Obituary: Mikhail Voslensky

Mikhail Voslensky single- handedly put the word nomenklatura into Western languages as he revealed and explained the powerful network of corrupt, power-hungry party officials who ran the Soviet Union in their own interest.

"The nomenklatura is a class of privileged exploiters. It acquired wealth from power, not power from wealth," he wrote. "The domestic policy of the nomenklatura class is to consolidate its dictatorial power, and its foreign policy is to extend it to the whole world." The Yugoslav dissident Miloven Djilas, whose 1957 book The New Class had first put the privileges of the Communist elite on the agenda, was enthusiastic about the "extraordinary qualities" of Voslensky's work. That he, like Djilas, had initially been a part of this system did not undermine his authority: indeed, he was able to incorporate information and insights from his own experience into his published works.

Voslensky was born in Bardyansk on the Azov Sea in 1920, the son of an economist and a teacher. He studied in Moscow at the Lomonosov University during the difficult conditions of the Second World War, graduating in 1944. He then entered the State Pedagogical Institute there for further studies, eventually gaining a PhD in history in 1965 (he later gained other graduate degrees from the Foreign Ministry Institute of International Relations in Moscow and the GDR Academy of State and Law in Potsdam). His study was interrupted by a spell in Nuremberg as a translator at the War Crimes Tribunal, and later on the staff of the Allied Control Council for Germany.

From 1949 he was an editor at the Soviet Information Bureau in Moscow, followed by a year each in Prague on the World Peace Council and in Vienna as deputy head of the information service. In 1955 he returned to Moscow to join the Soviet Academy of Sciences as a researcher, a post he held until 1972. From 1965 he was also academic secretary of the Commission on the Scientific Problems of Disarmament, from 1968 he was a member of the Soviet Pugwash Committee and from 1969 a member of the social sciences committee of the Soviet Unesco Commission. Added to these posts in 1970 was the vice-chairmanship of the Historians' Commission of the USSR and the GDR and in 1971 membership of the Soviet Committee for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Between 1954 and 1968 he published four books on Germany's international relations and also taught history at Lumumba University in Moscow.

This successful, but mind-numbing crawl up the Soviet bureaucratic ladder came to an abrupt end in 1972 when, while a guest lecturer at Linz University, the Soviet authorities refused to grant him an extension to his sabbatical and he decided to defect. In the West he put to good use in the academic world his unrivalled knowledge of the inner workings of the bureaucracy and contacts with the privileged class that ran the Soviet Union. He lectured at various universities in Austria and West Germany and in 1980 published in German his main book, Nomenklatura: the Soviet ruling class, which was later translated into 14 languages (including an updated English version in 1984). From 1981 he headed the Institute for Contemporary Soviet Research in Munich.

In the wake of his defection Voslensky took on Austrian citizenship. He later claimed that the Soviet authorities were so alarmed at the prospect he would reveal his knowledge of the inner workings of the system that agents had tried to kidnap him. In 1977 he was stripped of Soviet citizenship, a decision that was only revoked under Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1990 he published a revised version of his Nomenklatura book and the following year it was published for the first time in Moscow. Voslensky never gave up his research. When the Soviet archives were opened he started burrowing there, publishing in 1995 New Secrets of the Nomenklatura, focusing on the last few years of the Soviet Union's existence.

Voslensky was proud that his writing had brought a realistic approach to Soviet politics and study of its power structure. If his interest in the nomenklatura was too much of an obsession and his depiction of the privilege and corruption of the elite was rather too simplistic, his views were tempered by his modest manner and corrosive humour. He had no heroes (although he was a vigorous supporter of the anti-Soviet mujahedin in Afghanistan). His knowledge of the Soviet system from the inside allowed him to attack it at what he believed was its weakest point.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Voslensky, historian: born Bardyansk, Ukraine 6 December 1920; died 8 February 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea