Grigorii Grigorevich Kosach teaches at the Academy of Social Sciences in Moscow. Some of his works translated into English include The Comintern and the East (Moscow, 1981), and “Formation of Communist Movements in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon in the 1920s and 1930s, ” in The Revolutionary Process in the East: Past and Present (Moscow, 1985). His latest work, on the formation of the Communist Party of Palestine, will be published shortly by Hauka Press in Moscow. Kosach has lived and worked in various countries in the Arab world, including Kuwait, Syria and Algeria. Garay Menicucci, who spent the 1989-1990 academic year in Leningrad and Moscow conducting dissertation research, interviewed Kosach in June 1990 and translated the interview from Russian.

Even as recently as last year, Soviet social scientists wrote enthusiastically about the prospects for Arab countries with a “socialist orientation” and “national democratic” regimes. You have recently indicated that such regimes have mimicked the Soviet administrative command system leading to blockage in economic development, have wiped out the political opposition which might have served as a base for democratic renewal, and have institutionalized violence and regional war. Do your views reflect an official reevaluation of the Soviet relationship to its allies in the Arab world?

Soviet social sciences, Orientalism and the study of the modern history of the countries of the East were ideologically engaged for many years to justify the political course of the ruling party leadership. A parallel system evolved in the West, in both official academic circles and also among oppositional and independent scholars. It seems to me that a fully de-ideologized science of society, divorced from the social order, is not an achievable ideal.

But objectivity requires that we recognize the intellectual pluralism among Western social scientists. By contact, discussion and the exchange of ideas, Western researchers approximated a more adequate reflection of the development of societies than did social scientists in the Soviet Union. Researchers in the Soviet Union were, in the best of circumstances, occupied with reformulations in light of the latest decisions of party congresses.

But Soviet researchers attempted to break out of this vicious circle long before the onset of glasnost. They initiated efforts to grasp the process of class formation in countries of the East, the development of modern political structures, the history of political parties and tendencies. Much of their work is little known in the West — not only due to language limitations, but also because Western scholars purposely highlighted those Soviet works which most reflected the situation I described, omitting or placing in brackets what was most valuable, ignoring the conditions of the development of Soviet sciences, not paying attention to the manner of exposition which, for Soviet readers, signified a different subtext.

A third circumstance directly relates to the question of “socialist orientation.” The vast majority of scholars have discarded the theory as non-operative. A different idea of the non-capitalist movement of backward countries toward socialism is contained in the famous texts of Marx and Engels, relating to the specifics of the socioeconomic situation in Russia. Lenin applied it to the wide circle of countries of the colonized periphery in his speech at the second congress of the Comintern. [1] But the “Third World” went along the path of capitalist development. The Leninist text unambiguously indicated that development essentially relied on awakening the political activity of wide levels of people and the consciousness of the mass popular organizations. Within this framework, Soviets would adapt to pre-capitalist conditions. He presumed the transition of colonial countries to capitalism on the basis of widespread political democracy and the independence of the masses.

The creators of the theory of “socialist orientation” appealed to these Marxist classics to justify the administrative command system prevailing in those countries declared “socialist-oriented.” This is more than vulgarization. It presumes that there’s nothing other than a single possible socialist example. The failure of the theory by no means signifies the ruin of socialist ideas as applied to countries of the Third World. It’s not in the Soviet interest to give up on friendly relations with these countries of “socialist orientation” — or to disregard their problems on a theoretical level.

In your work on the history of the Arab communist parties you write that since the advent of perestroika and glasnost these parties should represent new political thinking that avoids the ideological weaknesses of “revolutionary democracy.” But they are small in numbers and have become marginalized and remain isolated.

If communists were to come to power in one or another country, their foreign as well as internal policies would not fundamentally differ from the activity of revolutionary democrats. Beyond that, the natural orientation of communist parties to a foreign ideal — the Soviet Union — would lead them to build a governmental-economic structure more along the lines of an administrative command system, but their ideological monopoly would be fully cast in the mold of what is now called revolutionary democratic totalitarianism.

But are either communists or revolutionary democrats capable or ready for internal transformation, for disregarding traditional stereotypes, in order to find new ways of guaranteeing the people of their countries advancement toward an adequate way of life? The tendency at renewal is forging its own path, embodying within it the requirements for progress. This requires understanding and universal support.

Historically the internationalism of local Arab communist parties has meant subordination of national interests to Soviet interests. How is this conflict being played out in the current situation, with the Soviet Union increasingly concerned about its own domestic problems?

The formulation of this question ought to be more flexible. In the course of the process of demarcation between communists and national patriotic forces under the influence of the Russian Revolution, communists radicalized those elements with a preexisting nationalist socialist tradition (Arabs, Jews and Armenians). The orientation of Arab communist parties was natural at first, as parties still struggling for power which the Russian Bolsheviks had already achieved.

Was the exploitation of this phenomenon in the interests of the Arab communist parties? Here the question should be posed more dialectically. The further evolution of communists parties in the Arab world ought not depend upon the resolution by the Soviet Union of its own internal problems. However, there are serious processes occurring inside certain factions in a number of workers’ and national liberation movements. As in the Soviet Communist Party, so too in communist parties in the Arab world: Radical internal reorganization is spreading and decayed ideological dogmas are being disregarded. Some Arab communist parties have gone farther with this than their Soviet comrades have until now.

How have glasnost and perestroika affected official and popular Soviet attitudes toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

I don’t think that in the realm of Soviet official relations, just as in the sphere of public opinion, there has occurred any fundamental change concerning the ways and means of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Palestinian intifada leadership is attempting to guarantee the rights of Palestinians to create their own national government, by rejecting war as a method of resolving political questions, and by hampering the Israeli army and contributing to a deep polarization of forces within Israeli society.

The reduction of the level of confrontation between the Soviet Union and the US is contributing to a revision of traditional notions about the content of Soviet national interests in the world, including the Middle East. The former one-sidedness of the Soviet approach to the conflict in the Middle East is changing, leading to widening contacts with social and political forces in Israel. There is also a more weighted relationship toward the position of the Palestinians and the Arab governments. But this is by no means at the expense of finding a just solution to the Palestinian question.

What effect is the emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel having on both Soviet domestic politics and Soviet relations in the Arab world?

Jewish emigration to Israel, the US or any other country, like emigration from the Soviet Union of representatives of other national groups, without a doubt is causing enormous damage to the country in the form of a “brain drain.” It’s deeply regrettable that this emigration has its own objective basis, created in the past by certain ruling circles. Today emigration is accelerating due to the clear instability in the sphere of national relations. The national cleavage which leads to emigration from the Soviet Union should not be regarded as identical to migratory trends in the world today. This emigration urgently raises a question about reconsidering the suspended national policies. Emigration from the Soviet Union as well as immigration to the country should become a phenomenon similar to that which exists today in any civilized country.

I realize the necessity of creating a system to guarantee a stable demographic situation on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. But the campaign by “progressives and democrats” in the Arab world demanding a ban on the exit of Soviet Jews to Israel aims to push the Soviet Union back toward the former confrontational policy in the Middle East that would serve the ambitious expansionist goals of local regimes.

Are there any parallels between the nationalities conflicts in the Soviet Union and those in the Middle East?

Any comparisons are lame, between phenomena and events occurring in different countries and in different time periods. Nevertheless, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has features close to the Palestinian situation in the 1920s and 1940s. In the first place, this is related to the policy of the Soviet central authorities in the process of the development of the conflict. Like in Palestine at that time, one of the sides participating in the conflict — the Armenian side — is clearly realizing itself in the capacity of uniting national forces and has a purposeful enough leadership in the Armenian General Democratic Movement. The Azerbaijani side until now, although not always due to any fault of its own, does not speak with clearly defined national slogans, but like one of the offshoots of the pan-Turkist movement. The organizational forms of the present Armenian General Democratic Movement might be compared to the organization built by the World Zionist Organization. Obviously, one can make only limited analogies between their ideologies. But, I repeat, any comparisons are lame.


[1] “Report of the Commission on National and Colonial Questions of July 26.”

How to cite this article:

Garay Menicucci "New Soviet Thinking on the Middle East," Middle East Report 169 (March/April 1991).

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