thought I was fairly knowledgeable about Russia and the Soviet Union prior to reading this book.  At the end of the (last) cold war, I studied Russian, Russian history, and political science.  After reading your book, I was humbled.  Reading Roads To The Temple opened my eyes to a lot of connections between the past and present.  What sorts of connections did you make in the course of writing this book?  Specifically between Tsarist Russia and Soviet Russia and even Putin’s Russia.

Dr. Aron: As I believe I’ve mentioned already, I’ve tried in this book to be just a medium,  “camera” that transmits and photographs, or as I write in the introduction, an arranger, a jeweler who strings pearls. I tried to “stay out of it” and let the material tell the story. So I’ve identified some of the themes that shone through the material. I don’t think Tsarist Russia came up a lot. Most of it was NEP, Stalinism, collectivization, the Great Terror, WWII etc.  As to Putin’s Russia, I’ve dealt with it only in the Conclusion and only to the extent that it has (or has not) lived up to glasnost’s “expectations”.

Martin: One of the many things that struck me when reading this book was the effectiveness of your approach in giving meaning to the atrocities committed by Stalin and his successors.  I have read Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes, but their work, while excellent didn’t strike home as poignantly as your book.  I wrote an article recently for this site entitled The Problem With Big NumbersMarginalizing Horror,  which was inspired by your book.  Reading the first person accounts published in the Soviet Press during this time was painful and meaningful.  How did it affect you?  Did you have difficulty in writing this?

Dr. Aron: I often felt on the verge of tears, especially in the Chapters on Collectivization and WWII – both were such a senseless, such wonton waste of millions and millions of utterly innocent lives.

Martin: You state at one point that there would have been Stalin-ism with or without Stalin.  This is a very important distinction.  I have heard many on the political left say that it was just Stalin that was bad, that Communism has never been given a fair chance.  Can you develop this a little bit for our readers?

Dr. Aron:  This is a very important issue, and, as with everything in the book, I don’t need to add much of substance to the glasnost texts. The glasnost authors answer this question exhaustively in Chapters 12 and 13 which are among the most important in the book. The gist: from the very beginning the communist utopia presupposed a state ownership of the economy (a “political economy”) which could not but lead to repression; and the “original sin” of Bolshevism, the destruction of freedom in 1918, was also inevitable and, just as inevitably, led to the “nationalization of conscience.”

Martin: Continuing this thought, how much of what transpired in Soviet Russia was a product of their past?  How much was inevitable given human nature, and would be the same outcome anywhere such a system were implemented?

Dr. Aron:  Alas, history has tested this proposition in vitro and the answer is positive. The system has unleashed unprecedented brutality and savagery from China and Korea to Albania and Bulgaria, Vietnam and Cuba.
Martin: How does Putin fit?  Is he a throwback to the leaders of yesteryear – a Khrushchev, an Andropov, or a Brezhnev?

Dr. Aron:  I don’t think Putin fits any of these molds. He is not a neo-communist (progressive or reactionary) He is a statist authoritarian. More in the mold of Marcos or Milosevic. He does not want the entire economy to be owned by the state. Control is enough. Same for political and social space. He does not wish to own it completely; he wants to dominate it.

Martin: As I was reading Roads To The Temple, I couldn’t help but make connections to The Road To Serfdom, Bureaucracy, and even Rules For Radicals.  It seemed to me that Soviet Russia was the perfect example of what not to do in a society.  Homo Sovieticus doesn’t seem to have worked out so well. What parallels crossed your mind in putting this together?

Dr. Aron: Road to Serfdom, definitely, since it had predicted that state ownership (or even significant control of the economy) inevitably leads to political centralization and repression. I have some of the finest quotes in the book to the effect that only private property can be the bulwark against the tyranny of the state.

Section 3: “Aha Moments” Relevance To The United States

Martin: Gorbachev, Yakovlev and others referred to the problems besetting the Soviet Union as moral issues.  This was astounding to read.  They referred to the ruined character and moral sense of the citizenry.  The entire system of government was designed from bottom to top, top to bottom (paraphrase of Yakovlev, I believe) to suppress and denigrate.  “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.”  This was a phrase typifying the sardonic side of the Russian character, but much more than that is institutional hazing built into the system.  To survive people had to be servile, toadying up to anyone in authority, but this also created a sense of justification for engaging in base behavior.  One such example of this was the rampant corruption and theft, and the sense that anyone who was inclined to work hard and take pride in their work was viewed with suspicion and hostility.  I see the same patterns in some unions in the United States.  What comparisons might you make?

Dr. Aron: The book, ultimately, is about the moral imperative of dignity in economic (private property) and political (democracy) liberty.  In that sense the sentiments and thoughts, so magnificently developed by opinion leaders of glasnost, are applicable anywhere in the modern world. That is, diminution of economic liberty inevitably diminishes dignity. For instance, price controls, taxation, rules and regulations, state ownership may be seen as (and indeed be) expedient at some point, but they come at a price, always. And we can all cite myriad examples of undignified behavior in response to such situations.

Martin: In a similar vein, centralized planning was the hallmark of the Soviet System.  You showed, in practical terms, the disastrous results of these policies.  Why do people think this will work?  Do you see evidence of this trend in the US?

Dr. Aron: I am not sure that “people” thought it would work. They were not asked. But the “Red Professors,” the Marxist intellectuals that led the Bolshevik revolution thought that, by Marxist logic, it all fit and should work beautifully. Obviously not to such an extent, but neo-Red Professors, the left intellectuals in all sorts of countries, not just the United States; intellectuals that have not worked for a day “in a real world” outside universities, publishing houses and newspapers, continue to follow the same seemingly logical schemes in devising state regulations and state ownership and taxation, without giving much thought to the unintended consequences of their policies. In that sense, the Soviet economy should be Exhibit A of what NOT to do. But left  intelligentsia seems forever vulnerable to “logical” thinking and etatism (whether Marxism or of a milder variety) and irresistible to them in terms of its alleged ability to secure justice and fairness.

Martin: What lessons can the United States learn?
Dr. Aron: Strengthening the state, increasing the number of people dependent on the state and expanding the state’s reach have adverse consequences, first and foremost, moral.

Martin: If you had to pick one thing in this book that you’d like people to take away from reading it, what would it be?

Dr. Aron: That human thirst for dignity is inextinguishable.

Martin: In your opinion, what mistakes, if any, is the United States making in dealing with the current Russian government?  What should we be doing differently?

Dr. Aron: We overemphasized the short-term benefits at the expense of advancing the key longer-term goal, which is:  a Russia free, prosperous, democratic and stable, and at peace, at long last, with its own people and the world.

Section 4: What Does The Future Hold?

Martin:   One of the things I noticed in the footnotes, was that you are careful to cite not only the source – in the case of web-based research – but also when you accessed the material.   Have you seen much of the material that you used in the book “disappear?”  Were you cognizant of this possibility when you were writing this, or did it start to happen even while you were working?

Dr. Aron: I’ve resorted to web-based search very rarely in this study and only when the original we were looking for was not in the Library of Congress. I am afraid I cannot claim special reason for giving the access date – except that this is AEI’s “style”.

Martin: As I was reading Roads To The Temple, I recognized how little I knew about Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s Russia.  I left the Department of Defense at about the time that Yeltsin took power and really stopped following events in Russia.  By the time I made it half way through this book I was bursting with anticipation for your conclusion on how this second revolution ended.  You didn’t devote a whole lot of space to this – and the story isn’t complete.  What do you see for the future in Russia?

Dr. Aron: I think the middle-class protests that shook Russia last December-Spring, are very significant in that Russia seems to be following a “classic” modernization process as described by Huntington, Lipset et al: after an unprecedented expansion of personal prosperity and personal liberty, the middle class wants a say in how the country is governed. I’ve written several pieces about this recently and they are all posted on aei.org

Martin: In the course of reading this book, I wondered at people’s tolerance for so much unpleasant truth.  Is part of the reason for the end of the second revolution because people grew tired of hearing all of these horror stories.  At first people were starved for truth and the freedom to explore their past.  How much of this has subsided because you can only listen to so much of this before it becomes exhausting?  I am thinking about how the Holocaust has lost its ability to shock.

Dr. Aron: There is definitely a kind of moral and emotional exhaustion setting in, no doubt. Millions of people could be in a state of moral white heat only for so long. But I would caution about the “end of the Second Revolution.” It took the French almost 80 years from the beginning of the revolution to the establishment of a more or less stable republic. Virtually all great revolutions lapsed into restorations (the American one – yet again! – is an exception) but have never been extinguished and come roaring back. So stay tuned.

Martin: Is the revolution in Russia over?  Is the rehabilitiation of Stalin you spoke of at the end of your book likely to succeed?

Dr. Aron: See the answer above.

Martin: Can the Russian people ever recover?  Will they do so in our lifetime?

Dr. Aron: I think the years around 2016-18 bear watching: first, because by 2016 there is supposed to be enough of shale gas around to sharply reduce the need for oil and, second, because Putin is almost certain to try and stay on for the second 6-year term (2019-2024), to which a plurality of Russians is strongly opposed. We may have a “perfect storm”, economic and political, against which the regime will have a very hard time withstanding.

Martin: What did I miss?  What should I have asked you that I did not?

Dr. Aron: Oh boy, Martin, you seem to have covered more bases than I thought the field had.

Martin: What is your next project?

Dr. Aron: I would do in many respect the opposite : quicker, shorter, pieces – essays, blogs — on current Russian trends in politics, society, economy and US-Russian relations, instead of longer histories.  For now.

Martin: Thank you again for your time and consideration.
Dr. Aron: Thank you for forcing me to think through these things!

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