Many Soviet politicians have attracted the attention of the world’s press over the last ten years but very little has been said or written about Mikhail Suslov. He kept himself to the shadows, shunning all publicity. He served neither as a minister nor as Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers; he avoided all the top government posts. Almost all his working life was spent in the party apparatus. He was an out-and-out apparatchik, like Malenkov only more skilful. He made his way up the party hierarchy more slowly than everyone else. At thirty-three Molotov had reached the Secretariat of the Russian Communist Party, as had Kaganovich. At the same age Mikoyan was a People’s Commissar and a candidate member of the Politburo, and Malenkov headed one of the most important sections of the All-Union Communist Party. Suslov, when he was thirty-three, was just a rank-and-file inspector working for the Central Control Commission. And yet, at the end of his eighty-year life-span, he had become more than a modest old-age pensioner or honorary member of the Central Committee—he was a man who wielded enormous power, occupying
For the last seventeen years of his life Mikhail Suslov was considered the chief ideologue of the party. Ideology in the ussr is not simply a matter of propaganda and agitation or a branch of sociology: it is a vital instrument of power. No one can assume an important post anywhere in Soviet society or government without adhering to party ideology, which means Marxism-Leninism. The principles of Marxism-Leninism are compulsory subjects in every one of our secondary schools and throughout our tertiary education system. The conferment of any degree, in physics, mathematics, astronomy, literature, law or anything else, requires a pass in Marxist philosophy. Until quite recently to be accused of deviation from Marxist ideology or, worse still, of arguing against it, meant risking more than one’s career.
As the Politburo member responsible for ideology, Suslov stood at the top of a great pyramid with a mass of ideological institutions beneath him. In the Party Central Committee he directed such departments as ideology, agitation and propaganda, science, secondary and tertiary education and two foreign sections. He controlled political education in the Soviet Army, Central Committee information, the foreign travel commission and the organizations for youth and social affairs. The Ministry of Culture, the State Committee for Publishing Houses, the State Committee for the Cinema and the media organization Gostelradio all operated under his authority. The whole of the press, the censorship, tass, cpsu contacts with other communist parties, even the ussr’s foreign policy—all of this lay under his jurisdiction. Naturally he worked closely with the kgb and the office of the State Prosecutor, with particular reference to that rather vague concept, ‘ideological deviation’. He was kept especially busy by the dissident movement which evolved during the sixties and seventies. The system of party education, Znaniye publishing, the preparation of school text-books, the training of party personnel, the relations between the Soviet state and various religions and church organizations—these are just a few more of the problems which came within the purview of Mikhail Suslov.
One particular concern of his was to organize regular anniversary celebrations. Fifty, then sixty years of Soviet power, the fiftieth anniversary of the ussr, the centenary of Lenin’s birth, the 110-year celebrations—the list is endless. In 1949 he was one of the chief organizers of the triumphant marking of Stalin’s seventieth birthday, and in 1964 he performed a similar service for Nikita Khrushchev. In 1976 and 1981 he was the chief organizer of Leonid Brezhnev’s seventieth and seventy-fifth birthday celebrations. Suslov himself was a modest man, both personally and in his social life. But he had the knack, when necessary, of indulging the vanity of other people. Many of these anniversary campaigns were conducted with such egregious crudity and accompanied by so much gross flattery that intelligent people used to wonder what he was trying to do: enhance or undermine the authority of the exalted party leaders.
One of the main slogans adopted during the last fifteen years has been ‘stability’. Stability in policy, leadership and ideology. This has proved,
Virtually nothing is known about the first thirty years of Suslov’s life. The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, the Historical Encyclopaedia and the obituaries written to mark his death are characterized by the repetition of similar expressions and a similar absence of material relating to this period.
Mikhail Andreyevich Suslov was born on 21 November 1902 in the village of Shakhovskoye in the Khvalynsk district of the Saratov province (now the Pavlovsk region of the Ulyanov province). No one knows whether the young Suslov, who was born into the poorer peasantry, ever went to school. We do know that his mother died as recently as the early 1970s at the age of ninety, finishing her days in Moscow near to her son. At sixteen Suslov joined the Komsomol (Young Communist League) and became an active member of the local organization. In 1918 he worked for the Poverty Relief Committee established in his village. He joined the Party in 1921, aged 19. Dispatched officially to Moscow by his local party organization, he enrolled in the Prechistensky Workers’ Faculty, graduating in 1924. He became a postgraduate student in the Plekhanov Institute of Economy and then proceeded further to the Economic Institute of Red Professors which specialized in training corps of ‘red’ instructors, the new intelligentsia. Both of these institutions were well staffed and it is safe to assume that Suslov received a sound education in economics. Economics and politics, more specifically the economics of the transitional period, were the main talking-points within the party in the 1920s. It is clearly established that Suslov worked actively to oppose both ‘leftist’ and ‘rightist’ oppositions. Soon the young ‘red professor’ was lecturing in political economy at Moscow University and the Industrial Academy. Nikita Khrushchev studied at the latter in 1929–30. Relations between the lecturing staff and students coming up with experience as active workers were quite different from staff-student relations today. Khrushchev was, in any case, elected secretary of the party organization within the Academy. Thus we may deduce with certainty that it was here that Suslov first came to know Nikita Khrushchev.