John Barber

John Barber a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, teaches comparative Communist politics. He is the author of Soviet Historians in Crisis 1928-1934.

The firm went bankrupt

John Barber, 5 October 1995

‘Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!’ Mayakovsky’s words became one of the most quoted Soviet slogans and remained so for decades. And they were not entirely devoid of meaning. Whether or not the dogmas labelled Leninism bore much resemblance to Lenin’s original ideas, they continued to fulfil a legitimising function for the regime, albeit among a diminishing section of the Soviet population. And just as the corpse in the Lenin mausoleum looked fairly lifelike thanks to the skill of Soviet embalmers, so, too, did Soviet ideologues maintain the illusion that Lenin’s theory of socialist revolution still influenced the actions of the USSR’s rulers. Given this, and given the hold of the gerontocracy in the years preceding perestroika, it was even possible to see the point of another ubiquitous slogan: ‘Lenin is more alive than all the living!’

Russians and the Russian Past

John Barber, 9 November 1989

Observers of Soviet politics in recent months might be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. The summer began with the first sessions of the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, whose open controversy and criticism of all aspects of Soviet life continued where the 19th Party Conference of June 1988 had left off. Then followed an uneasy month while Mikhail Gorbachev took his annual vacation. As last year, some members of the leadership took advantage of his absence to make thinly-veiled attacks on current policies, claiming that socialism was being undermined. Pessimistic rumours about his and perestroika’s prospects began to circulate. Then, within a few days of returning to Moscow, he took action. Politburo critics were sacked or demoted, and Gorbachev moved to strengthen his position. Last year he secured his election as President; this year he persuaded the Central Committee to bring forward the next Party Congress, and thus the time when he can change its membership.



24 November 1988

It is good to know that Boris Kagarlitsky foresaw the prospect of ‘reform from above’ in the USSR as early as 1980 (Letters, 19 January). However, this is not the point. It was clear then to many observers inside and outside the Soviet Union that change of some kind was inevitable. There had even been abortive attempts at economic reform during the Brezhnev period itself, and Andropov’s drive...

Going West

John Barber, 24 November 1988

It is a measure of Gorbachev’s impact in the three and a half years since he became General Secretary that the debate over his significance among Western observers has fundamentally changed. The once common view that he has merely provided a moribund system with a new image is now rarely heard. (Senator Quayle’s recent comment that ‘perestroika is nothing more than refined Stalinism’ is as unusual even for a right-wing politician as it is indicative of his ignorance about the other super-power.) The question which now preoccupies most commentators is not how genuine Gorbachev’s commitment to reform is, but whether he and his supporters can carry their reforms through. Can they overcome the inertia of the huge bureaucratic apparatus, the resistance of officials fearful of losing their power and privileges? And can they win over the sceptical masses to active support for reform?


John Barber, 29 October 1987

Of the various words which Gorbachev has used to describe his reforms, there can be no doubt which has had the most impact. Though perestroika (‘reconstruction’) conveys the intended transformation of the system, it is a vague concept to which all subscribe in theory but whose practical implications few understand. Economic akseleratsiya and political demokratizatsiya remain worthy but as yet unrealised goals. But glasnost – the policy of openness, frankness, candid discussion – has already produced dramatic and highly controversial results, and has even entered the international political vocabulary.’

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