Obituary: Mikhail Voslensky

Felix Corley
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:06

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.

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